Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That is Defining Their Legacy

He's hungry.


You can't blame him; all he's been fed for the past three years is crap.  "Hey Denard, you can't throw."  "Hey Denard, you can't win."  "Hey Denard, you can't play in a pro-style offense."  He has listened to it all since high school when no one knew what to think of him, told him he'd be a corner back or a slot receiver, and he knows they still don't know what to think of him now.  Five-feet-eleven in the spikes he would probably run out of even if they were tied, big million dollar grin that he can't help but constantly wear because he still isn't comfortable with all the attention, and dreads that cover up his name unless someone misses a tackle and he gets a crease     then the dreads and the shoes both hang on for dear life.  He's hungry.  He wants this for the seniors, for his coach, for Michigan.  He's been here before.  Knows the game.  Knows that if you want to walk out a winner you have to turn this:

...into this:

...in the fourth quarter.  He's made the mistakes in the past and watched chances slip away.

This time he made his mistake, but he wouldn't let it define him.  He pushed piles and cut back for more yards and waited impossibly long in the pocket to find a receiver.  He refused to let them be overcome by his mistake, so he finished the game with five touchdowns.

Hey, a man's gotta eat.

* * *

He's smiling.

It wasn't always easy to smile.  He knows that.  He has been through worse things than 3-9 or 5-7 and he knows that there is unfair and then there is unfair.  But he never let it affect him.  He just worked harder than the other guys and went from this to this:

He is the guy that swears in press conferences, makes an entire internet community love the reach-block as if it were as easy to appreciate as its highlight-reel cousins the perfectly-thrown-fade and the open-field-juke, and he routinely leaves linebackers curled up in a heap on the second level as someone else runs past with the ball thankful that mean number 50 is the one leading the way.  Those little guys from Florida or Ohio would follow him anywhere.  He does it because that's how he plays football     the only way he knows how.  You work harder than the other guy in the weight room, study harder than the other guy in the film room, then you line up across from him and administer 60 minutes of hell.  Somebody's got to pay, only then he can smile.

But only for a little bit.  Then it's back to work.

Photo credit: Heiko
* * *

He's relieved.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
“I’ve always said my dream has always been to catch a touchdown in the Ohio State-Michigan game. I finally did that, so that means a lot to me and my family."

That is what he tells reporters after the game.  This was his dream.

But everything else must have been like waking up from a long nightmare.  He was the last player to come to Michigan that also held an Ohio State offer, and he watched the team he committed to play for fall on hard times from almost the very day he stepped on campus.  He has known nothing else, a senior whose career has been spent in a group of 18-22 year-old college kids collectively trying to claw the program back up from the worst records in school history, the first season he knew as a player.  The whole time losing to that team from Ohio that he turned down.

He is relieved because he worked hard, because it turns out the thing he thought he loved, the thing they all thought they loved when they committed would ask more of them than they could have ever imagine, and in the end he is relieved because they answered that call and left Michigan football in better condition than they found it.

He was the last player to commit to Michigan over Ohio State.  Saturday he got the final touchdown in a game against Ohio State.  His dream come true.

* * *

They're embarrassed.

It may not look like it, but they aren't happy with what happened out there.  They are better than that and they know it.  Everybody knows it, and now people actually listen.  They don't just hear excuses or laugh at the rankings.  This isn't last year.  The stuffed beavers are long gone from the sidelines so is the guy with the silver head of hair and all the confusion.  Everybody else is there, and now everybody is accountable, and it is their defense.

They take pride in it.  All of them do.  That's what he wants.  He wants it to be their defense so he teaches them the best way he knows how then he let's them take control of it.  That's why they are embarrassed.  Because they are better than 34 points allowed.  They are better than missed assignments in the secondary and long third-down conversion scrambles.  They don't settle for being just a good defense, and that is part of what makes them great.

* * *

They're even out there at all.

That was hardly guaranteed for either.  Both have spent the past few years battling through every injury and ailment you could think up.  Broken bones and muscle pulls and bruises and even a case of mononucleosis have stood between them and the field at various times.  Yet they both kept going, let time heal old wounds and came back tougher, stronger.

One of them is a leaper who is second to none at high pointing a jump ball and bringing it down.  He's the one Jim Brandstatter calls Big Play     and for good reason.  You throw the ball impossibly high or into double coverage and it just doesn't matter.  He will get it, then he will fight for more yards.

The other is a tiny Floridian mountain goat that blocks like that piece of dirt you are standing on right there is his and he damn well plans on taking it back.  He showed up "too small" to handle Big Ten football ended up earning his way on the field immediately by being the toughest son of a bitch out there.  Four years later he's still the toughest son of a bitch out there.

And both of them were Out There on Saturday.

* * *

He's arrived.

And he's putting everyone on notice.

