Friday, August 29, 2008

Let me steal this moment from you

I used to go to summer camp with a kid named Kevin who was three years older than I was, and when everyone was drying off after swimming the girls used to hang around his towel. His favorite sports team was the University of Michigan football team, so mine was, too.

I remember one time he had an ingrown toe nail, and one day I hit a home run in kick ball and he didn’t. He wasn’t invincible – more of a prankster than a rebel – but he was cool and independent enough that liking the team he liked seemed to be a wise decision socially. I was eight years old, and aside from some fleeting success as a little league shortstop, my most notable life achievement was kissing my next door neighbor on the cheek during truth or dare. It’s not like I had much to lose. One afternoon, he stood on a table and used a broom as a guitar and lip-synched “All Along the Watchtower,” and none of the counselors even got mad at him. That’s the reason why I like Jimi Hendrix.

About a year ago I found out Kevin has a beard, lives in Oregon, and reads a lot of Gabriella Garcia Marquez. He wears flannel, goes for long rides on his bicycle, and sometimes he’ll end up in the middle of nowhere in particular, taking pictures of his dog lying under a shady tree. When I asked his sister if he still liked them, she said she wasn't sure. If he still cared at all, she’d have known; he used to like them that much.

I know one of the kids at camp liked Alabama but in my memory, when we all argued about college football, the rest of us either liked Michigan or Notre Dame. The arguments usually ended when one half walked one place and one half walked another, and about 17 minutes later we were all friends again. We were eight or 11 or 13 years-old, and at the time, this seemed incredibly important. Some people are prone to self-loathing, nostalgia, and hopeless, mythic romanticism. Some people like Notre Dame. This is still incredibly important to me.

I find myself listening to The Chromatics’ cover of Kate Bush’s “Running up That Hill” a lot lately, thinking about Michigan. Not ambivalent, but definitely melancholy and a little detached. You want to trust sports, to know that they’re honest, that – at least cosmically – there is a little chivalry. But it's not that way at all. I still feel scorned, so forgive me if I don’t seem as excited as I should be.

Last November I sat and watched Ryan Mallet throw incomplete passes against Ohio State in the rain. I put my hands up to my face and my middle fingers in the corners of my eyes, so that my dad wouldn’t notice, and I didn’t stop crying. Michigan was 8-3 and was about to be 8-4. I shouldn’t have cared so much, but I did, because this was all Mike Hart and Chad Henne had left.

That’s why one day before the renaissance, or The New Era, or whatever you’d like to call it, it’s a struggle to not be conflicted or sad, or to believe that the world is fair and that sometimes, even if it seems completely insignificant, people like Mike get what they deserve.

I watch him on the Colts now. He still runs like a cartoon character – his legs a whirlwind of dust and chaos and he doesn’t really end up getting anywhere. He finished one run without a shoe on his left foot, and another without his helmet. To him, strength still seems to be defined as half desperation, half vengeance.

But he’s more mechanical now; he doesn't smile like he used to, he isn’t as self-indulgent. His cuts aren’t as risky – more just graceful, cautious lunges. He’s a professional now, measured and stoic and less eccentric. He looks stronger, and too focused. It used to just be a playful resentment for the institution, but now he seems like he respects it. It’s like the NFL has tranquilized him.

Maybe I’m making this all up, and this is the same way he was before he learned to spin the world on his finger the first time. But maybe I’m right, and when he was real, when he was at Michigan, he never got much besides the adoration of a bunch of nostalgic kids like me who can’t let go.

Mike, Jake and Chad risked their dignity and only left with a little of it, but they came back in the first place by choice, because of something bigger. As for the guys that are still here, Trent and Jamison are mostly quiet and patient and had no place else to go. And no matter how jubilant and grateful Terrance might seem, he knew how much money could be made by coming back. I don’t hesitate to say that wins this year won’t be as satisfying as wins last year were. Not enough of these players have suffered yet.

Donovan Warren and Brandon Graham already have the surging yet tempered egos that superstars come from, and Greg Matthews possesses a Steve Breaston-esque humility. These are players I am thrilled to root for, but for now, it feels like I’m being unfaithful. I want Michigan to win, but I wanted them to win more last year, or even in 2006. Maybe that makes me sound strange and disillusioned, but it’s the way I feel.

I guess it’s the reason some widowers keep their dead wives’ old bathrobes around the house. It's sentimentality and blind, ignorant hope that you can love the same thing the same way forever. Some people never move to Oregon.

Friday, August 08, 2008

And they burned up the diner where I always used to find her

CHARLIE: "It's all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don't fuck around with the infinite. There's no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hand; the kind you can feel in your heart... your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know... the worst of the two is the spiritual."

