And so the year, blissful as it were, becomes not fond memory, but moments of temporary, jubilant detachment from one’s doomed fate. Obliterating Notre Dame from the collegiate landscape did not foreshadow victories over future despised and envied foes, but rather, in a clash of similarly antiquated football institutions each stalked by different ghosts, it was an unfamiliar high carried through late November on the wings of unbridled optimism – that something so definitive must have confirmed the transition from Old Michigan to the invigorating pastures of this New Era. I say this with unwavering confidence: Michigan will return; there will be justice among the cosmos once again. But from this season all that shall remain is the reminder of just how quickly hope and ecstasy will vanish.
Pasadena has become a land perfect for all but watching the team I love. ’04 was a realization of how distant fulfillment was from Michigan’s program; ’05 was a hundred rusty knives to the heart, even after all its brutal flaws had been forgotten in the hope that one man might miss a field goal and save us all. And last Monday was the destruction of all that we needed to believe was true – about how far Michigan had come, and how they’d done it. It was the harrowing reality that even its best was not good enough. It’s baffling. Either this team was never as good as I thought it was, or the same men I’d put my faith in for four months had failed when I needed them most.
English’s defense was exploited in the exact same manner against Southern Cal as it was Ohio State; Lloyd and DeBord stood stubbornly by the maxims that have hurt this team so severely in the past. It was all so obvious, and yet entirely meaningless because there was nothing we could do to stop it from happening. And this builds, this feeling, it feasts on itself, it becomes expected; it surrounds our lowered heads and lifeless shoulders until you’re there climbing the concrete steps of gate 17, staring back at the confetti and the grass and the silhouette of the hills at dusk, and how much better it would look if once, just once, you had a reason to stick around and watch your guys, instead of painfully turning and walking away from those that had beaten them.
On this day, it was as if all of Southern California held the top of Michigan’s head with one hand, shining the knuckles of the other on its chest while Michigan flailed its own fists helplessly. Michigan was an overwhelmed bunch dominated by an opponent that seemed embarrassed to have to play them in the first place. It’s the mentality Pete Carroll has ingrained in the psyches of his players, and yet it’s no less painful to hear the words “predictable” and “overrated” and “slow” and “typical Big 10 team” come from the mouths of Lawrence Jackson, Brian Cushing and, as the day concluded, more or less the entire country. Lloyd Carr – the same man once innocent and revitalized, and praised for what he represented – was again considered deadweight, no good, a burden to this program; lampooned as an oblivious moron with nothing but big bags under his eyes and a face that never seemed to move. It didn’t matter how different I knew this team, this coach, was than that. Michigan had lost the nation's respect far quicker than it had taken to regain it from a decade of underachievement.
This loss to Southern Cal was more numbingly disappointing and crippling to Michigan’s national image than any in the last five years. And yet, I can seem to find no real ability to remember anything other than Steve walking to midfield with LaMarr and Jake for the coin toss, even though Steve isn’t a captain like the two of them are. These past two years it feels like everyone just forgot about Steve, only recognized what the man was giving you and not who the man really was to begin with. Maybe Mario’s just been too good, maybe last year the team was just too bad, maybe just about everything Mike does makes you smile too much to ever forget it. But see, I had been sitting on a small stone wall a little way from the stadium eating a sandwich before I walked in, and when your favorite player won’t ever be playing again, the only thing that feels right is wondering what it’s going to feel like. Three and a half hours later, 95,000 people found out that Michigan wasn’t as good a football team as Southern Cal was. But before that, before anyone knew any better, there was just Steve, standing in front of them all as one of the three most important players on the third best football team in the country.
ALL HAIL ANDY FOR THE PICTURE
Witnessing a sporting event in which your emotions are squarely invested is standing at the gallows with a noose around your neck and a black hood over your face. The strength of the stool and the kindness of the executioner are determined by the caliber of the players we watch. We can do nothing to fix the outcome, only to wait for some dusty hero to ride from the shadows and shoot us down from the rope, or somehow stop Dwayne Jarrett from brazenly wagging his finger in their face. Either that, or we hang. I will never remember Steve as a savior in that regard, not the way Mike or Mario are. But for one moment, against Penn State, in what remains the greatest game this team has ever given me, he was. He returned a kick 40 yards with 43 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Later that night, someone asked Joe Paterno about it. “We should've just power-kicked it to the other side. He hurt us.” If you saw the game you know that lots of guys could have caught the pass that Mario caught, the one that won the game. But there’s not a soul on the earth I’d want returning that kick more than Steve.
The return was a microcosm of Steve’s entire being. Breathtaking - but only to an extent - then restrained, only to go to the opposite end of the atmosphere to preserve immortality just a little longer, and finally, when he's been run down and his fate is sprawled before him, one last, desperate thrust into the unknown to appease, sacrificing himself for a greater good. Mike Hart once said, “As long as we win, Steve could have zero catches, zero yards and eight fumbles, and he'd be happy. All Steve wants to do is win. That's why I love him so much.”
Braylon's strides were always absolutely perfect; he was a refined physical device almost obligated by the universe to conquer the wills of men. And Mario possesses instinctual abilities he's almost unaware of, like a cheetah that simply runs as fast as it needs to catch its prey. But Steve, he always holds the ball too loose in his right arm, his left arm flails a bit, long strides, body closer to the ground, full of expression; he runs as if he's conscious of the reasons that he's running, conscious of the impact of everything he does. It's a captivating fusion of the desire to satisfy an audience and the fear that he might not be able to. Monday was the last time I will ever see you, Stevie. But if you knew who I was, you’d never have had anything to be afraid of.