If the GIFs are slowing down your browser, hit 'escape' on any browser except Chrome to stop animation. If you are using Chrome, I highly recommend adding the extension "GIF Scrubber" to have video-like control over each GIF.
Denard Robinson's introduction as something more than a lightning-fast curiosity came in Michigan's 2010 opener against UConn. Fittingly, the game marked the unveiling of the Michigan Stadium luxury boxes, a new attendance record, and the completion of Brock Mealer's journey from paralysis to walking out and touching the banner. It's an easy argument to make that this game represented the high water mark of the Rich Rodriguez era, a moment when anything and everything seemed within the realm of possibility.
The Big House was gaudier, a man had gone from never walking again to walking again, the much-maligned defense shut down the Huskies, and Denard ... well, a Michigan quarterback record of 197 rushing yards is what we remember most, and he also completed 19/22 passes for 186 yards and a score. Rodriguez introduced the first iteration of the Worst Waldo play...
...and when it looked like UConn finally might be able to slow down Denard, he used their eagerness to finally lay a finger on the guy against them:
Michigan raced out to a 21-0 lead within the first 21 minutes of the opening kickoff, then cruised to a 30-10 victory. Denard became an overnight sensation. A fanbase beaten down by 3- and 5-win seasons the previous two years had reason to think that perhaps this could work out after all. Most of this optimism stemmed from Denard, of course, who helped matters by being one of the most eminently likable athletes to ever step on campus.
This summer, I went back through Denard's career and made a whole bunch of GIFs, with full intention of writing up an ode to the man who—often single-handedly—dragged the Wolverines from the depths of 3-8 and put them in a position to succeed in his three years as a starter and beyond. Like Brian with his HTTV article, I sat down and just couldn't go through with it.
I think I'm ready now. Hit the jump for a GIF retrospective on the career of one Denard Robinson.
Click on the stills/links to open each GIF in a lightbox. I didn't do this for every GIF; again, hit 'escape' to stop animation on those.
I'm not going to attempt to rank these, as I imagine picking a favorite Denard moment is akin to choosing a favorite child. Watching Denard play football was unlike any experience I've ever had as a sports fan; I've heard fans compare the excitement he produced simply by having the ball in his hands to watching Anthony Carter—the difference, of course, is that Carter touched the ball 338 times in 48 career games, while Denard had the ball in his hands on every snap, finishing his career with 747 passes, 723 rushes, and even three receptions.
There's only one place to start, of course, and that's with Denard's first career carry, when he turned a broken play into a jaw-dropping spectacle:
Robinson was used sparingly—clearly unready to step in and play quarterback immediately—for the rest of his freshman season; we had seen a glimpse of the future, though, and it dazzled in its brightness.
If Denard's first start wasn't enough to convince fans that they had something special taking snaps, a school record 502 yards of total offense the next week at Notre Dame did the trick. That included the longest run in Notre Dame Stadium history, when he revealed that tackling angles simply do not apply to him:
Denard also completed one of the more unlikely passes I've ever seen:
The threat of his legs made this one a whole lot easier; we'd see this many times throughout his career, to the point that I'll most remember Roy Roundtree for being the main beneficiary of not having a defender within 20 yards of him:
Three steps. That's all it took to make a receiver as open as you're ever going to see.
Oh, and then Denard ran in for the game-winner, dropping to a knee in the end zone, as thankful as we all were.
Two weeks later, Denard measured once, cut twice, and turned it into a Sportscenter moment:
He once juked an Indiana safety so badly that it was embarrassing even by Indiana football standards. We won't discuss the rest of the 2010 season, because that is the territory of GERG and stuffed beavers and a team that no longer could play 100% for their coach, and this isn't about that.
This is about Denard. If Notre Dame fans thought they'd seen the worst of it, they were in for a rude awakening—at night, ironically—in 2011, when Michigan's magical quarterback shined brighter than the new stadium lights. With his team down 24-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Denard bailed out Stephen Hopkins to make it a game:
He was the first to trust Jeremy Gallon's rocket boots, throwing him the first of two pinpoint back-shoulder fades. Then, with the game on the line, he escaped the pocket and found a cloaked Gallon all alone in the secondary, hitting him in stride while throwing on the run across his body:
The very next play, well, you surely remember:
When Chris Fowler told Denard of his absurd stat-line, he couldn't believe his ears; the game was over, but its reality had not set in:
Denard capped his junior season with Michigan's first win over Ohio State since 2003, dashing past their defense for the team's first score...
...then running nearly as fast to his fellow students as the final seconds ticked off the clock:
While Al Borges and Denard struggled to find a cohesive way to effectively run the offense during those final two seasons, Denard's smile never dimmed, even when his career as a quarterback was effectively ended by an elbow injury; along the way, he continued to provide moments of athletic genius. Just ask Tanner Miller.
Or Ohio State's secondary.
As a football player, Denard was a once-in-a-generation talent, capable of doing things we've never seen as Michigan fans, or even fans of college football as a whole—he holds the NCAA career mark for all divisions in quarterback rushing yards, has the most 200/200 games of any FBS player in history, and recorded the only 1500/1500 season in NCAA history in 2010. As an ambassador for the school and the game, he was just as remarkable. He stayed at Michigan when the coach who recruited him—one of the few to trust him as a quarterback, not just an athlete—was unceremoniously fired, then spent his final years at Michigan showing up to athletic event after athletic event. Denard and Treezy dancing to "I Can't Turn You Loose" is as indelible an image as any left by those two, and that's saying something:
I don't even remember which game this is from; it doesn't matter, really, as the pure joy on his face makes the context irrelevant:
He showed just as much enthusiasm supporting his teammates, even when circumstances gave him every excuse to sulk—something we'd seen from his immediate predecessor.
I could go on (and on and on), but I think the point is clear. Even as the program continues to improve, I still miss seeing Denard in the winged helmet, and I don't foresee a time when that won't be the case. As a quarterback, a pure athlete, a fan, and a person, Denard made it fun to follow a team that, in almost every other regard, wasn't remotely fun to follow. That he sometimes seems more appreciated by non-Michigan fans, who focus on his best moments, than those who support the Wolverines, who focus on his shortcomings (and yes, there were shortcomings) fills me with a mixture of sadness and anger; one look at any of the above, however, and that all goes away, replaced with the memories of the joy that one man, his untied shoes, his incredible speed, and his ever-present smile gave me.