Thursday, October 02, 2008

LORDS OF THE JUNGLE


He walked around the corner and turned his head to each side, somewhat aloof and not too concerned that he was meeting someone he’d never seen before in his life. His steps were deliberate and incredibly slow, the way they might be if he was walking through water, or a snow storm, or a dream, and his arms were at his sides. He seemed much taller than he did on television, though in those instances he was usually exhausted, hunched over, and had often just spent the previous four hours of a Saturday afternoon watching a game, or a season, or a piece of a career vanish, and was being asked why that happened, or what that felt like.

It was 8:30 last Friday morning, and I was meeting Lloyd Carr for breakfast. I wanted to ask him about things like Mike Hart and the Spread Offense, because these are important matters, and this is Lloyd Carr, and I see him right there drinking his coffee. But mostly, I just wanted to sit across from him, peacefully, when I didn’t care that Michigan ran the ball on second and long, maybe see what kind of toast he ordered, or if he’d laugh at my jokes even if they weren’t funny, because I seemed like a nice enough kid who loved something irrationally, and he respected that, because it was Michigan football, and he loved it irrationally, too. Then I’d stand up when he said it was time for him to go, shake his hand, and watch him walk away.

I got there about a half hour ahead of time and was oddly calm, though I drank three glasses of ice water before he even arrived and had a burgeoning fear that he’d make a sarcastic remark about my shirt being entirely pink. But once we started talking it was comfortable, relaxed and didn’t feel nearly as monumental as I thought it might be. It just felt like I’d met him before, only it had been a while since I saw him last. We were just two people talking about football, only he happened to know a little more about it than I did.


When he said it was time for him to go to work, I initially nodded my head in accordance, then made a few desperate attempts to ask him something he might perceive to be important with the hope that he’d indulge me. He leaned back in his chair, held the sides of his jacket and stayed for about 10 more minutes. We talked about the culture of blogs and their legitimacy as a medium, and he smiled genuinely for most of it. Not incredulously, or because he was perplexed that people would waste so much of their time on the internet and he didn’t want me to feel offended. But because he was impressed, grateful, and, I hope, because he realized that football meant this much to some people, for better or worse, and that he once reigned over not just The Greatest Team of All Time, but a secret society, too.

I like idealistic Westerns where the good guys win, pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Cheers re-runs and sharp cheddar cheese. I have a deranged, ridiculous obsession with a football team, and I cherish it. Lloyd didn’t condemn me for (inconsistently) blogging, or for caring too much. He admired it, and he understood that it took a certain person to be capable of that.


I think the waitress smiled slightly and briefly when she first saw Lloyd, though maybe I’m making that up just because I thought he deserved it. Later on she called him Coach, but I didn’t notice anyone staring at him or even looking at him because they recognized that this man is, at least ostensibly, important, even if they didn’t care about football, and here he was, sitting in the same room. It was early, and it was during a meal, and I suppose the kind of people who have to be up before noon are the kind who know well enough to leave a grown man alone, but I never saw anyone drift from their conversation because they were trying to hear what he was saying, or stop in the middle of a sentence to nod discretely at him and hope he made eye contact. I was conscious of this; I looked around the room when he walked in, after he sat down, and occasionally when he spoke, in case someone only noticed his voice.

People respect Lloyd because they feel obligated to, because “he was a good, honest man.” He was boring and he didn’t win enough, they say, and he was alright football coach. But I don’t agree. Braylon Edwards, Shawn Crable, Adrian Arrington, and Chris Perry were stubborn rebels, and he turned them into something better. And he gave Mike Hart a chance. I didn’t want a coronation, but a handshake from a father with good morals who would have liked his son to play for Lloyd would have been appreciated. It was silent, aside from utensils scraping against the plates, and when he walked out of the restaurant I didn’t see anyone stop to watch.


This was in direct contrast to what happened late the night before. I was at a place called Rick’s with my friend Danny, and a girl he brought along. Becoming increasingly aware that Bud Light-induced charisma and a pair of black Chuck Taylor’s are no guarantee to get you laid, I walked away and sat at a quiet table. I pretended to look at my cell phone -- out of habit, not because I was ashamed and needed an excuse to be alone -- and watched Oregon State’s 5 foot 6 running back, Jacquizz Rodgers, slowly dismantle Southern Cal.

