Thursday, August 16, 2007

You're scared and you're thinking that maybe we aint that young anymore

Mike shook his head for six seconds consecutively and I started to think maybe he’d become someone else. “If Jake didn’t come back I wouldn’t be here right now.” The reporter stared at him and didn’t blink. “Not at all?” he asked. “Nah…not at all.”

Mike was still shaking his head. I guess we should have known better. He said it with an almost inflated conviction, as if perhaps his tone of voice was a misrepresentation of what he felt in his heart. But he said it anyway; I realized later that he had his reasons. The reporter looked at his notepad and pretended to write down something important enough that he didn’t have to look Mike in the eye. I guess when you leave the ring after boxing with God, it’s best to do it with a towel over your head.

For a little while I wondered if he had finally outgrown this place, if he didn’t want to be here as bad as I wanted him to. He’ll never lose his exuberance or his swagger, yet talking about leaving Michigan the way he did he sounded coldly detached. The spotlight has always been his domain, and now he looked tired and distracted.

But then I started thinking about how it’s August 17 and I’ve heard that he’s in the best shape of his life, that he’s faster than he’s ever been. He says things like “If it's a close game, I’m not coming out.” When they ask when the coaching staff first put that that much faith in him, he says “Probably halfway through my freshman year.” He says that this team has the best chemistry it’s had since he’s been here. And when he talked about how close he came to leaving, he fought to keep the smile off his face the same way he did after he said Michigan would beat Ohio State in a rematch, like he was too deep in a tall tale to get out of it. Maybe even he doesn’t take himself seriously all the time. Maybe it's possible to grow without leaving us. Maybe I just don’t want to believe in a world that he’s not in.

I like to tell myself most of what Mike said about staying was calculated. No matter how we pretend otherwise, we had finally found something we didn’t think he could overcome – playing in the NFL. To everyone, Jake made a monumental sacrifice to come back, and Chad has been destined for the Pros for so long no one seems to care when he actually gets there. Mike, he was left stranded while everyone essentially implied that he wasn’t good enough to have aspirations like they did. This was Mike responding to that, this was him telling us he’s every bit as good as all those players who leave with no remorse because they thought they were too talented for college all along.

I doubt he went to Chicago with a plot to make our hearts beat harder. I don’t think he cares as much about what we think of him as he does trying to prove us wrong. When he answered the question, he spoke in extremes, as he has a tendency to do. What comes out of his mouth is what he finds when he lets his mind wander, and he has no problem preaching it as if it were fact. But where I do believe he was conscious of what he was saying and the impact it had was in the defiance and frustration in his voice. Once he realized he said what he had, he dramatized it to exagerate the way he felt. He knew there was no turning back. He was telling us “You need me more than I need you. Savor this.”

“Me, Jake and Chad, we met kinda before we went in (to discuss with coach Carr who was staying and who was going). I told them I’m doing whatever they do. Chad kinda said the same thing, Jake kinda had the same mentality, but you knew Jake, like, he was thinking about leaving.” Then Mike instantly realized he had put Jake on a higher playing field. With his eyes wide open he clarified as fast as he could. He probably lied. “I HAD TO THINK ABOUT LEAVING. But Chad was the first one – the strong link. He said I’m coming back, which made me pressure Jake. I don’t want to say pressure, but...then Jake had to decide what he wanted to do.”

When Mike first got here the crown slumped off the front of his head and hid his eyes. He was King but he still knew himself as Prince – just a little boy sitting in a throne who took the job because we didn't have anyone else to give it to. But now he pops grapes into his mouth one at a time, slowly, nodding to the executioner to drop the guillotine while peasants like us applaud wildly. We’d do it no matter who he was, but we smile without regret or hesitation because he came from us. He is us, a man of the people. Still the same posture, juvenile, courageous, indignant. Not impolite, just that there’s no one he’s trying to be, no one to impress; this is who he is.

Killing Harbaugh wasn't impressive, or really a surprise. He’s always had the confidence, the who-cares-about-death, heaven’s-had-their-eye-on-me-for-years mentality. Because deep down it doesn’t really matter what General Studies means. This was about fighting for Michigan. Someone had to defend it, and who better than Mike? He’s been sticking up for himself for a lifetime, why not stick up for an entire university? Mike used to be a sideshow, a cult hero, an interlude until we found someone better. Now he's on the face of the dollar bill, kissing your first born on the forehead, standing in a hurricane of confetti and smiling back at your daughters and sisters.

