Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where The Wagons Stopped

I wasn’t quite sure how they did it but it was over, or over enough. A small young man wearing several white sweatbands occasionally turned in a circle as he looked up at all of us from the inside of a chaotic mass. His mouth was open but he didn’t say much. He didn’t have to; he waved his arm and we knew what he meant. “Yeah it looked a little grim but I already told you, we’re going to be alright.” There were still 11 seconds left but we’d been waiting a while for this. Don’t mind if we start a little early.

About a minute later Michigan had won, and most of the players stumbled into Rodriguez and patted his shoulder as they ran along to be apart of the steady demolition of the idea that Michigan was nothing but a bronzed relic left to remind us all of what once was. Lately it involves climbing onto a brick wall to sing a song with a hundred thousand people as they reach to grab someone’s hand, or jersey, or any proof that this is really happening right now and that we are here to see it. We’re trying to remember how this goes.

Eventually, Tate found Rodriguez and the coach hugged him like he’d spent the last two days at sea floating on half of a shattered wooden plank. Rodriguez told him something, probably that he was proud and to hell with those sons of bitches. But I think he wanted to say thank you for rescuing me when I was drowning; it was starting to look bleak for a minute and, oh yeah, that touchdown to Greg was nice, too.

“In the middle of a storm, they're calm,” Rodriguez would say later.

In the beginning, I wished Tate Forcier was on a different team. I hoped that his confidence was just a way of overcompensating for deep feelings of inadequacy (that he wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t Clausen enough or maybe just because his ears were too big) and that he would consider transferring as soon as Michigan recruited someone else. I thought he was scared or at least wanted him to be.

From a young age he was privileged in a way most people never are. There were private quarterback instructors, a frighteningly narcissistic website, aggressively-involved parents and his smug disregard for anyone who dare challenge him. Maybe I envied him but most of all I think I just resented that he had everything a 17 year-old could want and had to tell us all about it. When there was a chance this spring that Greg Paulus might play for Michigan, Tate wrote on Facebook, “I can give a damn what Paulus does. If he wants to ruin his career and come here its fine with me cuz hes about to be my backup.” I didn’t want to have to root for someone who would quickly become universally reviled if he played for Ohio State or Notre Dame.

He was confident in an absolute way; as if he was preordained long ago and knew he only had to wait for his day to come. Well, after Saturday I guess I shouldn't say that he isn't. His day has come. There will be many more that will be his, some pried from the grasp of teams that were better in every way except that they didn’t have him. He is barely six feet tall and built like someone who delivers newspapers on a bicycle. But he is not scared.

It was 34-31 and it looked like this:

It’s a little difficult to completely embrace Tate, considering we have all known guys like him before. Ones that were “totally sick at beer pong, bro” and have probably spent hours calculating the most obnoxious angle to position their backwards baseball caps. But when he got here he vowed to revive Michigan’s downtrodden program and so far he has. He has expertly combined cavalier impulse with restraint and a wizardly understanding of the offense. His mechanics have been constantly refined since his whole journey began and he identified a cover zero like the blind read Braille. But some things are innate, like a five year old prodigy who can complete rubix cube in 18 seconds or play “Come Sail Away” on the piano by ear. And after it’s over, he shrugs his shoulders as he struggles to explain it all to us. I do it because I do it. I never learned how.

If there is anything the pleated-pant, vinyl-record waltz of the Lloyd Carr era taught me, it’s that there are few truly valuable things in this world, but you honor them with a devotion bordering on religious fundamentalism – a good mentor, a good cigar, and someone who gets shit done when he says he’s going to. Tate said he was going to do some things and he has. For now, that’s enough.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Monday, September 07, 2009

Made Another Masterpiece While I Was Dreaming

This is where we are. This is the pervasive bliss wrought from a once sacrosanct football team torn down to its knees, scarred, scabbed, audaciously wiping the blood from its lip with a dirty shirtsleeve while it looks you in the eye and asks if that’s all you’ve got. My lawn desperately needs to be mowed and I sit here eating a bag of stale tortilla chips, a jar of Newman’s Own salsa, and some Gordon’s vodka pulled from a dusty cabinet I only recently discovered. I’m not sure where my life is going or how it got here but I know for a day I am content. I’d almost forgotten this feeling and so did you. But I remember it now.

