BABY WE'LL BE FINE
Then Rich Rodriguez said some things. None of it was very profound but it didn't really need to be. For this moment he wasn’t trying to impress us. No practiced grin or calculated body language or casual, vaguely endearing down-south aloofness. Those days were over, or at least gone for right now. I’m broken, I’m tired, now listen to what I’m saying and believe that this is the truth. I can’t force you to but this is all I have left.
My mom cries at trailers for Aaron Eckhart movies and those little Dove chocolates wrapped in tinfoil that have things like “love is a heart whispering to the soul” written on them. But I only remember my dad crying twice in my entire life: The time he found out my next-door neighbor had lung cancer and after he told me he and my mom were splitting up. I was five.
I know that men can cry. But when they spend the last of their teenage years trying to tackle 11 other human beings when it’s so cold it hurts even to open your eyes, they ignore it. They’ve forgotten the fact that they're capable of it. It's not that they can't, it's that they won't. Sure it all hurts but step aside, this season’s not going to rescue itself.
Before I watched Rich Rodriguez’s press conference Monday afternoon I knew only that he had cried, or that he came close to it. And I approached it with the same slight skepticism I approach anyone with who’s close to me who cries when they’re defending themselves. Like on some level it was premeditated and we're being manipulated, because he knows he’s dealing with an immensely passionate group of people who are already inclined to believe him anyway.
Instead I was wrong. “When I have two young freshmen....” This was as far as he made it. He put his right hand on his hip and stared down at the ground, then scratched the back of his head and breathed coarsely through his nose. “That come into my office yesterday. Upset. And say coach, what…what…what’d I do, what’d we do. We just said we worked hard.”
For the first time this man was overwhelmed, in complete disarray and possibly unsure of everything but the fact that he loves these players, and that that should be enough. But even when he walks away from that podium his problems do not disappear. He carries them for us on his back like a box of grenades.
He sits at home trying to remember if Western Michigan likes to go for the knockout with a play-action pass on third and short. Four-star cornerback prospect Cullen Christian calls back and you want to ask him how his parents are doing but you can’t remember if it’s his or Dior Mathis’s mother whose name is Alice. Your son’s asking to pick up the Monopoly game where you left off last week but no one can remember how many houses he had on St. James place. The four million dollar lawsuit against you makes the news. And the entire time, you just can’t shake the sight of Je’Ron Stokes and Brandin Hawthorne creeping into your office, ashamed, like a pair of maintenance workers who’d walked into a vast ballroom on the Titanic to tell everyone, “we might have bumped into something.” And it’s breaking your heart.
Football is a gruesome game but it is not only that. It tests how much pain you can endure but not only that. It defines you among other men. Men who don’t cry much and grip a podium with both hands just to keep it from getting that far. Last season Brandon Minor dealt with every physical ailment short of Polio and blindness and was still the best thing Michigan had to offer. My nose has been bleeding since noon and my wrist is held together with tape and pride but if we collide, you will go down first and rise last. That is the way he played. And there has not been a more vehement, unequivocal defender of Rodriguez on this team.
He didn’t pine for an empty Sunday to watch Room Raiders repeats or complain that all this running was too much and he couldn’t take it anymore. He stomped through Ohio State’s linebackers with enough force to rip apart Pangaea even if it didn’t mean much to anyone but me, you, him, and the guy who thought he could stop him. But why? And for what? I think he did it because he needed you to know you could believe in him. That he was going to stick around for a while. That when everyone’s covering their eyes and asking you to tell them when it’s over he’ll be standing in the back of the endzone wondering how else you thought it was going to end. I think some people just aren’t afraid of much.
I’ve spent the better part of two years ambivalent and bitter, relentlessly checking Colts message boards with the desperate hope that Mike Hart will secure the team’s third running back spot. I refused to let go and I don’t entirely know why. Lloyd sits in a booth high above the field and says almost nothing while Mike and Steve and Chad try to find their way in a new world mostly indifferent to Michigan's strife.
There are others now, though. Ones who inherit a disaster while I deify the flawed players who are never coming back. Ones who were here before I noticed them. Ones who play with a broken wrist and flip through a stack of papers to keep from crying.