Thursday, August 16, 2007

You're scared and you're thinking that maybe we aint that young anymore

Mike shook his head for six seconds consecutively and I started to think maybe he’d become someone else. “If Jake didn’t come back I wouldn’t be here right now.” The reporter stared at him and didn’t blink. “Not at all?” he asked. “Nah…not at all.”

Mike was still shaking his head. I guess we should have known better. He said it with an almost inflated conviction, as if perhaps his tone of voice was a misrepresentation of what he felt in his heart. But he said it anyway; I realized later that he had his reasons. The reporter looked at his notepad and pretended to write down something important enough that he didn’t have to look Mike in the eye. I guess when you leave the ring after boxing with God, it’s best to do it with a towel over your head.

For a little while I wondered if he had finally outgrown this place, if he didn’t want to be here as bad as I wanted him to. He’ll never lose his exuberance or his swagger, yet talking about leaving Michigan the way he did he sounded coldly detached. The spotlight has always been his domain, and now he looked tired and distracted.

But then I started thinking about how it’s August 17 and I’ve heard that he’s in the best shape of his life, that he’s faster than he’s ever been. He says things like “If it's a close game, I’m not coming out.” When they ask when the coaching staff first put that that much faith in him, he says “Probably halfway through my freshman year.” He says that this team has the best chemistry it’s had since he’s been here. And when he talked about how close he came to leaving, he fought to keep the smile off his face the same way he did after he said Michigan would beat Ohio State in a rematch, like he was too deep in a tall tale to get out of it. Maybe even he doesn’t take himself seriously all the time. Maybe it's possible to grow without leaving us. Maybe I just don’t want to believe in a world that he’s not in.

I like to tell myself most of what Mike said about staying was calculated. No matter how we pretend otherwise, we had finally found something we didn’t think he could overcome – playing in the NFL. To everyone, Jake made a monumental sacrifice to come back, and Chad has been destined for the Pros for so long no one seems to care when he actually gets there. Mike, he was left stranded while everyone essentially implied that he wasn’t good enough to have aspirations like they did. This was Mike responding to that, this was him telling us he’s every bit as good as all those players who leave with no remorse because they thought they were too talented for college all along.

I doubt he went to Chicago with a plot to make our hearts beat harder. I don’t think he cares as much about what we think of him as he does trying to prove us wrong. When he answered the question, he spoke in extremes, as he has a tendency to do. What comes out of his mouth is what he finds when he lets his mind wander, and he has no problem preaching it as if it were fact. But where I do believe he was conscious of what he was saying and the impact it had was in the defiance and frustration in his voice. Once he realized he said what he had, he dramatized it to exagerate the way he felt. He knew there was no turning back. He was telling us “You need me more than I need you. Savor this.”

“Me, Jake and Chad, we met kinda before we went in (to discuss with coach Carr who was staying and who was going). I told them I’m doing whatever they do. Chad kinda said the same thing, Jake kinda had the same mentality, but you knew Jake, like, he was thinking about leaving.” Then Mike instantly realized he had put Jake on a higher playing field. With his eyes wide open he clarified as fast as he could. He probably lied. “I HAD TO THINK ABOUT LEAVING. But Chad was the first one – the strong link. He said I’m coming back, which made me pressure Jake. I don’t want to say pressure, but...then Jake had to decide what he wanted to do.”

When Mike first got here the crown slumped off the front of his head and hid his eyes. He was King but he still knew himself as Prince – just a little boy sitting in a throne who took the job because we didn't have anyone else to give it to. But now he pops grapes into his mouth one at a time, slowly, nodding to the executioner to drop the guillotine while peasants like us applaud wildly. We’d do it no matter who he was, but we smile without regret or hesitation because he came from us. He is us, a man of the people. Still the same posture, juvenile, courageous, indignant. Not impolite, just that there’s no one he’s trying to be, no one to impress; this is who he is.

Killing Harbaugh wasn't impressive, or really a surprise. He’s always had the confidence, the who-cares-about-death, heaven’s-had-their-eye-on-me-for-years mentality. Because deep down it doesn’t really matter what General Studies means. This was about fighting for Michigan. Someone had to defend it, and who better than Mike? He’s been sticking up for himself for a lifetime, why not stick up for an entire university? Mike used to be a sideshow, a cult hero, an interlude until we found someone better. Now he's on the face of the dollar bill, kissing your first born on the forehead, standing in a hurricane of confetti and smiling back at your daughters and sisters.

