Friday, November 16, 2007


The sky was mostly dark, aside from the flashbulbs and the lingering smoke and the giant lights that stood there as if they were comets that had come soaring past and decided to stop and watch it all with everyone else. The seats were still as full as they’d been since probably a little before two, and no one sitting in them had much to say. They didn’t chant, they didn’t sing; more just a steady roar, synchronized screams of relief. Michigan hadn’t won a National Championship in 50 years; I guess you could say they’d been waiting a while for this.

An old man with glasses and a white suit jacket said a few words to Lynn Swann, then leaned toward the Rose Bowl trophy and helped Lloyd lift it up. The two of them stood there for a few awkward seconds, each of them unsure when to put it down. Then Lloyd looked across at the old man. “Do I have to say anything?” He pretended to laugh and then answered his own question. “I don’t need to.” After a few seconds passed he did say something, not that any of it mattered, though. The 1997 Michigan Wolverines had already explained plenty. Lloyd could have just stood there if he wanted.

And then, a few minutes later, there was superhero Charles Woodson, with a National Champions hat tilted comfortably to the right – as if he was so sure he’d get a chance to wear it that he decided to try it on before the game to see how it fit. How in a brief moment of mortality, he put away the grimace and the swagger, and looked down at the ground and couldn’t stop smiling.

Two days later, I sat on my dad’s bed and listened to the release of the AP Poll on the radio. I was 11 years old, and I loved Michigan more than snow days; ice cream; my bike, the girl I slow danced with three times at winter formal; and if you had asked me on a day when she made me go to bed early, I’d probably tell you I loved them more than mom, too. It was January 1st, 1998, and it was getting late. But really, it had all just begun.

I will remember when Lloyd talked to Jim Brandstatter after he won his 100th game. The two of them had just watched a video of him walking through the pink visitor’s locker room at Iowa as the entire team kept screaming his name. He walked in and patted them on the shoulder pads, then someone knocked his hat off to rub his head. Chad was near the entrance and bounced up and down when Lloyd walked past him. Mike and Leon Hall danced side to side at the front of the room. No matter how bad the team looked in 2005, Lloyd was a legend that day – and, you know, if you ask any of them, they’ll tell you that’s what he’s been on all the other ones, too. When he got to the center of the room, he stood on a stool and waved his arms for them to quiet down. None of them did.

The video cut off and the camera showed him sitting there. His face didn’t move; he just kept staring at the screen. Brandstatter knew he’d have to speak first. “Lloyd Carr, one hundred victories, in a pink locker room!” There was nothing Lloyd tried to hide, or knew how to hide if he wanted to, he was vulnerable, his soul exposed under the bright studio lights. So he stalled, he repeated Brandstatter and said “pink locker room.” He stopped and nodded his head slightly, knowing if he blinked too soon he’d have a tear down his cheek while he said his last words. “That was…fun”. It was fun. He didn't know anything else to say anyway.

I will remember the time someone asked Lloyd after last year’s Ohio State game how difficult the last 24 hours had been, and he spent a whole minute talking about the previous Sunday – six days earlier – just so he could work up the strength to talk about what it felt like when Bo died.

“Throughout the course of the week, we talked about all the distractions that are a part of a week like this,” he said. “I told them on Wednesday that nothing was going to distract us from this game, because I didn’t know what would happen once we got down here. And, you know, it’s all part of the rivalry, and you have to be able to deal with whatever comes. But, um…”

And that was when he stopped, when everything went silent and the cameras stopped clicking in the background, when he realized what he had to say next. He grunted once and tried with all his might to continue. “And, um, I told the team on Friday…” He exhaled deeply, almost started to cry, and then his voice began to stagger like he’d been hit in the stomach with a tire iron. “I tried to tell ‘em that he, he would not have wanted to be a distraction. I told our team we weren’t gonna use Bo and his passing away as a motivational deal.”

I will remember how often he walked with his hands in his back pockets, and how when he chased a referee down the sidelines, no matter how fast he ran, he always did it carefully, cautiously, like he was running across the dry wooden planks of a rope bridge suspended over a canyon. How he always wore a hat when he coached; how he seemed like he had the same amount of hair his entire life. I’ll always remember how numbingly bland he seemed, and yet in rare and perfectly timed moments of self-consciousness, he would acknowledge that it was all just a part of his act. And how he would laugh and shake his head when you both realized that he was never going to change.