A little later, while Danny was in the bathroom, I pretended to dance with the girl he brought so the average guy who attends Rick’s (see: people who wear shirts that say “Define Girlfriend” or “I Pull Out” non-ironically) wouldn’t think she was available. After three or four minutes of apathetically rocking back and forth, Danny came back and told me that he saw Mike Hart. It is impossible to write that sentence, under the premise that This Was A Big Deal, without seeming outrageously pathetic. But Mike Hart was there, and this was obviously a big deal. I don’t know any other way to say it.

I saw him sitting at the bar with Will Paul and who I’m almost positive was Anton Campbell. Maybe Mike won’t ever start in the NFL, and maybe he never beat Ohio State. But people bought him drinks, and the girls smiled and put their arms around him even if he didn’t ask them to. On this night, he wasn’t standing on the sidelines holding the collar of his shoulder pads all game while some guy named Dominic Rhodes stole his carries, and he didn’t need to get excited because he “almost made a tackle on special teams.” People followed him through the dark and tried to pat him on the back.

He was like an astronaut who’d pulled off his helmet for the first time in a long time and stepped onto earth from outer space. And we were all just happy to be there to see it. He laughed a lot and didn’t seem to have any particular objective, outside of being the hero one more time, surrounded by cardboard beer signs, loud music, and a persistent murmur which was more than likely about the fact that he was Mike Hart, and he existed.


I walked up to him and told him the next round of whatever he and his friends were drinking was on me. It wasn’t exactly four years and an eternity of moments that should be carved in the tombs of a pyramid, or painted on the wall of a cave some place far from here, but for now we’ll call it even. One of his friends put his hand on my shoulder and shouted “Cristal” and while I helplessly looked at Mike, for a fleeting moment I tried to justify buying a bottle, economic crisis be damned. Mike chuckled and said Jager Bombs were fine, and I handed the bartender 60 dollars and told him to give me whatever I could get for it. The bartender shook his head, grinned out of the corner of his mouth and kept pouring. He either envied me or thought I was incredibly foolish, not that I cared either way. Mike waived a bunch of his friends over so we could have the drink, and that was the end of it. I walked away and called a few people, but I don’t think they understood what I was saying anyway. It was loud, and I was probably crying.


The next day I saw Mike was on the sidelines wearing a visor turned sideways and a pair of exceptionally large, black, and presumably expensive sunglasses, which didn’t really seem to correspond with his plain white t-shirt, but would no doubt earn some kind of wry comment from close friend and noted fashionista, Steve Breaston. I could see him from where my seat was, and before realizing that he was waiting to do an interview with ESPN, I remember being disappointed that he wasn’t paying attention to the game.

I have experienced few things as predictably, miserably boring as Michigan’s offensive performance through the first two and a half quarters against Wisconsin. An episode of “Yes, Dear,” an NPR segment on endangered species of sorghum, jury duty, and not much else. Michigan was trailing 19-0, and there was no conceivable reason why it shouldn’t have gotten worse. It didn’t, at all. In the second half, Michigan scored 27 points in 13 minutes and 38 seconds, and only the Michigan State game in 2004 and Penn State game in 2005 rival it in terms of shock and moments of sheer exhilaration.


I’ve complained about a lack of familiarity with these players, or an ability to empathize with them or be intensely devoted to their narratives. I’ve even tried to tell myself that losing isn’t so bad, because this season was sacrificed the moment the Florida game was over, and everyone that meant something to me retired or graduated or packed their bags because getting 3 receptions for 41 yards every game didn’t exactly enhance their draft status. Well, that’s a lie. Watching Michigan lose – lose like that – is vicious, no matter if Mike Hart is on the team or not.

Maybe Terrance won’t become Warren Sapp, but for a halftime speech he was vigilant and enraged, and for a post game interview he was so bewildered he looked like if he didn’t shake his head and exhale deeply every few seconds, he would start to cry. In a year, he’ll be somewhere and remember the time he tried to rescue his team in all of 20 minutes, and it actually worked. He’s spent a career being a comedian who was just bordering on unruly, who always had someone more important to defer to. This wasn't the same person anymore.

