Monday, June 4, 2012

Anatomy of a Play

History has its turning points, this much is self-evident. In life, we stumble through the days, unappreciative of the fact that our individual decisions--and the actions borne of those decisions--change the way that everything unfolds thereafter. Whatever your beliefs on the subject of Fate may be, the following is a crystallized absolute: something happens, and something else comes from that something, and, necessarily, something else that could have happened otherwise does not happen, nor do its descendant reactions. The latter, discarded drafts, are left to, as they say, the dustbin of history.

It was September 5th, 2009.

It was 7-0. Tate Forcier had driven Michigan down the field for an early score; the Big House was buzzing. In vintage Tate circa September 2009 fashion, he scrambled as he so often did, physically obfuscating and delaying until the moment in which he saw fit to point: Junior Hemingway was open down the sideline.

Imagine a funeral, and then imagine its antithesis.

The early September Michigan heat was a detail, beside the point, in the background. The heat wasn't meteorological or natural, it was atomic; the raw physics of unadulterated emotions crashing against each other, unseen and powerful, unleashing untold amounts of that feeling, happiness, which in its nascent construction is known as hope. The sun bore down, seemingly cauterizing the wounds that had been opened the year before.

Later on in the quarter, something happened. Legend became reality. The myth which we had been told for many months before--he's from Florida, you see, people whispered in exasperated, hushed tones, as if it was a secret so great that its obvious meaning merited its telling with restraint--was no myth, but a man.

Denard Robinson, who was the avatar of the Rich Rodriguez's offensive raison d'etre even before it had all gone down, stepped onto the field.

A bell, when struck to indicate the hour or some spectacular happening, rings. After some time, its reverberation weakens, and the sound recedes into the time-space of the recent past. Slowly but surely, it rings and rings, each passing moment becoming less and less and less, only to eventually and somewhat abruptly stop, the molecules of its genesis resigned to staticity.

Hemingway scored, and the bell was rung. The roar was unimaginable; cathartic, even. In a moment of physical improbability, the ringing did not decline, and when Denard stepped onto the field, it only surged. The bell hadn't been rung again, and so it seemed that such a curious happening was a harbinger.

Michigan took the field in the shotgun formation. Denard Robinson's first play--the preface, the rising action, the climax, and the denouement--was one moment of aesthetic and philosophical achievement. In retrospect, its consideration invokes the past perfect, a recollection of a singular action at a singular junction in history: hemos visto el futuro.

Nobody could have predicted what came next. The sun continued to bear down on everything, and all the while the crowd began to sense, not know, but sense. Nobody could have known, after all. It was, in a way, a perfect summation of life.

Life as we know it is a probing venture, fraught with pitfalls and mistakes and non-linear progression against the backwind yielded by the present's ceaseless advancement into the future. Its parts are incongruous. It often goes wrong. It usually proceeds without a plan, no matter how hard we try to impose upon it the notion of premeditation (a folly, really).

The crowd waited, practically aching for something to happen. The great mass of 109,000 people focused their collective 218,000 eyes--give or take--on one spot. Sight lines converged like so many lasers on the Western Michigan 48 yard line, their trajectories bent under the weight of expectation. Denard took the snap, and dropped it: oooh. 

He picked it up and looked, spurred on by the nearly instantaneous reactions of the adrenal glands, which worked in order to signal go go go go go go go. For us, this works when we are about to knock a cup of coffee off of our desk, catching it right before it falls over the precipice into the valley of Commonplace Disaster. For Denard, this mainstay of our physiology means something else entirely.

Denard picked it up and reacted in the way that only he could. People have created neologisms like "Kafkaesque" and "Nabokovian," and I would argue that "Denardian," if it hasn't already, should enter the English lexicon. He ran right, probing that side for an opening, for something. Well, maybe I should take this liberal arts degree and apply for law school okay great let's do that first let's take the LSAT and then OH GOD NO NO NO NO NO ABORT FOR GOODNESS SAKES ABORT. 
No. No, that's not it at all. You make a mistake and it becomes apparent in the moment of its making. I shouldn't have done that, but what is there to do? Are some actions and their consequences irrevocable, doomed to doom us? There must be a way to fix this. There must be a way to undo what has been done, to take this tabula rasa that has been afforded us and to write the next line of this history which we are, partly, casting in the roiling deep of history.