The people who matter to him know he's much more than that, though. He’s a man who reads Churchill and quoted Kipling at Bo’s memorial; who wore a Halloween mask to a team meeting one October; who makes his players recite the definition of a word from the dictionary before they can enter his office. It’s not that a real man doesn’t exist, it’s just not important enough to him that we know otherwise. He doesn't care whether you're proud of what he's become.

“First of all, I have a choice that I can do what I want to do with my life,” he said. “So that's where I begin. I'm going to do what I want to do. The hell with anybody else, what they think. So that's where it all begins with me. I love the game. I love the competition. I love the relationship with the players and the ability to have some kind of positive impact as they try to pursue a degree and play this game.”

Most of us have spent the last six years negotiating with the universe to get Lloyd out of here. Only now, with one game left to coach, there is no rejoicing, there’s no relief, nor is there any immense sadness. In our heads, we know it is time for him to walk away. The heir to Bo’s throne is an old man now. But this game has never existed in places of reason; in our chest, none of this feels right.

Tomorrow, it is over for them all, it is over for this era, this dynasty, however plagued by the ability to let us down it might have been. The dynasty that won our hearts and little else, it is over for them.

It is over for Chad, the quarterback who told us this didn’t feel like the same team from last year, and then came back from a torn knee ligament to remind us what it looked like. The one who separated his shoulder against Illinois, left for a half, then came back a little later and won the game for us. And afterward, he described his shoulder constantly clicking in and out, with an ambivalent face and tone of voice, as if it were a canker sore his front teeth kept accidentally rubbing up against, and not every reason we know he exists. We had never felt the pain he felt, we knew only that it was more than we could handle, and that it was best left to be endured by men like him.

He tripped over a goal post after defeating Michigan State (when he went 10-13, and threw for 129 yards and 2TD in his final two drives), and consciously fell flat on his face because he knew his shoulder had to be saved for answering our prayers. It is over for him.

Mario, the cold blooded phantom who knows only of expectations which he has already exceeded. The man who once said “I don't rah, rah, rah and all that, but when we get out here everybody knows I'm going to get my yards,” and now has someone escort him off the field so he doesn’t have to waste his time pretending he cares at all what we think. He has no desire to talk, because he’s already spent his Saturday afternoons telling us everything we need to know. He is simply the assassin blowing the silver smoke away from his pistol at the end of some dark alley.

The game has always been entirely instinctual to him; it is a way of life, what he was born to do. After scoring his first touchdown against Notre Dame last year, put his finger to his mouth and told the fans to be quiet. Then he caught another and fell into the Michigan band and waved his hands for them to play louder. He did the worm after Mallett took a knee for the final time against Notre Dame this year. And after he caught the game winner against Michigan State two weeks ago, he pointed to his wrist, where he has the names of his brother and sister are tattooed. It is over for him.

It is over for Jake Long, the man who throws defensive ends and linebackers around like he was King Kong snapping the antennas off of tall buildings, who hasn’t been called for a single penalty all season, and gave up being the first offensive lineman taken in last year’s draft because he didn’t want to leave Michigan behind yet.

And it is over for Mike. He walked up and down the sidelines against Illinois wearing a sweat suit, sneakers, and the same face I’ve had on the last 10 years of my life. Like no matter how much you love something, no matter how hard you clenched your fists or closed your eyes and whispered to yourself, you couldn’t change the the way a game was going to end. The man who might as well tell every linebacker he sees to bring another defender when they see him in their nightmares, because one will never stop him alone. It is over for him.

He pounded the ball on the ground after scoring a touchdown against Purdue, only to go put his arm around the referee afterward, when he realized he was above all celebrations no matter how discreet. The man who was asked in August if there was any extra pressure on him as the only proven running back, and replied “Not at all…I carry the load anyway.” Whose position coach once said, “To keep him off the field you almost have to shoot him." Tomorrow, it is over.

There is a bowl game still, but what does it mean? No victory could compensate for a loss to Ohio State, and no bowl loss could take away from making Lloyd a winner in his last game against the team he was raised by Bo to defeat.

So then, you realize, there remains one game to define them all. There is no need for momentum, no future chance at redemption. There is only tomorrow, a game – one game – to salvage everything that is wrong and must be made right. So I will wait for the moment tomorrow when Mike limps to the podium, a single rose in his hand, and sits down with nothing left to do but speak. "I am here, you are safe, now close your eyes and listen to the sound of my voice." It is all over; I know of no way else.