Wednesday, September 03, 2008

You move like a dream I had, woke up sweating in my room

Morgan Trent was holding an orange Gatorade and playing with his ear, and he rubbed the back of his head and wiped his face with a white towel even though he wasn’t sweating. He was mature and calm and only sporadically successful at convincing us he wasn’t at least a little overwhelmed.

Before the season began, he called himself the grandfather of the team and joked that he’s been here forever. It’s been five years; it might as well be.

After Utah he was purposely monotone and said all the kinds of things that will look inconspicuous in a newspaper. He knows he’s been on better teams, and he’s fighting against the crippling thought that everyone else’s perception is a reality. Maybe the defense – as reckless and undaunted as it was supposed to be – isn’t good enough. It needed to be, and it wasn’t.

It seemed like they over-pursued and played tentative, but what do I know? I’m the kind of guy who likes to see tackles for loss and batted balls on a 3rd and 11 when the other team runs a 12 yard out pattern. I tell my little brother to catch balls with his hands, not his chest, and tackle at the thighs, not the ankles. I couldn’t tell you much else, and the second part of that is probably wrong anyway. But the defense gave up 313 yards in the first half, and if this season is going to be anything more than a glorified sacrifice for the advancement of Rich Rodriguez’s ideals, 313 yards is too many.

Donovan Warren wore two diamond earrings that looked like snowflakes and swayed back and forth while he held the zippers of his jacket. He chewed his gum and nodded with his jaw clenched between questions, and though he is only a sophomore, and once just a prodigy from Long Beach that spoke a little too fast and said “you know?” all the time, he tried to defend the rest of his team. It was admirable, but also naïve. We’re not entirely ready for him yet – at least, to have our fears and doubts erased by a couple of poignant one-liners.

Mike Hart was never the kind of guy who threw thunder bolts from above the clouds. He turned water in to wine and make the blind see again. When he told us Michigan would beat Notre Dame last year we believed him, and it was because we knew he’d probably lied awake in the dark on more than one occasion and wondered how the last four years had become just blood and scars and dreams so fragile it’s like they never existed. Or stayed home on a Saturday night, too numb to change the channels between commercials, holding his hands in his lap and saying very little because the outside is malicious and haunting.

Donovan is still too young, too unfamiliar to believe. He said things like, “We just kept our heads high and I’m proud of the way we fought in the second half,” and that the reason he rarely fair caught a punt was because “the team was in need of a big play, and I was just trying to make that big play.” He’s an amateur superhero whose cape is still way too big for him, and most of the time he closes the door of the phone booth on it as he’s about to try and rescue somebody.

Michigan isn’t very good this year and, at least for now, he can’t change that. But he either ignores it, or has never known of something he couldn’t save on his own. Whether he’s stubborn or oblivious, I can tolerate a loss if that man is on my team.

Terrance Taylor stared at the ground and spoke as rhythmically as he always does, but he was interrupted mid-sentence by a few security guards who had to move a metal gate that Terrance was standing in the way of. He was quiet and had no jokes to tell, but he was mostly unfazed. He inched forward slowly and kept talking. This is the same man who used to warm up before practice by having a catch with Alan Branch, flexes his muscles whenever there’s a camera around, and still eats pepperoni rolls despite a hellacious strength and conditioning program. Terrance abides by his own rules. I don’t worry about him, because he’s been through worse than this before. I’m only depressed that his personality had to be so muted after a summer in which he’d learned to believe in himself again.

Rich Rodriguez was as stern as he’s been throughout the summer, but more subdued and impatient. Earlier this week, there was a sense that maybe he knew something we didn’t. Though he certainly wasn’t overflowing with praise, there was an odd, reserved confidence. He never mentioned that the running backs would, collectively, have 15 carries for 34 yards, or that the quarterbacks would average 4.4 yards an attempt. They would “learn as the game progressed,” and the now-ubiquitous speed backs and slot receivers would struggle with inconsistency, but would ultimately provide a new and wholly dangerous dynamic. He'd start to smile and he'd point at you like you were the only man in the room. But they didn’t. And they didn’t. The loss was surprising, even though I guess it shouldn’t have been.

I get made fun of because I tell people I’d rather lose and have a lifetime of players I love than win with a bunch of faceless cogs I don’t like or even feel indifferently about. On Saturday, the entire offense was foreign to me. They wore the right jerseys, I guess. But in early February Michael Shaw was going to Penn State, and on Signing Day, Sam McGuffie wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to play for Michigan.

The offense was awful, but they’re all strangers. If I said I was sad, it’d be pretend. Better luck next time; you all seem like fine gentlemen. What else do you say? It’s as if we’re walking past a homeless person on the street, and he’s asking us for change. I’m conscious of your plight, but who the hell are you, anyway? I’ve got to catch this train.

There will always be wins, but it takes longer to forget the losses. And without a defiant post-game soliloquy, or something like this along the way, the losses stay just as cold and crushing. You need someone to give you hope, or at least a 54 yard touchdown to hold on to. I’ve been to the last three Rose Bowls Michigan has played in. Maybe I just need reasons to believe everything is going to be alright.