Monday, January 9, 2012

A Good Man Is Hard To Find

Michigan 23, Virginia Tech 20

Civil War and World War II historian Ed Bearss said that "You can't describe a battlefield unless you walk it." If you were to ask Hemingway, Van Bergen, Koger, Woolfolk, Martin, Odoms, and Molk, and all the others, to describe that battlefield, they'd give you a blank stare that wasn't so much blank as it was an attempt to recharge and think. David Molk stares off into the distance as Doug Karsch asks him something, rocked by the gravity of it all, knowing that Karsch knew he wasn't listening, and that the question could be asked again. He earned that much.

Jump in the shower tomorrow morning and make the water as hot as it can be, then turn it all the way back as if you planned to understand what plunging through an ice-fishing hole in Northern Michigan would feel like. What happens is your breath becomes labored and your heart pounds and you think you're in shock and then you have to just turn it off altogether. The back and forth of unadulterated sensation overwhelms. It takes a second to think, to recoup the moral courage to confront an inevitable end. The end of a career, a war, a struggle that became a philosophy that become a way of life.

Koger, Martin, Van Bergen, Woolfolk, Hemingway, Molk. In twenty years, these names won't be weighed against everyone that came before them and after them by the numbers. These names are impervious to numerical categorization. They're Kleenex and Coca Cola, brand names associated with something, synonymous. They are a name of something and that something itself.

Hemingway is not defined by 1,638 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is youthful exuberance, the willingness to take a chance. He left South Carolina and ended his career in New Orleans, telling Chris Fowler how Michigan had been through so much. Soooooooooo much he said, elongating the word like a child waking up on Christmas morning, emotional and excited and raw, uninhibited by irony or pessimism or the burdensome weight of everything. As a freshman, I remember him trotting onto the field against Eastern Michigan to block, the designated Lloyd Carr freshman blocking specialist. From my row 93 seats, he was #21 because that was all I could see. That 21, running from the sidelines to the huddle, for a brief few seconds entirely apart from the masses of sun-washed helmets on the sidelines to the line of scrimmage to tell Henne, Hart, and Long what the next play was. It was a running play, and Hemingway would block. This time, he catches a touchdown pass that would, on an ordinary day and under ordinary circumstances, be intercepted; he takes it to the end zone and looks around for someone, anyone, to share his surprise at getting that set of Legos he's always wanted.

Ryan Van Bergen is not an accumulation of sacks, of double teams stonewalled, and tackles for loss made. He is, was, will be, toughness personified. He spoke of an injury played through that seems like a thing that only happens in war.

I got stuck under a pile and my foot got bent down in an angle, so my foot was parallel with my shins, so that was an awkward angle. That was early in the game, and that was bothering me. I had a cut block actually fold it the other way. So I was just trying to battle it off.

That was an awkward angle, a mere mathematical misfortune. Each step precedes and follows a look of agony with an automatic and never-ending I have to firing in his brain somewhere that doesn't exist in you or I. It is a football player's child-birth; you can't ever know. You just can't.

Kevin Koger isn't a collage of spectacular catches and seeming under-use paired with frustrating drops on 5-yard drags. He watches Dragon Ball Z and wears funny hats and speaks with a subtle lisp that lingers through eternity. He reminds you that it's "Koger," not "Kroger," because he has been many times been mistaken for a generic grocery store and not a guy that forsook Ohio State in a time when it was not only taboo but perhaps unwise to do so. 

Troy Woolfolk isn't injuries or resurgence and decline in one succinct utterance. We knew his father. He got injured and then we realized that maybe he was a bigger deal than we thought. So much of his time was spent looking on from afar. Looking on; dutifully. On a crashing plane, he puts the oxygen mask over your mouth first before he helps himself. 

Mike Martin is not feats of Herculean strength or musculature that defies a number of UN resolutions. He wants to be an entrepreneur when he's done shedding blocks and leaving the field only when his body is physically incapable of allowing him to go on, and to that I say, businessmen of the world, good luck saying no to this man. He is a wrestler, a sport defined by not only tenacity and strength, yes, but subtle exertions of technical superiority. Lou Ferrigno does not talk like Mike Martin does. His presence in the middle of that line is an unspoken no, that you won't pass unless you plan to lose a lot in doing so. He was a Balrog and a monster and a leader when leadership meant nothing but grimly looking into a horizon of oncoming tanks kicking up dust and stomaching it. He was, is, will be, someone you want beside you when things come crashing down, begging to be built back up, to be told that it will be okay because I am here. 

