Friday, November 25, 2011

First Breath After Coma

I was fourteen years old in 2003. I was a freshman in high school in Huntsville, AL, in the heart of SEC territory after recently been moved from the suburbs of Chicago. It was a foreign land, a strange land, where my raiment stuck out like a southern drawl in the heart of New York City; absurdly, a forced Latin phrase in an otherwise ordinary sentence. I remember talking to a friend about college football on my first day of school, and he was adamant that this was Auburn’s year. Auburn had gone 9-4 the season before with a bowl victory against Penn State. I had no idea what Auburn was, though, truly. I remember thinking, like Michael Bluth: Auburn? Her? Auburn stumbled to an 8-5 record that year before going undefeated in 2004. Michigan won back-to-back conference titles in those two first years in that new land, and I didn’t realize that that was to be the end of everything that was good. I couldn’t have known.

Michigan had always been good, and at the very least they had always been decidedly Michigan. When they lost, they lost in September, then once but usually twice to generally overmatched Big Ten foes. The offenses were plodding even when Michigan was at the top of the college football world, and the defenses were stout so long as the opposing quarterback didn’t have blocks of granite for legs. If anything, Michigan was consistent. It was always frustrating but it was always the same and so you could never be truly surprised when Michigan lost on the road out west or lost in South Bend or lost to some Big Ten foe that had no business being on the same field. Jim Tressel showed up and everything changed; consistency no longer meant what it once did.

In 2001, Michigan fielded an okay squad that included a wholly unready John Navarre and lost at home to a decidedly mediocre Buckeye squad. In 2002, Michigan gave the eventual national champions a tight game before eventually bowing out in the final minutes. In 2003 we got redemption, and in 2004 we had a chance to continue that on the backs of an incredible freshman seasons from Chad Henne and Mike Hart. It didn’t happen but the future was bright. Then 2005 slipped away. Then Bo died, and Michigan was on the losing end of the Game of the Century. Then I was a freshman at Michigan, and I watched those aforementioned freshmen—now seniors---end their final years with a whimper, as Ohio State and Beanie Wells ground the Wolverines into dust en route to a victory that was never really close despite its appearances. I traveled to Columbus for the first time the next year to watch Michigan intercept Terrelle Pryor on their first drive, then proceed to implode, go ceaselessly backward, and miss a field goal. Despite the close first half, I knew it was over right then and there. Tate Forcier came onto the scene and Michigan hoped to secure a bowl bid after missing out after the disastrous 2008 campaign. It was the height of masochism; 60 minutes and five turnovers later and Michigan had lost again. It was 2007 all over again. Then last year happened. Rich Rodriguez was a lame duck, Denard got hurt and Michigan floundered like a ship without a rudder, not that a rudder would have assured safe passage through the house of horror that was Ohio Stadium.

Now we are here. I’ve reached the point where I can type the last paragraph and look at it and say that’s what happened. I am at peace as much as any man can be at peace. And yet, it has been like life as a dog with an abusive owner, cowering in fear upon his arrival, a conditioned response to a physical actuality. Michigan has been beaten and beaten and beaten, and it is not so much okay as it is a statement of reality. I see Scarlet and Gray clad people in New York, in Alabama, in the airport in Detroit, and I can do nothing but extricate myself from the circumstances, to physically move myself as if a computerized thumb and forefinger picked me up from the sky and dropped me somewhere else, anywhere else. It’s conditioned and pathetic and wanting of something.

Michigan is 9-2 and Ohio State has been gutted of everything it once held so dearly. Its beloved coach, its star quarterback, its patina of Midwestern invincibility have all been extirpated, and yet their premises still exist, as much as seven wins in a row can be categorized as mere premises and not unadulterated salting of the earth. Ohio State now has their own lame duck, and in a week full of unequivocal hate, spleen, and obdurate dismissal of the other’s raison d’etre, I find myself sort of feeling some sort of distant cousin of empathy for Luke Fickell, who just wants to coach a game, and not just a game but The Game. Then I remember why I shouldn’t feel so kind; the body of history is enough. It sits there like a reminder, an old man whistling, rocking away on his front porch laughing at you as you drag back into town, saying "I knew you’d fall back into these small town parts again." I knew you’d fail because that’s who you are and what you do. He laughs and laughs.


