Sunday, November 23, 2008

Little Wing

His sentences came abruptly to an end and he bit the inside of his cheek every now and then. There was no anger or inextinguishable rage, just a bluntness he was probably too weary to avoid. There was no attempt to placate anyone. Here is your quote, now let me get the hell out of here.

“I spoke when I played with bruised ribs, a bruised shoulder, and a wrist that needed surgery. That told you I was tired of living beside the memory of someone who no longer exists. And that I knew there was a cause bigger than my own, no matter how impossible you think it is to find when you’ve lost nine games. I spoke when I carried the ball six times in a row and tore my limbs away from tacklers like someone was trying kidnap me and I just wanted to survive. That told you I was stubborn and brave and probably a little insane. And I speak when you see me on the sidelines, sitting on the backrest of the bench rather than the bench itself. That told you there are some of these men that I am above, and that I know what belongs to me. I know what I have earned.”

Brandon Minor didn’t really say that. He didn’t have to. There are other ways to tell us that you have arrived.

His cuts are rough and imprecise, and he throws his body around with a selfless, uncommon audacity. “I wish I could be more graceful, but I’m running behind a center Notre Dame didn’t want, a guy with a dislocated elbow, a former defensive lineman, and a rotation of others. It’s second and forever and no one believes we’d pass right now anyway. I don’t have time for precise. Maybe I can handle it myself.” That’s what he tells me. And I love him for it.

This is what he really said after the game: “It’s like some people don’t even believe in themselves when they step on the field. You know it’s just…when you step on the field you gotta’ believe that you the best player on the field, like can’t nobody mess with you. That’s how I take the approach on the field, you know I don’t care who I’m going up against.”

Michigan didn’t beat Ohio State, but most of us already knew they weren’t going to a few weeks ago. There was only the blind faith that “something had to go right,” the same way there was the day after Bo died. But sports show no mercy. Ohio State is radically better than Michigan is, and at least for now, there are more important matters. It’s alright to admit that; it’s part of what makes the revival so satisfying. But I can’t be angry. Peasants don’t challenge the king to a duel, they can only stand and throw rotten fruit at his throne.

I’m not sad or even discouraged. In a season spent agonizing over the loss of the players who meant the most to me, I see vague traces of new ones. I see it in Minor, Feagin, Fitzgerald Touissaint, Shavodrick Beaver’s loyalty, Darryl Stonum’s repentance, and maybe I’m forcing this all because I can’t handle another season I feel so excruciatingly indifferent about, but watching Minor Saturday made me believe that some of it is real. Five consecutive losses to Ohio State might seem paralyzing, but for better or worse, we are Michigan fans. Our hearts are calloused and immune to this. Michigan hasn’t been good for a while; I am used to the losses. I try to tell myself that.

In 2003, I watched Michigan lose to Iowa 30-27 in the basement of some house I’d never been to before. The house was cluttered but quaint and rustic in a way a cabin in Vermont might be -- it had a lot of mahogany furniture, and I think there was a coffee table made out of an old tree trunk. I watched the game on a large and absurdly out of place flat screen T.V, and when Michigan was leading by enough, I went outside to play football. When I was done, I came inside and saw that Michigan had already lost.

When they lost to Northwestern 54-51 in 2000 I was at a restaurant for my grandma’s birthday. Next to the kitchen there was a payphone inside a small alcove in the wall, and there was a wooden door on it like a saloon from the 1860's. I remember I kept having to ask my mom for change so I could call home and ask my dad what the score was. Anthony Thomas ran for 200 yards that day, and both David Terrell and Marquise Walker had 100 yards receiving. But Michigan still lost.

Earlier that year they lost to Purdue 32-31, after they’d led by 18 points on two different occasions. I was watching it in a pizza parlor on a 14 inch T.V. that was on top of a refrigerator, surrounded by cardboard boxes and empty soda cans. I had slept over a friend’s house the night before, and he didn’t have cable. I remember Anthony Thomas ran for a long touchdown and the game seemed secure enough that we could walk back to his house. I know Michigan better now; things are rarely secure enough.

You want me to write that Michigan will be back, defiantly, and to forget how truly bad they were this season. It would be poetic, and nothing is going to happen over the next nine months to prove that they won’t be. I rely on Michigan for more than is probably healthy or wise, and on some level, I need them to come back. I don’t know if they will, if they’ll stop losing and constantly pounding our hopes into dust -- whether it's with Lloyd, or Rodriguez. But I do know that I can wait.

I’ve been here before.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Burn yourself alive and join the monster squad

Nevermind that Stu Douglass looks like the kid who would show up to your birthday party wearing a turtle neck and a pair of those Bugle Boy jeans that had the elastic in the waist. John Beilein told him to "play with some swagger", and he did this:

I guess you could call it that. Or playing without a conscience, which seems more menacing anyway.

