Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Operate On Me

He stood there on a Monday two weeks ago and looked like he just wanted to close his eyes and go lie down somewhere quiet. Lloyd moved a cough drop back and forth in his mouth and tucked it against his lip when he had to answer their questions. His voice croaked in and out like John Wayne’s in Rio Bravo but without the faint exuberance, or anything you might call hope. Lloyd was sick, his tie looked like the one lying at the bottom of my closet underneath an old almanac and a broken alarm clock, and two days earlier he needed the one good knee of his quarterback to rescue him from Northwestern. It all looked quite familiar.

He didn’t say more than he had to; nothing strictly on impulse or really worth saying at all – maybe it hurt too much to talk. But the second someone questioned Chad’s “fire” –simply wondered enough about it to ask – Lloyd didn’t bother saving his voice anymore. He leaned his neck back a bit and squinted, as if to verify that a person this audacious actually stood before him

“He's always got fire. If you know him – and that's the problem, a lot of people are judging him that don't know him, and those perceptions, it's easy to understand because you think you see something, you think you know something, and you really don't. But you know, he’s alwa—Hey look, you don't come in here and do what he's done and not have a fire.”

Lloyd never talked fast enough to finish each of his thoughts before wandering into the next one.

“I mean, the guy, first of all, he started 39 consecutive games. He's played hurt down through his career that nobody ever knew. He came back from this injury a lot faster than you would expect. Why? Because he was in that training room all day and all night. His will to play, his will to compete is unquestioned.”

The room was silent. His eyes shifted from side to side behind his glasses, beneath the four lines that might as well have been cut into his forehead with an axe. Someone asked about Michigan Stadium turning 80. Lloyd looked straight at him and barely moved to breathe. I like to think he was still thinking about Chad.

In so many ways, this was a microcosm of everything this program has become. Every reason Lloyd needs to leave interspersed with every reason he needs to stay. A team bound together by a few beleaguered heroes so conscious of the chaos and disarray: Chad playing with torn ligaments in his knee; Jake leaping face first to knock pass rushers off the edge because he knows that; Mike playing with leg pads the size of VCRs because he’s had a deep thigh bruise and a season on his shoulders since week one; Adrian waking up at 6 a.m. every morning for 60 days to run up and down stairs because he wanted to come back for this.

Maybe you think at this point these players are playing for no one but themselves. “This is no army; just a bunch of soldiers with guns,” you might say. But you would be wrong. A team still stands.

“When he comes back, he's gonna be ready,” Mike said about Chad after Penn State. “I’m gonna be happy when he does…A lot of people don't know how good he really is and the things he does for this team.”

And after Chad was 14-21 for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Northwestern, Jake said this: It just felt good to hear him back out there.”

They defended him when no one else would. They knew better. They knew why defending him mattered. In Mallett, Chad had watched a boy walk from the woods and sit in his throne. He clapped when Mallett threw for a touchdown, but he knew it was supposed to be him out there; he clapped because he had to. It was like watching the guy who stole your girlfriend cure cancer – Mallett didn’t even have the decency to give Chad a reason to hate him. So while Chad limped somewhere, alone, with his hat backwards and the crutches he didn’t like using, the reporters, the students – all of you – laughed at Mallett’s bad jokes and didn’t seem to care if Chad ever came back.

That night I pictured Chad walking freely through a mass of kids. In the vision, none of them asked him for anything; they stood on their toes and looked around him for someone else. As he stepped on the bus a hand tugged on his shirt sleeve. He sighed and smiled as much as he knew how; someone had recognized him, even now, after all this. But when he turned around, it was just a boy who asked him if he could borrow a pen. He needed Mallett to sign something.

“After the second half, there's no doubt I should be playing quarterback, there's no doubt I should be playing (as a full-time starter) the rest of the season,” Chad said afterward. “Ryan is a great person, and I have a lot of respect for him, but it's my team, it's my senior year. I'm going to go out and play my best football these next couple of games.”

He has seven games left to prove us wrong, and after that he’s gone. His legacy can only be salvaged now, not raised to some distant height; no one will ever let him. All of the traitors who booed him even though he came back to give them what they wanted, they’ll never let him. You want to tell me he's selfish? I'll tell you I'm proud that he is.

“Only people who don't know much about quarterback play question him, Lloyd said. “Because the people who know him know what he is.”

On the outside, we see everything that has gone wrong. That Lloyd has managed to lose complete control. That the star wide receiver that spent most of last season turning cornerback’s knees into wet spaghetti hasn’t looked right since November. That the defense against the spread might as well be trying to tackle a rabbit. That Ohio State flexes its muscles while Michigan picks the scabs off its elbows.

This season has given us so little of what we’ve asked. Mike Hart and just enough brief moments of immorality to remind us what we’ve been missing all along. There is no use left in waiting for last year’s team to arrive; it left with Steve Breaston. Winning the next six games however they have to will do just fine.

So cherish the way Mike makes every run feel like you’ve been driving with the windows down and haven’t seen a stop sign since sunset. Or when they ask him, after he has just carried the ball 44 times, “Do you think it was Penn State’s goal to wear you out?” and he replies “I hope not, ‘cause that’s not gonna happen, I could have had 52 carries, 55 carries.” Hold on to times like those. Watch how he hits a hole like he’s running through a tornado, dodging tacklers like they were the tops of mailboxes and pieces of broken barn doors.

This is the commencement. This is all we have left.