I’ve been told many times, back when I still played sports competitively, that you have to imagine what winning is like before you actually go out and make it happen. It seems quixotic, detached from reality, and maybe that itself is a cynical thing to say. Then again, if you are no longer cynical then you are a better person than I.

I imagined what it would be like in 2004, and 2005, and then in 2006 when it seemed like the world was precariously balanced on the shoulder of Chad Henne and the brunt force of each hit from LaMarr Woodley, Alan Branch, and David Harris would be enough to shake the world into a dimension where Michigan won and every Ohio State week thereafter wouldn’t exclusively remind me of the fact that Bo had died and I remembered where I was when I heard it and how I felt and the deep-seated uneasiness that no matter what happened things would be off in that way that you wake up on certain days and know that it won’t be your day. No faculties of imagination could have done a thing that day. Of course, it is absurd to say that my imagination of victory has any bearing on the outcome, but if my imagination hold a certain weight of verisimilitude than one can only imagine what things would be floating around the player’s head. Each imagined outcome, it’s path to an end—an interception, a fumble pounced upon as if it was not a tangible thing but an embodiment of Fate, the looks on the faces of the enemy when they sensed the exact moment that the battle had been lost and retreat was an inevitability—bouncing gloriously and unseen, an opportunity caged and waited to be executed with passion and aggression and faith in the rightness of their doing. I imagined in 2007 too, and 2008 and 2009 and even 2010; wouldn’t it be great if we were the spoiler, the one to ruin another’s machinations? It wasn’t to be.

If 2011 has taught me anything, it’s that no dream is too far away, no imagined happening too far-fetched as long as you can dream it and mold it into an actionable concept. Who could have thought that the defense would turn into what it has seemingly overnight, as if Greg Mattison came on and fashioned an organized, quality unit out of thin air, a Mack truck of a defense from the dilapidated spare parts of a Prius. Who could’ve thought that Brady Hoke could have convinced so many to come to Michigan in spite of the pall of malaise seeping into every crevice and previously unoccupied corner of Ann Arbor like a malignant fog. Who would’ve thought that freshmen, walk-ons, and receivers that haven’t grown since before they were allowed to drive could come together and say to the world: this is what we are and that is more than enough.

Who would’ve thought? It came from somewhere.

Denard Robinson steps up and throws. He does not throw off of his back foot and the throw leaps powerfully from his arm, spiraling through the air as if it wishes to tunnel into the very heart of the last seven years and vanquish it.

Junior Hemingway remembers being hurt, remembers that this is the last time. He straps his gloves on and looks at his legs and understands that he will soar higher than anyone else on the field, that this, even if this isn’t true he will make it true on this day.

Martavious Odoms will remember that he is small, forget it, and play like he is the biggest player on the field out of spite. He will block without concern, without lamentations of time lost and an uncertain future and he will proceed like a British fellow building a bridge in a strange place, illogically and so in line with convention that it is extraordinary in its execution.

Mike Martin will remember what it was like to be a freshman. He will remember how he thought he was strong once; that, then, was nothing.

Darryl Stonum will watch, pining for redemption, needing it, helplessly but undeniably with a purpose. His time will come again.

David Molk will grimace with disdain and secretly, somewhere within him where things like joy resides in some underdeveloped shanty town, smile at the concept of a job well done, of a purpose and an action and an end and the trickle down effect of all these things. He will move like a chess piece; deliberately and calmly, with a quickness and precision that gives the opponent but a split second before realizing: oh.

Ryan Van Bergen will wonder where they all were until he realizes that they were always there, all around him. The people that mattered.

Brady Hoke will nod, stoic in his understanding. He doesn’t know more than you, he just knows the right things. Worry is obviated by the historical body of necessity. This is how things were meant to be, and so shall they be.

Defeat upon defeat accrues and congeals into a ghastly knowledge of a stark reality, a bitter medicine resting upon the tongue and in the throat waiting to be swallowed--a simple truth. It is the kind that sits within like a cancerous lump that can either be left or excised...your choice.

 It’s time to start anew. I’ll watch. It will be like breathing for the first time. I’ll wake up from it all and know that I was sleeping. I’ll look around and everything will be brand new.