This is his last year of sitting in fancy hotels to talk about why he’s so good at football. He showed up late in Chicago and we make a story about that. He knows we’ll wait for him. Lloyd never seemed like he was worried Mike would leave, and I can’t say I ever really was either. I just get the feeling Mike loves what he's become enough to know it's worth hanging onto for one more year. At least, it’s easier to sleep at night thinking that way. Maybe he doesn’t believe in the specific Michigan virtues as much as it seems. Maybe he does. But if you asked me, I’d tell you I think deep down Mike just knows whatever he’s a part of is in good hands and worth protecting.

He’s grown to understand how much he's worshiped, how much leverage he has on our hearts. I think it's his way of making sure we don’t stop appreciating him. He taunts us with what we might have lost. And so he leaned forward in his chair with his right arm resting flat on the table, anxious, bored, almost too good for this, like Stymie from the Little Rascals sitting in detention just waiting to be dismissed. He had a neighborhood to run.

“People know me; they know what I can do. They know what pick I’m gonna be, from this year to last year.... I’m a consistent guy, they know that...I’m not a 4.3 guy, you know, they know exactly what I do, what I bring to the table.”

There’s no attempt to dispute who he is or what he does. “I’m a faster guy than I think people realize, I have a lot of skills I might be able to showcase at some point in time.” He doesn't say things like that. Saying it would concede that there's something to be ashamed of, that there's some person he’s been trying to become for all these years. And what is so rare, so empowering about the way Mike defines himself is not that he's small, or slow, but that that’s the only person he'd ever want to be. He’s satisfied with being human. He cracks his bloodied knuckles. Come and get it. And there’s a look in his eyes when he talks to you about it, this “give me a Coke with crushed ice and whatever is in your wallet for what I’m about to tell you - I know it's not much for three years worth of moments you'll remember till you're buried in a hole in the ground, but I guess you can owe me one” look.

Do the coaches ever try to rein you in on the field when you start talking? “They try, but you're not gonna calm me down. I’m probably the cockiest guy ever on the field, that's just how I am.”

And you just sit there, you laugh a devious laugh because he's ours and no one else’s, and you're the only one who knows why that means so much. You think about what you have, and what you want, and how for one more year they'll be the same thing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I'm superman but I'm looking like another villain

He showed up with his head shaved and the kind of distinct stubble on his face that every good guy with a gun has in the last 20 minutes of an action movie. Chad was in Chicago with Lloyd and Jake and Mike and his interview was about as exhilarating as a sixth grade Social Studies lecture. I watched it for one minute and 57 seconds and turned it off to watch Mike’s.

I was bored and yet content because I realized that his composure in front of the microphone was as consistent as it had always been. He still mumbled sometimes and made answers up on the fly, and talked as vague as possible when he didn’t feel like, or couldn’t do that. He praised and condemned himself as he saw appropriate; not boastful or self depreciative, just a man who’s put in enough work to know what he deserves.

Chad got the swag a little bit last year,” Mike said that same day, sitting at the table behind him.

Maybe he shaved his head because he was tired of everyone always talking about how bad his hair looked. But maybe he did it because he told us he has “unfinished business” to take care of and he’s too busy to look in the mirror every morning. Too busy wondering how he’s going to move 64 yards with a minute, a timeout and a career left when he’s down five somewhere in late-November and his mouth’s too dry to lick his finger tips. So he sat down with a buzz cut and a suit that screamed I’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN TO FIGHT and silently begged every man with a notepad to make it quick. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter.

At the Elite 11 Camp this summer he won the Golden Gun accuracy award. His forearms looked like he’d spent the last four years making origami projects out of old encyclopedias, or bending crowbars into circus animals the way clowns do at birthday parties. And everywhere he goes, he’ll tell you that you have to listen, that sometimes you have to shut your mouth and understand that there are people who know more than you do, and that there's nothing wrong with it as long as you embrace it.

“(Mallett’s) toned (the cockiness) down,” Chad said. “We’ve tried to get him off that high, but that's how every player is. They come in and they're All-American this, All-American that, then they find out everyone is an All-American. I think he finally realized that and stepped back. His attention span was very short at the beginning … I'd be like hey, pay attention, and when [quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler] talks to you, make sure you look him in the eye and pay attention at all times, because what he's telling you is very valuable. He picked up on it.”

You can tell Chad almost envies Mallett. Not jealous; never vindictive or bitter, but sensitive to the fact that he’s been anointed so prematurely. He never dealt with what Chad has, never watched a Rose Bowl vanish into 7-5 when he was only 20 years old and had to listen to everyone tell him it was his fault. It was Braylon’s team three years ago, then Mike’s when we handed it to him. But it’s never been Chad’s; it’s never even been offered to him.

He’s just been kindly asked to prevent it from collapsing. Practice started about a week ago, and since then someone who knows these things told me Chad has been the best player on the team. “Nobody is even close.” This is the quarterback of the team I root for.

