Saturday, December 29, 2007

Everything changes on New Year's Day

Tomorrow I will fly out of Newark airport and travel to a city I don't want to visit in order to watch a team that won't exist this time next week.

I flew to Ann Arbor in September and watched Michigan lose 39-7 to Oregon. I flew to Ann Arbor in November and watched Michigan lose 14-3 to Ohio State.

Physically, the Ohio State game was one of my most miserable experiences as an adult. This was my own fault. Before we left for the game, I could have opted, like everyone else, to wear a jacket or buy a poncho. No. If it was going to be an afternoon of cold rain, I wanted to feel cold rain. I wanted to hurt. Win or lose, the pain would heighten my experience. And it did.

Now I'll go to Orlando. Fuck knows what the score is going to be on Tuesday afternoon. I don't expect Michigan to win. It could happen, I guess. For the appalling, unjustified, infuriating contempt that this program endured in 2007, New Year's Day promises to be the first time that Mike Hart and Chad Henne will actually be healthy for an entire game. This is a cause for joy and sadness.

I've wanted to write about Mike Hart all season, but I still don't know how to do it. Even now, I'm at risk of falling into a mess of hyperbole. At some point in his career, Mike Hart became Michigan. The New York Times ran a lengthy profile on him this fall. Friends and I traded some astonished e-mails about this guy, who we already loved so much. He'd done enough on the field to embody everything that we hold dear about the program -- its stubborn pride, its consistency, its scrap and resilience -- and then late in his career we realized that there was this fully formed person behind it all. Mike Hart is a guy who embraced the university and ingratiated himself to everything from the Indian Students Association to the school's Dance Marathon. He invested himself in the life of the school in ways that had nothing to do with football. The guy wasn't just a football player anymore, but one of us.

Hart talks about Michigan with the kind of intensity and ferocity that's familiar: It's the kind of bizarre enthusiasm that Michigan spurs in some people. Not all of its students and alumni, but a wonderfully wound-up minority. A couple years ago I went to Stuyvesant High School to recruit Michigan applicants and could not shut up about the school. (This is not unique to Michigan. I know Duke grads and Dartmouth grads who act the same way about their schools, which is why if through a horrible accident I someday procreate, the kid can only go to Dartmouth, Duke or Michigan.) Hart tapped into this weird collective unconscious of the University of Michigan.

An Auburn fan who visited Michigan Stadium this fall observed the following:
I spent the first part of last Saturday at the Big House watching Michigan blast hapless Purdue, and one of the things you can't help but notice is just how much Wolverine fans care about Mike Hart. Whether it's the endless stream of "20" jerseys, Hart t-shirts, the cries of joy when he spun off the back of a defender and scored on what appeared to be a lost play, the cries of anguish when he left the game with a limp and appeared on the JumboTron grimacing as his ankle got the once-over.

. . . I know as an SEC fan I'm supposed to never admit envying anything about a Big 10 program under any circumstances, but yeah, I was jealous.
It seems like Hart and Henne have been there forever. Before them there were John Navarre and Chris Perry. Perhaps unfairly, Navarre was never loved. Five years ago, if you asked me to name my favorite Michigan player, I immediately would have responded with Perry, but then came Hart, and Perry was just a memory. Someday Hart will just be a memory, too. Sunday Morning Quarterback described Hart and Henne's rise at Michigan thusly:
... I can't say I necessarily remember any of those players as freshmen, not very well, not like Henne and Hart, who were almost instantly ubiquitous; none of them so quickly became the face(s) of one of the most high profile programs in the country, and none of them succeeded so spectacularly out of the gate: behind the freshman stars, the 2004 Wolverines won the Big Ten and came within a few seconds and one point of outduelling Vince Young in the Rose Bowl, where Henne threw for four touchdowns.

Michigan has played that well since (virtually the entirety of 2006) and returned to the Rose Bowl - consider: Henne has thrown a school record 84 touchdown passes, and since his first start against San Diego State, Hart has topped 90 yards in 31 of 35 games in which he's logged at least 15 carries, including every single game he's played over the last two regular seasons; he is so so slow in the open field, but there is no contemporary parallel for that level of consistency from a running back. Michigan is 36-13 in games at least one of them starts and has scored at least 17 in 45 of those games, etc. Imagine Michigan fans, following these two faces more than any others on a weekly basis for three months over four years, in the end spending the better part of a full cumulative year of their lives watching Henne and Hart grow, praying to false gods and any powerful entity who might conceivably hold vigil over their injuries, and finishing each season more and more disappointed.
Elsewhere SMQB observed that " I'm not allowed to love Mike Hart the way Michigan fans love Mike Hart, the kind of love that isn't possible ..."