Martavious Odoms isn't a small receiver that went into hiding after writing his Catcher In The Rye in 2008. He isn't a guy without an NFL future or an abundance of touchdowns or any of the things we think are meaningful but expire, eventually, like the things sitting in the back of the fridge behind the milk and the Chinese food and the stuff you tried to make the day you decided to change everything by starting to cook. He is another that was given a chance, and, in turn, took a chance. I came to Michigan not knowing how I would handle the cold or not knowing anybody despite having the chance to stay close to home. In a sense, I know how he feels like an astrophysicist knows how Neil Armstrong felt when he stepped on the Moon. Odoms is sandpaper, coarse and at times out of the picture, but through it you grind away until you get a smooth, clean surface. Then you put the sandpaper aside and admire what you have finished. Odoms is the final block, the unmentioned piece, the thing you don't notice until the job is nearly done, and even then you put it away awkwardly. Martavious Odoms is the slightly uneasy goodbye said between you and a friend after he drops you off at the airport at 6 in the morning. 

He is selfless and soft-spoken; you have to really listen to hear him, and not the kind of listening that we often do, the type that is mere osmosis by comparison. He was the child star that fades into obscurity for some time only to appear for one final, triumphant exertion of existence. He is the college kid that ventures far from home only to realize that maybe the world isn't as great of a place as we once thought when we were small, a world with three inexhaustible dimensions and endless possibilities obviating failure or disappointment or the ideal Maximum Potential of our lives that exists and speaks like a Kantian passage but combusts upon contact with real life in an explosion of chemical disillusionment. And yet, despite these things, he stayed, and that speaks louder than anything else. 

Most of all, he is a player I will miss. 

If he is lost in the shuffle then we are all lost in the shuffle. 

David Molk is not magnificently executed reach blocks and a consistency of production that is incongruous with the physical space he occupies. He is ornery and endearing and dismissive of you and your feelings and expectations. He lives in a world where there's a job to do and he does it. He lives in a world where you're struck down right before you can finish your magnum opus, which you then have to dictate to a friend while there's still time. 

He is quiet loss. He is, five, ten years from now, you or I. He wakes up at 6 in the morning and gets up to a barking dog and two little kids hanging from the sides of his legs on a Saturday morning. He is acerbic and bleary eyed and a little bit perturbed at the things people are saying. He pours his coffee and eats a breakfast of eggs and nails and turns on the television only to wonder what are those people doing? 


They are people in and of themselves. Yes, a part of a team, yes. They are surely that. They would assert that they are just that before they would say anything else, like their name or their favorite movie or the jersey number they wanted that Jon Falk wouldn't give them when they were 18. 

The game ended and I wasn't exactly sure what had happened. It was disjointed and a little bit horrifying in that Michigan did a lot of things that in years past would have yielded a different result. Michigan squeezed blood from the stone that was the 2011 season one more time, and in light of everything, to quibble over the particulars of the game is to cheapen it. We can worry about what it all means later; there will be plenty of time to do that between now and Michigan's next game in Dallas. 

Like life, however, it wasn't always pretty, and progress was far from linear or even ordered. After all, like in life, there are competitors, countless others trying to do the same exact thing you are, fighting against the same currents and hardships and doubts. 

What mattered is that Michigan won. The empty seats didn't matter. The yardage totals didn't matter. The fact that some people seem to think that it's okay to reject something that doesn't fit into their pathetic, warped worldview doesn't matter. Nothing matters except that the seniors, that Michigan, left the field victorious. 

As for the seniors, there is so much more to say. I haven't even talked about the rest of the team. Think about that. I haven't mentioned Denard Robinson, or Fitzgerald Toussaint, or Jordan Kovacs, or Blake Countess, or Jake Ryan, or Craig Roh, or Taylor Lewan, or any of the others that were a part of this. The day of their eulogies will come. Next year there will be another, new class of seniors, consisting of their own sum of stories, achievements, memories. And then there will be another. And another after them. And another. Think about that. 

I mean, really think about that. 


  1. Beautifully written. Definitely could not have said it better myself.

    Congrats seniors and Go Blue!

  2. Damn, brotha. Glad I kept this open as a tab for two days while trying to find time to read it. Well worth the wait.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. These seniors were truly tremendous.