An opening, a chance. Or, what appears to be one. Maybe taking some time "off" wouldn't be such a bad thing nobody would fault me for it oh who needs law school anyway but here I am and I suppose that I might as well do something shouldn't I yes I should and I believe that I will. 

Broken plays are very dangerous. A man without a plan strikes at that which the man with a plan cannot even see or imagine. Denard left the past in the past, obviating the future by becoming the future: touchdown.


The body of witnesses formed a rollicking crescendo, a feedback loop of wow and did you see and wow. It was six points, yes, but it was so much more. There are turning points in history, in football, that are self-contained. When I said that this was the past perfect, a moment contained in hardened amber--we have seen, we have witnessed, we have been--I was partly right and partly wrong, because the moment was marked, in truth, by duality. It was surely a moment in and of itself, but it was also something else. We were seeing, and witnessing, and being. The moment, like an excitable subatomic particle, could not be held in place. It spilled over and over, conquering the vast fields of Midwestern memory-space that exist in each of us, waiting to be claimed.

That play, the first play, lingers on. Each play that Denard made thereafter, and each play he will make in 2012, is a subtle nod to that original antecedent. Even today, we are still, in a way, experiencing it. It is the present, and the past perfect, and the past imperfect. It was the beginning of something, a something which became its continuation and its current state.

The unfortunate cruelty of it all is that all of this, in one way, must end. After this season, Denard will graduate, and he will no longer wear the winged helmet in the Big House, the venue in which his atypically typical actions have escaped traditional notions of time and space. The play took place on September 5th of 2009, but saying it this way strips it of its meaning. It happened in a specific time and a specific place and a specific atmosphere with specific circumstances, a multi-veined convergence which will never be replicated for as long as this world continues to exist. It is an idea rarer and more worthy of praise than any championship or trophy or accolade. It is important to remember that, in spite of all the college football topics of the day, this is in fact what it is "all about." To see history--not just happenings, but history--and to recognize when things are happening because to recognize is to canonize is to understand.

Denard's first touchdown was the beginning of everything that came after it, and those of us who saw it unfold--whether in the heated, exalted Big House or elsewhere--knew without knowing that something was happening. Even after this chapter of constant wonder and amazement is over, the moment and what it was live on. The past makes the present and the future, but, in reality, they are all one and the same.


  1. I remember watching this game with my family at the lake (it was the first year without season tickets for us) and even though they knew most of the buzz about Forcier and the maybe-not-terrible hopefulness w.r.t. the quarterback position, they didn't really know about Denard. It was the first I'd seen of him too -- at the college level at least -- and I was extremely intrigued by this run-first athlete who appeared to be a "hey maybe this guy can play quarterback" player in the mold of Pat White. We, those who knew about Denard in the midst of all of the fawning over Tate, knew he'd be exciting, but we couldn't have known what would happen when Mike Patrick found the notecard with a brief anecdote about this "Shoelace" as Denard stepped onto the field for his first play. We couldn't have guessed what would happen in the subsequent three seasons either. Thank you for bringing back that memory so eloquently and F&%@ the thought that we'll only have 13 or 14 games of Denard left.

    Truly one of the most memorable plays in Michigan history for me, at least, if only as a harbinger of the excitment to come.

  2.'s really hard to believe that this is his last season. I was a junior in '09 and I remember thinking how awesome the next four years with Denard were going to be.

    It wasn't the best or most important play in Michigan history, but I don't think that I've ever experienced anything like it in the Big House. The way that he just accelerated and left everybody in the dust...nobody was expecting that, and we all knew from his high school hype that he was fast. It was definitely one of my favorite moments in the Big House as an undergrad.