And then next Wednesday morning I'll wake up in a hotel room in Orlando and get ready to leave for the airport. Win or (much more likely) lose, it will not be a good morning. Hart will be gone. Chad Henne will be gone. Henne, like Lloyd Carr, has been the target of anger that he never deserved. During the Oregon game he went out with one of the many injuries sent from Zeus' lightningbolts. Freshman Ryan Mallett was his substitute. I don't know if I've hated Michigan fans any more than I did on that day, when the crowd booed Henne and cheered as Mallett took the field.

Henne does not speak out like Hart; he is not a cinderblock like Jake Long. He was not elected a captain of this team. He has merely been consistent and quiet, performing Herculean tasks when called upon, achieving things as a freshman that no Big Ten quarterback aside from Troy Smith has done during his tenure. Then he got hurt; for this, he is regarded in some circles as a disappointment. He deserved better from us. As eloquently observed in November:

It is over for Chad, the quarterback who told us this didn’t feel like the same team from last year, and then came back from a torn knee ligament to remind us what it looked like. The one who separated his shoulder against Illinois, left for a half, then came back a little later and won the game for us. And afterward, he described his shoulder constantly clicking in and out, with an ambivalent face and tone of voice, as if it were a canker sore his front teeth kept accidentally rubbing up against, and not every reason we know he exists. We had never felt the pain he felt, we knew only that it was more than we could handle, and that it was best left to be endured by men like him.

The man who tripped over a goal post after defeating Michigan State (when he went 10-13, and threw for 129 yards and 2TD in his final two drives), and consciously fell flat on his face because he knew his shoulder had to be saved for answering our prayers. It is over for that man.

On January 2, Lloyd Carr will be gone. I'm not at a point where I'm going to write his coda. If K.C. Lopata had played on September 1, 2007 instead of Jason Gingell, and maybe even if Sean Crable and his overeager helmet weren't penalized in November 2006, the first draft of history regarding his tenure would be different. And that's fine. Like Hyman Roth, this is the life he has chosen. Like Mike Gundy, he's a grown man -- he can take it. The small margins aren't an excuse. A loss is a loss, teams lose close games, and that's sports.

As disappointing as this season has been, and as unpleasant as I expect the team's performance against Florida to be, in a weird way 2007 has been a testament. Michigan was humiliated in its first two games, but the team never fell apart. Starting out that way, other teams would become defunct. If you told us on September 8 that Michigan would finish the year 8-4 and play Florida on New Year's Day, despite Hart and Henne spending the season defined by terms like "high ankle sprain," "dislocation" and "torn ligament," we would have been overjoyed. The knee-jerk line of ignorant Michigan fan -- that the program does so little with so much talent -- was flat off this year. With its plague of injuries and green defense, this team may have actually outperformed. It might have become South Carolina; it might have become Notre Dame. People sit around with bottles of beer and flatscreens and bitch like these games are about X's and O's and can be won just like on PS2, when there are matters of motivation, training and cohesion that those of us on the outside know literally nothing about. Charlie Weis proved that.

Still, it's been a miserable season. When I've written about football this fall, it really hasn't been about football, just excerpts from Dante or ee cummings and the occasional written purge of pure pain. If I were doing that poetry shit tonight, this post would've started with Dante Gabriel Rosetti. This bowl trip is not joyful, and I care about the result less than other Michigan games. I'm going to Orlando because I want to be there for the last time that Carr, Hart and Henne are on the field, while the program still means something more to the school and its fans than a jerry-rigged offensive scheme and the arbitrary zeitgeist dictated by ESPN and half-wits with blogs.

Really, I don't dislike Rich Rodriguez, but amid the excitement of his announcement, I don't think many of us have thought about what it's going to be like when we walk into Michigan Stadium next fall and see the previous 40 years discarded. A house that needed a fresh coat of paint and a new roof is going to be absolutely gutted. It might turn out just fine, but I think the premise is hard to dispute. Some people have been screaming for that; maybe they're right. These people would have given us a program that never would have recruited Hart and Henne.


double entendre said...

Great post. Have fun at the game. Go Blue!

dmbmeg said...

I'll be cheering for your boys and looking for you on the teevee.

VerbalD said...

i concur re: henne. I think michigan quarterbacks are often subject to unnecessary week-by-week criticism that often completely takes away from their overall performance. (at least it's seemed that way to me since i can remember) I too, was there for that oregon game, with a friend that had never visited michigan stadium. I was ashamed to have him hear the boos.

But more importantly, i wish i were there in florida to watch the changing of the guards. I'm legitimately scared for the future, because the intangibles that make michigan an amazing school may be let go. I'm proud to be a member of the minority that you describe, and I hope that we don't end up silenced and dismissed.