Every offseason, the average college football fan will scan the rosters of his team's primary rivals and other conference foes. Who's coming back? Did anybody leave early? How many returning players have gameday experience? These are all, among many other things, the primary metrics for predicting a team's performance in the coming season.
Yet, beneath the numbers lies a resonating core, a central life force that gives everything else meaning and assurance and identity. By that, I of course mean seniors. The ones who have come to the end of the line, for whom there is nothing left to do but stare into the sun in spite of all who have told them not to do so.
For seniors, the month of August is a slow march toward a sequence of finalities: the last time to jump up and touch the banner; the last time singing The Victors with the student section under a melancholic Midwestern sky; the last time to, maybe, be able to share such a notion with such a community, one so grand that doing something for a last time refers to something other than literal death.
I have spoken and written of last year's seniors many times: Martin, Molk, Van Bergen, Huyge, Hemingway, Woolfolk, Heininger. They were last year's seniors, and when I think of Team 132, now or in the hazy distant future, I will think of these players. Each name inspires an almost ritualistic recitation of facts, and, more importantly, a story. It is my firm belief that college football is the greatest brand of sport there is because of these stories. These stories gain traction in the soil where legends are nurtured and cared for; the story, a seed, becomes a tree, a monument to its success, growing upward ceaselessly toward that sun looked at with eyes intense and inviolable.
On Sunday, Denard Xavier Robinson and Jordan David Kovacs were named the captains of Team 133. Could it have been any other way?
Each has a story, a narrative that tags along, a ghostly stenographer, taking notes for the eventual valediction. Kovacs emerged from Michigan's student body in 2009, a year after injuring his knee and not making the team. Kovacs started right away, and although things weren't perfect at first, nothing was then.
It is August 30, 2012. Jordan Kovacs is a captain, Michigan's best safety in many years, and a probable NFL draft pick (even if he wasn't, none of this would mean less). For the better part of three seasons, he has quietly served as Michigan's last line of defense. Kovacs has been the definition of persistence, a silent, shadowy Rectifier. If Michigan's secondary was Gotham run amok, Kovacs was its Batman. Last year's ironmen, Martin and Van Bergen, pass the torch to Kovacs, if they believed that such a torch existed to pass. It is a silent nod. The affirmation of the duty is unspoken, because you have seen what we have done.
Then there's Denard, the Floridian who nobody figured for a quarterback except for Rich Rodriguez, whom, through college football's classically wry sense of humor, made many Michigan partisans argue while delivering it its most endearing player in my lifetime. He was a quarterback that Michigan of a style Michigan had not seen since Bo roamed the sidelines. His career began with a burst, a play so definitive of Denard that, in retrospect, it is clear that that was the very moment that Denard burst into the endzone of our collective consciousness at light speed.
Many words have been written about Denard. Many more will be written, by me and certainly by scores of others. Still, the words themselves may never keep pace with Denard himself, just like every defender he has ever left in the dust. You finish writing a sentence and then Denard does something that makes you delete it all and reconsider your understanding of reality.
J.T. Floyd, a high school safety from South Carolina, somehow found his way to Ann Arbor, MI, where he has played corner. After being widely criticized in 2010, he emerged as quite possibly Michigan's most improved player last season. A class of 2008 recruit, he is the man to go to for a story that scraps the traditional elements of dramatic story-telling--exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement--in favor of a more modern telling. The classes of 2007 and 2008 are like the "Lost Generation", and their careers have been a fevered search for meaning. In this story, however, meaning has actually been found (at least the beginnings of it), and honest revival is not a ridiculous notion.
Will Campbell entered our ken with a parade in tow, revelers revelling and tossing streamers in his honor, streamers whose eventual lifeless presence on the dusty ground of that mental thoroughfare--the one through which the raucous parade once rambled on in our minds--is the only remaining indicator that the party ever happened. After a freshman season that probably shouldn't have happened and a sophomore year that saw him move to the offensive line for a brief time, things did not go according to plan. Campbell showed signs of his talent, in a manner wholly opposite in practice and theory than the manner in which Denard flashes his. Campbell, through a combination of size, power, and ability, takes college offensive lineman (i.e. very large human beings) and occasionally sends them floating through the air as if the offensive backfield is a gravity-free zone. He played well against Notre Dame, and we hope for more of that.
He also danced. We hope for more of that, too.
There are many more seniors of note (this is a large class), and that's what makes this class such an exciting one. Vincent Smith, the 5'6'' 175 tailback from Pahokee (a place which, in and of itself, says something and echoes), blocks with the tenacity of a wolverine punching far above its weight. This is the final season for two of Michigan's remaining trio of Pahokeeans. Smith, of course is one, Brandin Hawthorne the other. Once Richard Ash graduates, Michigan's connection with the town of Pahokee may summarily cease to exist except in memory.
Roy Roundtree came in a willowy wisp and will leave a willowy wisp, but not without one last chance to leave his mark. I would tell you that he aims to redeem himself after a tough 2011 season, but redemption in this context would probably be considered a selfish impulse:
It was Roundtree’s only catch of the day — not that he’s complaining.
"I'm a team player," he said. "I'll go out and put my hand in the dirt and block. I'm not really concerned about the ball. I'm a team player. That's why I'm here."
There are many more. Kenny Demens, Patrick Omameh, Ricky Barnum, and Craig Roh. Elliot Mealer, a redshirt senior whose career began with an unimaginable tragedy and the recovery from it. All of these players, these seniors, have their own stories. Chapters will be added, revised, scrapped, and reinserted as the 2012 season marches on. The page is never blank.
The 2012 class was a spectacular one. While I stood in the Superdome this past January and listened to Junior Hemingway's voice quaver as Chris Fowler interviewed him after the game, I wondered how any class could ever possibly hope to live up to that one. Yet, when I think about the purpose of senior leadership, I realize that it is of course a two-hearted impetus: 1) to motivate and coerce maximum effort and tactical meticulousness from teammates on gameday and 2) to set the foundation for the next group of seniors. It is the second point that lends credence to the notion that this class might be even more impressive than the last.
In a sense, this 2013 class, like Newton, will be standing on the shoulders of giants. Denard, Kovacs, Roh, Floyd, and all the other seniors have a challenging task ahead. There are questions unanswered, passages unwritten. Like a novelist, each senior class has its own particular stylistic bent. The 2012 class had its own eccentricities, its own morality, and its own set of problems to confront. Now, it is time to see where the voice of the 2013 class takes us. The crises, the decisions, the failings of leadership.
And the heights.