He could have fallen by the wayside.  Became another ghost from the second hand accounts of practice that you can almost picture get passed along to guys like Brian as whispers from dark corners of dimly lit parking garages; water dripping into storm drains, traffic off in the distance, and the echo of squealing tires all bouncing through different levels like your reflection in a house of mirrors     distorted sound coming at you from all directions.  Woodward and Bernstein got Watergate.  Brian Cook gets "that kid whose name sounds like he should be playing jazz in Midtown Manhattan in the 50's is really wowing everyone at camp."  All but for the injuries.  The shoulder, the knee, it seemed like he would be one of those players that was only ever healthy enough to be a myth.  Not anymore.  Now he is a thousand-yard back who makes this happen:

And still cuts back into the defender because there are five more yards there, dammit.

* * *

At no point was it easy.  I wasn't supposed to be.

Why would the breaks start now?  This is the game that Michigan wasn't supposed to lose until the game started, and then it seemed like a repeat of every other year.  The Denard fumble, the overturned Fitz touchdown, Will Hagerup encapsulating everything the internet loves about college football in one .GIF.  Why else would Braxton Miller play like the bastard son of Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor?  Things go wrong when you play Ohio State: Shawn Crable throws a late hit out of bounds, Michigan gains less than 100 yards in a rainstorm, a prevent defense and a nine point lead is shredded in the final eight minutes, a six-win Buckeye team walks away with a three score victory.

This is how Michigan loses to the Buckeyes.

This is how Michigan used to lose to the Buckeyes.

The fact that Michigan won this game is far and away the most important thing to take away.  Michigan won.  Against Ohio State.  That is, and forever will be, enough.

However, few things could make it more meaningful and cathartic than winning despite the misfortune.  Early in the game Michigan forced a fumble on a Buckeye kick return.  The ball floated skyward and slipped past Courtney Avery into DeVier Posey's hands.  It was a harbinger of things to come.  There would be no gimmes this time.  The team was going to have to work even harder.

This season has been one largely of blessings.  Fortunate bounces and big plays at the right time.  If there is one thing that this team has had all season     that is only more notable because of it being mostly absent the last few years     it's a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  Brandon Herron's two touchdown day, jumpball-a-poolloza, the second half against Northwestern, the third-down stops, the fumble recoveries, all of it seemed to happen at the exact right time.  Even in losses Michigan had doors opened for them, golden opportunities in the form of phantom fumbles and lucky bounces, yet the Wolverines simply failed to capitalize on them.

In this game, however, there would be none.  Braxton Miller played the best game of his life, Denard and Hagerup gave up game changing fumbles, and the game-icing touchdown was called back on a review only to be followed by the second game-icing touchdown being called back on a penalty.

If you didn't at least think of 2004 or 2005 or 2006 for an instant after that happened and the Buckeyes got the ball with two minutes left and only down six points, then you obviously didn't watch any of the games.  We'd seen all this before.  Michigan had done all it could and Ohio State was still going to get the chance to steal a victory.

Then something funny happened.  The defense made a couple of plays, Ohio State missed on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown pass, and then all but sealed it with an ill-advised spike on third-down at midfield.  Those are our mistakes.  That is how Michigan loses the Game.  That is how Michigan used to lose the Game.

Finally, Courtney Avery tipped the ball to himself, the whole place went berserk, and I walked around my house grinning like an idiot in total silence for the next half hour.

* * *

They call themselves Team 132.  There were 131 before them and God willing there will be 131 after (who knows what football will look like in 2142 but its hard not to think that Denard Robinson is some kind of evolutionary leap toward the future).  Some of these young men played on the worst team in 129 years.  A little less than half of them were part of the worst defense in 131 years.  Still, they all stayed.  They wouldn't fracture and crumble like the last time.

The win in the Game on Saturday was the first since I was a freshman in college.  At that time I had only met my eventual college roommate and best friend once     as he drunkenly introduced himself by his then-roommate's name at 3am one Saturday night, leading to a month of confusion over which one of them was which.  In the time since we have both graduated and worked a couple different jobs, he got married (an gave me the honor of being one of his groomsmen), and I moved 12-hours away and started writing here.  The whole time we have known each other we bonded over a shared love of Michigan football, celebrated all the wonderful wins, and talked each other off the ledge through the most heartbreaking defeats.  I called him for the last two minutes of the game on Saturday.  It only seemed right.

We throw around the words of our coaching idols a lot, we cite The Team (The Team, The Team), talk about everyone being All-In, and remind ourselves in bad times that Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.  But it isn't us.

On Saturday, those young men lived up to all of it.  They stayed through the worst period of Michigan football any of us have ever seen, they had to live with it all every single day, this wasn't their distraction from real life.  It was real life.  We have heard their stories and grown attached to them and now it is hard to feel anything but happy for every one of those kids.

They stayed, and they got their win over Ohio.
Quint Kessenich:  "How did your seniors define their legacy today?"
Hoke:  "Well, see 'em down there right now, that's defining their legacy."
Kessenich:  "Whats it like for you coach to win ten   "
Hoke: "Aw, I'm so, it doesn't matter, I'm happy for those kids, that's what this game is all about."