TERRANCE: "I sat down and I talked to Mike (Barwis). I was on the bike, and he told me, 'Look at you. You're the only person who is not able to finish a workout. You don't want to be that guy.' I thought about it all that night. I told myself I didn't want to be that guy. I started eating right. I started getting my sleep. I started drinking a lot of water...It was all mental, to be honest with you. We've been doing it all summer – breaking our bodies down to see what we could do in the end. He broke me down mentally. Then he built me back up. Now I'm mentally tough like I've never been before in my life."

DOUG KARSCH: What happened to the rest of you, where did you go?"

TERRANCE: "It’s somewhere out here in the ground, from the sweat."

Terrance Taylor threw up after the team’s first practice, lost 22 pounds, and needed a night of intense reflection to keep him from quitting football. Will Johnson is bald, can reputedly bench press a sedan as many as three times, but approaches his final season quite aware – almost annoyed – that Michigan’s offense is far from good, not close to adequate, and at quarterback could just as likely feature a naïve true-freshman that asks a lot of questions and throws more out of obligation than instinct as it could a transfer from Georgia Tech that’s never taken a college snap.

Kevin Grady tries to erase a career of anguish while a viral YouTube phenomenon front flips over defenders on command. Tim Jamison doesn’t wear a knee brace anymore, looks – on the exterior – like he did in high school, and at least now capable of becoming the player we used to pretend he was. He’s conscious of how inadequate everyone expects Michigan to be, but has always seemed too docile to carry out the vendetta he’s alluded to.

Not that it really matters. Michigan’s defense has the potential to be fearsome in that deranged and unrelenting sort of way. But the offense is almost a complete uncertainty, and helmed by a coach not very prone to conservatism. These seniors will graduate as martyrs. They’ll be 7-6 this year, or 8-5 if they’re lucky, and unlike Mike Hart, none of their legacies will transcend that. (Well, for me, Terrance’s will, but that’s because of my own sentimentality and appreciation for neurotic, ingenuous players.)

They will be forgotten and they must know this, even if they don’t care. That isn’t really the point, though. The past six months have been about survival and that alone. The Ann Arbor News continues a crusade to sabotage as many elements of the university as it can, Sports Illustrated doesn’t think Michigan will win six games, and Rich Rodrguez is portrayed as just about the most vindictive and immoral coach in the country. Meanwhile, their conditioning coach – who “doesn’t need much sleep,” and is either addicted to methamphetamines, a robot, or the best in the world at what he does – made Brandon Graham lose 40 pounds in almost five months just so he could help put 20 pounds of real weight back on him. They run until they vomit, and there is no remorse.

I always thought Rich Rodriguez was kind of a rube who told bad jokes he’d probably told several times before, tried much harder than Lloyd to tell them, and compensated for a lack of grace with persistent eye contact, a smile he wielded like a sword, and a bunch of West Virginian bluster which never had much substance, but that’s OK, because he's a coal miner’s son who made it big, and you’re lying if you don’t find his candor at least a little endearing.

Maybe those feelings are tempered a little, now that I’ve realized Lloyd is gone, and that Rich is never going to be Lloyd, or that anyone is. But I guess I still feel that way about him. The difference, though, is that those aren’t necessarily flaws anymore, it’s just who he is. The same way Lloyd was purposely dull, or Mike was unrestrained. He’s familiar enough now that his idiosyncrasies are somewhat ours, and I have sympathy for a man who’s not nearly as despicable as people try and tell you he is.

I know that perceptions don’t matter. I know that Michigan is still here.

GODRIGUEZ: “I’m kind of a simple guy, I live a simple life.”

GODRIGUEZ: “Some of the people I probably respect the most, both in the profession and guys that are successful in their profession, business, whatever, said 'Coach whatever you do you gotta be yourself.' And that’s what I’ve always done, so that’s what you gotta do. If you’re not, you’re being fake. And I know one thing we’re not gonna do is be fake.”

GODRIGUEZ: “I’ve not changed who I am, I never have. It just seems what was portrayed was changed. And that was probably the most disappointing part. I mean what I have I done wrong, image-wise?”

GODRIGUEZ (About the defense): "It's always easier to say 'whoa' than 'sic 'em,' and so we're saying 'sic 'em,' " Rodriguez said. "And if we have to say whoa later, we'll say whoa later."

GODRIGUEZ (About Shafer’s aggressive mentality): "If it wasn't mine, he wouldn't have gotten hired. You want to hire a coach that has a like philosophy or you'll always be battling. Scott's personality and philosophy is something anybody would want, I'd hope."

GODRIGUEZ: "All of them got tested at times. I think they know now why we're doing that. We're trying to test them. I've seen it. Sometimes when you're out of shape and getting tired, and getting pushed to a new limit, it's easy to be surly."

JAMISON:Lot of guys played a lot last year, lot of guys know what it feels like to be down and keep their poise.”

WILL JOHNSON: "We practice every day like we’re gonna run the show."

DOUG KARSCH: Are you a quicker player, stronger player, how would you describe yourself now?
GRAHAM: "I'm a freak now. We all are freaks."