The offense occasionally seems a little disoriented, and there's this pervading fear that the 1-3-1 will get eaten alive against someone who can shoot from the perimeter, but this is a good, competent team that looks like it will win most of the games it should, and probably take one or two it shouldn't just by hanging around long enough.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There Is Thunder In Our Hearts

This is in response to Dex’s post at Wolverine Liberation Army; the comments left on my post yesterday; and, indirectly, Brian’s post, which was exceptional, but clashes in some places with what I wrote below.
I was 11 years-old when Michigan last won a national championship, and since then they haven’t been very good. At least, not as good as everyone thought they had a right to be. They lost five games in 2005. They lost to Appalachian State last year when they were ranked third in the country, and I’d said before the season that their offense was better than anyone else’s. They lost to Toledo, Northwestern, and haven’t beaten Ohio State in four years. Read what I’ve written over that span, and you’ll see that despite the frustration, there’s nothing but unwavering devotion. You tell me I only love Michigan less intensely because they’re bad, or unfulfilling, and you're either a liar or an idiot.
I wrote in September on this blog, “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.” Losing does not matter to me nearly as much as it does to most people. It hurts, but more than anything it hurts because I know that the players I love had to endure that pain. I care about the players themselves, and I know winning matters to them. Chad Henne tried to play with a partially torn MCL and a right shoulder that basically wasn’t there; Mike Hart carried the ball 282 times when he was 18 years old and weighed only 194 pounds. Adrian Arrington woke up at five in the morning to run stairs for an hour, and I wake up 15 minutes before noon games and watch most of the first quarter in my bed. I’m sure the tattoo of the winged helmet on your shoulder looks fantastic, and it really is amazing that your daughter’s first word was Braylon. But those players committed far more to this than we have; pardon me for holding onto them a little too long.
People have this bizarre, ridiculously obsessive need to not only root for their favorite team exactly the same way regardless of the circumstances, but also to castigate anyone who roots somewhat differently than they do. It doesn’t give you more privileges if you can recite which high school every player went to, or if you watched every second of every game in person. It’s admirable, but it’s just a feat of strength. People say they love this Michigan team as much as they’ve loved any other, like it makes them an illegitimate fan if they don’t. Well that’s bullshit. You’re not telling the truth. And if you are, there’s something frighteningly wrong with that fact that you can like a player who you’ve known for 11 games as much as you could Jake Long. There’s no justice in that.
You like watching this Michigan team try to catch a kick (not return, simply catch) as much as you liked watching Steve Breaston do it? Maybe you’ve survived it, but you haven’t liked it. It has been miserable. And if admitting that fact and others like it make me less of a fan, if it means I should go fuck myself, or that I don’t deserve to celebrate a victory over Ohio State, then so be it.

I am a Michigan fan; I root for Michigan to defeat other teams. But ultimately, we are all rooting for the players on that team. For about 50 games, we rooted for a team that was led by Chad Henne and Mike Hart. We relied on them, and aside from the defense in 2006, we relied mostly on them alone. They were iconic. They defined Michigan for four years as much as this mystical “Tradition” that seems to transcend everything. But in the first game of this season, Michigan started Nick Sheridan, Sam McGuffie, Darryl Stonum, and Martavious Odoms. None of these players had ever played a down for Michigan before in their lives. I never counted on them for anything. How is it at all possible, or even reasonable, for me to care about them as much as Mike Hart. If it seems like there's less emotional investment, it's because on some level there is. It's not intentional.
The coaches don’t talk the same way, the offense lines up in formations I’m not used to, and I don’t know who most of these players are. I’m sorry that I don’t. I’m not predisposed to disliking them, or the spread, or Rich Rodriguez, just because they are different. But it does take more than a season to know how I feel.
Addressing some specific points of yesterday’s post:
  • When I wrote bitterly about Sam McGuffie pulling himself out of Saturday’s game, I was unaware that someone in his family had died. Had I known that, I certainly wouldn’t have written it. His own position coach reported that he decided not to play because he was too hurt, so I had no reason to think otherwise. Even so, it was insensitive, and I apologize for saying it. However, my criticism of his running still stands. In high school, his blocks on defensive ends and blitzing linebackers were glorified summersaults at their legs. I heard there was something wrong with his shoulder that game, but he’s been blocking that way since he got to Michigan. He seems less hesitant to unleash his speed on those wheel plays, and I think he’s been the most instinctual kick returner besides Odoms, but he’s overmatched at running back.
  • In his post, Dex wrote: “It's likely, extremely likely, that these seniors will leave with another loss to Ohio State. So those of you… who launch mis-guided, pretentious, faux-literary, never bothered to lace up a cleat in your life, whiny, overly-romantic, over-rated diatribes about the present not being the same as the past; you can all feel free to watch something else. Maybe you can put in your 100th game DVD and masturbate through the tears until you feel good again.”
I think most of this is dead-on, and I actually really like their blog. But considering WLA cites Fire Joe Morgan as an inspiration, it’s strange that he would call my credibility into question simply because he thinks I’ve “never bothered to lace up a cleat in my life.”
Oh, and in case any ladies would be retroactively attracted to a timid backup quarterback, my career rushing totals for the Danbury Trojans were two carries for 16 yards and one touchdown. I also successfully handed the ball off several times in practice.
  • ShockFX’s second comment is pretty flawless, and in the body of this post I’ve responded to most of the concerns he mentions. I just wanted to acknowledge that I read it. Also, I want to mention that I have only written good things about Greg Matthews, Brandon Graham and obviously Grady. I am most impressed with Graham’s versatility, or the fact that he doesn’t rely simply on his speed and is comfortable playing on the interior. His guarantee against Michigan State was charming, in the sense that he knew something had to be done, and thought of the most compelling thing he could. It lost some of its clout though because Mike had just done it the year before, and he basically conceded that the whole thing had been premeditated. Plus, the defense didn’t seem unified enough to grasp the urgency of what he was saying. Don’t forget, up until the Minnesota game they were still trying to convince the coaching staff to let them play with a four-man defensive line.