When Chad won the accuracy award they threw him a yellow shirt and told him to give a speech. Toward the end of it he was swinging his arms a little bit because he wasn’t quite sure how to gracefully stop talking. “What these coaches tell you, take it in, practice it, study it, be perfect at it.” At that moment he had stumbled his way to a conclusion. “We always say hey, uh…”

He almost forgets what we always say, then rubs is mouth in embarrassment even though he’s in the presence of 11 kids who’d probably make a call back home just to tell their mom Chad liked their footwork on a five-step drop. When the camp director was reciting the names of Michigan quarterbacks in the NFL, one of the kids shouted “Chad Henne" before the director could. Another one helped Chad put his yellow shirt on with an eagerness you don’t see unless it involves taking off wrapping paper or bra straps. These are the types that carry around folded 8x12s and a black sharpie in their back pocket so he can sign his name on it when the day is over, and yet he’s not comfortable looking down at them. He constantly proves that he’s mortal, but it’s always after he's so aggressively convinced us on the field he might not be.

Off the field he tries so hard to exude no emotion, to be robotic. But he’s never flawless, and each time it becomes so vividly clear that he’s one of us.

Eventually, he remembered what we always say: “Excellence is good, but, uh, we love perfect... being better.”

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Lying out there like a killer in the sun

I remember parking the car under this bridge in Pasadena and walking with my uncle to the Rose Bowl from there. We were sharing a salami and pepperoni sandwich with lettuce and peppers, and when we stopped on a stone wall to eat it a black Rolls Royce drove by with its windows down. There was a breeze, and when I looked down to wipe the crumbs off my chest I could feel the sun on the back of my neck. It was one of the rare moments when my life was better than the guy’s who was driving the car.

There was this time during my senior year of high school when I left the house and didn’t stop riding my bike until I got to a gas station on the other side of town. It was hot, I still didn’t know where I was going to college, and I was pretty sure I was in love with a girl who was taking too long to realize she loved me too. I went inside and bought two cans of orange soda. I remember drinking them like they were going to evaporate in 9 seconds, like you do when you drink from the garden hose and don’t stop until you run out of breath and the water spills out and gets the collar of your shirt wet. But sitting down with my uncle, Michigan hadn’t lost yet. The sandwich tasted significantly better than the orange soda.

I remember when they showed this video montage of Bo Schembechler before the game. And how the guy standing in front of me didn't bother wiping the tears off his cheeks because he knew there would be more of them. I remember I was relieved because my uncle went to get a beer and didn't see me cry when Steve Breaston walked to midfield.

I wish the endings were ever as good as the beginnings...

Lloyd: "It all starts with a guy that is going to make good decisions on whether to field the ball or not, where to fair catch it. Experience is something we don't have. When you lose a guy like Steve Breaston, it's like losing a great kicker like Garrett Rivas. You take all those kicks for granted. You take all those plays Breaston made for granted."

Marques Slocum: "I like to hit people. I think I'm very physical"

Johnny Thompson: "Playing the run, that's just all instinct. I'm good at that."

Lloyd: "He's part of who I am, so I don't sit around and think about him being gone every day."

Lloyd: "I don't believe in shootouts, unless we're doing the shooting."

Lloyd: "I know this: I think most people, the older you get, the more you realize the people in your life are important. All the other stuff, it really comes down to relationships you have. I think you have a greater sense of what's important."

Mike: "(4 years ago) I was a little pup and no one wanted to talk to me cause I was this little guy from New york."

Mike: "I dont know, probably, I probably would (take Harbaugh's phone call). Yeah, of course I would take his call. If a man calls me I'm gonna answer the phone."

Mike: "I love Jake, you know, Jake's one of my favorite people on this team. Even off the field he's one of my favorite players on this team. On the field, obviously I'm his number one fan."

Chad: "I know what coverage every team can give you."

Chad: "We're not going to be sitting back relaxing eating a bag of chips, but we're going to be confident and comfortable with what we're doing because we've been here and we've experienced it."

Rio:“I love playing with Chad, Mike and Jake. They're probably my favorite people in the world because being in the huddle with them you know you have their back and they have yours, especially with Mike. Everybody knows how Mike is -- he doesn't take any crap because he wants to win harder than we all do.”

Rio: "I don't rah, rah, rah and all that, but when we get out here everybody knows I'm going to get my yards"

Crable: "They want us to get to know each other, hang out with each other, become brothers and really understand each other."

Terrance: “It makes you feel good that your coach is excited -- truly excited. Sometimes you get that fake hype, but Coach E is always excited in whatever he does.”

Adrian: "I feel like my head is in a different place right now. I've had talks with a lot of people, a lot of time to think … a lot of 6:00 A.M.s sitting in an empty stadium thinking about how I could have done things differently. I'm at another level."