In the second quarter Morgan Trent fumbled a kickoff on Michigan’s 27 yard line, after the defense had just been on the field for almost eight minutes the previous drive. I saw Terrance walk onto the field in front of everyone else immediately after, swinging his arms and probably shouting something so recklessly that the spit flew from his mouth and hung down his facemask. As if to say “Is this really the best you’ve got?” He was obviously frustrated with the offense’s incompetence, as we’d find out after the game, but he craved any chance to keep playing. He was undaunted, undeterred; the voice on a cold night telling you everything was going to be alright, even if deep inside the voice didn't believe so itself. You tell me sports are insignificant, and I’ll tell you how I watched them turn a boy into a man before my own eyes.

When it was over I screamed and sang and kept standing, and didn’t care that my shoes were covered in half-used mustard packets, because they’re only shoes, in the same way that they’re only lungs, or only a larynx. Beyond a blur of heads and hands and elbows, Terrance sat on a brick wall and looked out upon all that was his, while Mike pumped a clenched fist alongside someone else's team.

In the press box up high and far away, where no one could see him, Lloyd sat and watched. It was probably quiet, and I doubt anyone noticed when he walked away.


21 Comments:

Blogger Reed said...

Well said, Johnny. I met Carr a couple months ago for an interview, and I had a really similar reaction to the introduction. Much taller than I expected and extremely self-assured. I, too, feel suddenly more connected to this team. Even if we lose the rest of the games, I'd rather it be that I care like I always have.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

My favorite moment for the game involved Terrance Taylor. As the ref signals for Wisconsin's false start, Taylor points emphatically down the field. He then slowly and deliberately struts -- arms swinging out in front up to his chest, legs kicking high in the air -- STRUTS to the new line of scrimmage.

He'd probably been on the field for 40 minutes by then. But all his body language said was "I could do this all day."

8:55 AM  
Blogger MaizenBrew said...

Wonderful narrative Johnny. Always great to have a new post up, especially when it's this good.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Drew said...

I'm sure you hear this all the time Johnny, but I've never posted it before: You are an amazing writer. Pretty much each post you make gets my eyes to well up, even if it's the twentieth time I've read it. You can bring out emotion in me like almost no one else; you capture the irrational devotion to the team so perfectly. I just want to say thank you.

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Sass said...

Solid post, thanks for the name drop.

Hope this is the start of you blogging more frequently (at least until the FCIAC field hockey playoffs kick into gear)

2:42 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Thank you.


You truly capture the sublime irrationality of the rabid sports fan. What you have described here has moved me more deeply than any piece of sports writing ever has. And, as an outsider to your program, I can say that you have written something here that all true fans of football should cherish. Where I'm from, one can draw harsh criticism for showing anything less than abject hatred for whoever our opponent may be that week. What this piece shows is that our experiences as football fans are universal, and should be cherished as such.


So, if you happen to find yourself at Beaver Stadium in a few weeks, I would love to buy you a beer, if only to repay a small part of the satisfaction that this post gave me.


Keep up the great work!

And again: thank you.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

beautiful, wonderful post. it captures what it is to be a wolverine fan. bravo!

4:56 PM  
Anonymous PO13 said...

my favorite moment from this game was just after Minor's gallop into the end zone. As the Michigan defense strode onto the field, awash in the knowledge that our offense actually scored again, I saw Johnny Thompson strutting and jumping out to his position like a Ray Lewis clone. I turned to my buddy and remarked "too bad he isn't half as good as Ray Lewis".

Five seconds later Johnny "half Ray Lewis" Thompson was following a wall of good guys into the end zone, and I was among a mosh pit. #49 may be no Ray Lewis, but he sure is a hell of a Johnny Thompson. And that's all that matters.

Keep up the good work!

10:09 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Thank you for the kind words, everyone. I appreciate them.

Greg, if I'm ever in PSU for a game (which I hope is sooner, rather than later) I'll let you know.

3:58 AM  
Anonymous goblueHouston said...

Great story!...but Mike was always in Rick's the past four years...and Ron Coleman was high...

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

best blog writer.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johnny,
longtime reader. Did my best to wax poetic on the latest tribulations of Michigan Football (link below). Simple, coarse, and maybe a little misogynist; But a true reflection of my soul. Thanks for the inspiration.

http://www.mgoblog.com/content/metaphor-ease-pain

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I actually got choked up....

Johnny, your posts are amazing

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