This is his last year of sitting in fancy hotels to talk about why he’s so good at football. He showed up late in Chicago and we make a story about that. He knows we’ll wait for him. Lloyd never seemed like he was worried Mike would leave, and I can’t say I ever really was either. I just get the feeling Mike loves what he's become enough to know it's worth hanging onto for one more year. At least, it’s easier to sleep at night thinking that way. Maybe he doesn’t believe in the specific Michigan virtues as much as it seems. Maybe he does. But if you asked me, I’d tell you I think deep down Mike just knows whatever he’s a part of is in good hands and worth protecting.

He’s grown to understand how much he's worshiped, how much leverage he has on our hearts. I think it's his way of making sure we don’t stop appreciating him. He taunts us with what we might have lost. And so he leaned forward in his chair with his right arm resting flat on the table, anxious, bored, almost too good for this, like Stymie from the Little Rascals sitting in detention just waiting to be dismissed. He had a neighborhood to run.

“People know me; they know what I can do. They know what pick I’m gonna be, from this year to last year.... I’m a consistent guy, they know that...I’m not a 4.3 guy, you know, they know exactly what I do, what I bring to the table.”

There’s no attempt to dispute who he is or what he does. “I’m a faster guy than I think people realize, I have a lot of skills I might be able to showcase at some point in time.” He doesn't say things like that. Saying it would concede that there's something to be ashamed of, that there's some person he’s been trying to become for all these years. And what is so rare, so empowering about the way Mike defines himself is not that he's small, or slow, but that that’s the only person he'd ever want to be. He’s satisfied with being human. He cracks his bloodied knuckles. Come and get it. And there’s a look in his eyes when he talks to you about it, this “give me a Coke with crushed ice and whatever is in your wallet for what I’m about to tell you - I know it's not much for three years worth of moments you'll remember till you're buried in a hole in the ground, but I guess you can owe me one” look.

Do the coaches ever try to rein you in on the field when you start talking? “They try, but you're not gonna calm me down. I’m probably the cockiest guy ever on the field, that's just how I am.”

And you just sit there, you laugh a devious laugh because he's ours and no one else’s, and you're the only one who knows why that means so much. You think about what you have, and what you want, and how for one more year they'll be the same thing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

More first person crap. Super!~~

5:04 AM  
Anonymous Katherine said...

Anon- get a life.

Johnny- This post has been saying what I've been thinking/saying all along about Mike. Sure, he's a jerk...but guess what, he's OUR jerk and we wouldn't have it any other way. Those who rival Michigan are just jealous...and that includes Harbaugh.

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Keegan said...

Love it, wish you could do one on every player. Keep it up and glad to have you back.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Cowbell Commander said...

This almost made me cry.

4:06 AM  
Anonymous Robbie said...

At the risk of sounding repetitive, great piece Johnny.

Katherine - I don't know that he's a jerk, I just think he's got a chip on his shoulder. One derived from years of doubtful on-lookers and those eager to preemptively give accolades to the "4.3 guy." I think as Michigan fans, we have an air of confidence about us in our school, whether it be education or athletics. I think Mike barters a little of that confidence for some brash cockiness, which honestly, I like every now and then. That, is the attitude that is going to allow us to re-claim OSU this year in my opinion, and quite possibly much more.

5:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

Ignore Anon. Please keep up the great work.

11:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant again, Johnny. Not just some of the best sports writing out there, but some of the best writing period. I can't think of another blog where I read the same posts over and over.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Killing My Liver said...

Jerk ? No.
I can't think of any RB in the past 3 years I'd rather have on my team. Sure, there are faster, and sure, there are more flashy. But Mike Hart is who I would want as my back. He's willingly taken everything anyone has ever put on his shoulders. Everytime I see him get caught behind the line, I know in my mind he'll break the tackle and go for 4 yeards, but I never get used to seeing it. I hope I never do. I'll be sad/happy when he, Jake and Chad are drafted. As of right now, none of them have a championship or bowl win, but I wouldn't trade having them on the team I support for those things.

9:31 AM  
Blogger nichole said...

love your blog!

3:45 PM  
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7:30 PM  

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