Monday, November 17, 2008

After The Gold Rush

On Saturday, Michigan threw 36 passes and only completed 12 of them. There is nothing discreet about how this team loses. There is no drama or climax; there would be something thrilling in that, at least. This is like rubbing sandpaper on your scalp until you hit brain. There is nothing but snow, and rain, and a numbing, overwhelming, and undeniably hopeless decay of something I once loved, and still do, but much less intensely.
It’s like trying to love a wife who lost her leg in a train accident, or got third degree burns on her face from a grease fire, and now she smokes cigarettes and drinks cheap whiskey from a sleeve of leftover paper cups you bought for some barbecue about a year back. This is not the same woman, and you know it’s not. You see things in her that you remember, things that used to make you happy. But now more than anything they make you sad, because you realize most of the time they don’t exist.

Steve Threet and Nick Sheridan have alternated everywhere between dreadful and fleetingly adequate. Sam McGuffie was hailed as some kind of messiah, but we found out his moves are nothing but extravagant head jerks; that he pass blocks with less enthusiasm than most people mow their lawns with; and that his spin moves seem tentative and halfhearted, like they’re more out of fear than deception. On Saturday he decided he wasn’t going to play, because he said he was too hurt.

Donovan Warren and Morgan Trent look over their shoulders after every incompletion to make sure there’s no penalty flag, then shake their head at the wide receiver as if they had anything to do with the incompletion in the first place. At this point, that's probably all they have.

The players I know appear inconsistently and without warning; increasingly neurotic and damaged.
Brandon Minor runs furiously and at times unnecessarily aggressive, as if he’s spent two years struggling with depression and regret, and he’s trying to make up for lost time all at once. He tries to laugh every now and then, but then his eyes dart anxiously to the side, like he’s waiting for someone to tell him he doesn’t have to pretend that everything’s going to turn out alright.

Back in the middle of February all I knew about Justin Feagin was that he either ran impatiently or was just incredibly decisive, I wasn’t sure which, and he had essentially said, “Terrelle Pryor, I am not afraid of you” before he even got to college. He sat in a chair after the Minnesota game, his hair matted erratically on one side, like he’d fallen asleep in the backseat of car with his head resting against a balled up t-shirt. He blinked slowly and spoke without hesitation. Sometimes he picked the wrong word and found a different one in the middle of his sentence once he realized it, but he was excessively calm, and already seemed accustomed to the whole idea of people wanting to talk to him.
In high school, Justin told Rodriguez he wanted to play early in his career, but it wasn’t the same robotic insistence most freshmen have. We knew he wasn’t lying when he suggested he burn a year of eligibility just to play sparingly in Michigan’s final four games. On a team going nowhere, after he’d declared that he could compete with the best high school player in the country, he volunteered to play special teams.
“I can’t really explain it for the fans that are listening,” he said on Signing Day. “I just play football, and I’m good at it.” It wasn’t a prepared quip; it was the only way he knew how to describe himself after a career of defying or ignoring reputations. If Mike thrived because he had been eternally doubted, Justin did so because he lived in a world oblivious to expectations and pressure. I wanted him to be Michigan's quarterback for the next three years, and at that position, he ran seven times for 49 yards against Minnesota. Afterwards, Rodriguez confirmed that his permanent position would be receiver.
These days, the coach's once-hypnotic charisma feels hollow and trite. At press conferences he seems embarrassed, like he’s still a little detached from it all and doesn’t have to cry with, or for a team he just met. Maybe it seems like he’s fighting for them when he’s being irascible and short-tempered, but this team is a reflection of who he is as a coach. He’s defending himself as much as he’s defending them.

For the seniors, he can only say, over and over again, that they deserve a hug. He did say that. At first I thought he was only using that line in press conferences, because it seemed affectionate enough, and a horde of obsequious reporters might pretend it had a vague humor to it. I was wrong. I saw a video of the locker room after the Minnesota game, and he said that to their faces.
Terrance never beat Ohio State, played for three different defensive coordinators, and vomited and bled for Rich Rodriguez after he considered giving it all up. He’s spent the better part of his adult life outnumbered two to one, and as a defensive tackle gets maybe three chances a game to remind everyone that he’s even there. He’s six feet tall and squatted 680 pounds in high school. A hug? I’d tell him to keep it.
This was once Michigan:

They used to exist.