They are consumed by the prospect of proving everyone wrong; the masses are impulsive and scared and entrenched in a lifestyle that drinks old wines, groans when you stand, and sees football as a rite of passage and not a galvanizing triumph in the face of everyone who thought Michigan had lost its soul. I guess I'm included in that last part. But it can be all of that. It has been before. These players are playing in part to protect someone who many never thought too highly of to begin with. They know of no limits, no expectations, just that it takes a while to forget 3-9 and the infinite pain of a season that was over before it began.

This season was supposed to be a bunch of brooding young men with nothing to lose drawing up plays on the fattest lineman's stomach in the huddle, a little disoriented but scorned and eager. Things may not always end well but at least we know we're going in the right direction. Denard's run was that. But for a half they were competent and polished in a way we were willing to wait another year for. They were more than a gimmick, more than just an inspired moment. There is a revival, and I am not afraid to believe in it.

In a year the offense has gone from maddeningly ill-equipped to something organic, often daring and complex. Last year they grasped it as an ideal but performed it as a habit. There are four wide receivers and you’re in shotgun, stomp your foot and halfheartedly fake a draw to the chest of someone faster than you are. I don’t want to be here but it is Michigan so I’ll give it a try. It was like trying to teach a bunch of kindergarteners to ride a unicycle or tap-dance or juggle torches and it did not go well. They stumbled and burned themselves alive.

Even Carlos Brown, the wistful and frequently injured running back who runs conservatively despite his speed seemed more uninhibbited than usual. Tate is inventive and resourceful; he's confident enough to let plays develop, and if something goes wrong he knows how to salvage it. For now his arm is just good enough and he seems too boastful for a team that’s only now realizing it never needs to cower before anyone, but we’ll deal with that later. Michigan is undefeated for the first time since 2006. It was late November and Bo had died and there is a planet out there where other teams exist, I’m sure of it, but it’s hard to tell when you're in orbit by yourself. They were 11-0 and I wasn’t afraid of Ohio State.

And for now, there is a defense. We had been told their tackling was improved but during training camp that means little. It is true because you say it is and because I want it to be so. But on Saturday it was fact. You are Western Michigan and you will be ignored after today, but tomorrow you will know who we are. You will see Michigan on your elbows and your shins and eating your linemen alive in the corner of your eyes. You should throw the ball, really…throw it now, Tim Hiller. Brandon Graham is right there.

Saturday was small and possibly irrelevant but that doesn’t matter. Last year gave us little but Wisconsin, Steven Threet’s commendable march to oblivion and Brandon Minor’s martyrdom. The team we once knew vanished and went to a place somewhere high and far away and left us with nothing but the hope that this will end before it gets any worse. I know that, and I know what this isn’t. I know that this is familiar.

Friday, September 04, 2009

This Tornado Loves You

Donovan Warren: "That's one of the main things we've talked about. We want to bring back the fire to Michigan - make opponents be scared to play us, like they were back in the old days.”

Warren: "People talk, and they don't really know what we went through last year, and some of the things that happened. Everybody in this building knows the things that went on. This is a family here.”

Richard Retyi: Do you have any hidden talents?
Nick Sheridan: I write left handed. I don’t know if that’s interesting.

Tate Forcier: “At Fan Day, one guy asked me to sign his chest”

Doug Karsch: In your entire football career, how many times have you been chased down from behind?
Denard Robinson: *deep in thought* I don’t recall.

Nick Sheridan: “Denard, he’s his own specimen…I don’t have any of that in me.”

Tony Gibson: “I think they’re excited to go out there and take some live bullets”

Justin Boren: "Michigan football was a family, built on mutual respect and support for each other from Coach Carr on down. We knew it took the entire family, a team effort, and we all worked together. I have great trouble accepting that those family values have eroded in just a few months."

Jason Olesnavage, after dinner at Offensive Coordinator Calvin Magee's house: “Coach McGee forced us to eat some ice cream and brownies for dessert.”

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


He told us he doesn’t usually do this and then he looked down to shuffle some papers and clearly had no idea where this whole thing was headed. I think part of him wanted to crawl into a hole where darkness and silence stretched infinitely in every direction, or climb out of a window and run to a little place somewhere far away and stare at the inside of his hands pondering the human existence and we’re all still waiting, Rich. Can’t you hear the cameras?

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.