Sometime after the 2003 incarnation of The Game, I remember walking past a belligerent Ohio
State fan by Bell's Pizza on my way back to my house on Packard Avenue across from the weird laundromat/hardware store/hot-dog shop that sits on the very end of Arch Street. I can't really recall the specifics, but he was angrily belittling Michigan despite the outcome of the game. I believe a beer or a punch was thrown by Ohio-guy, who was easily pushed to the ground and subdued by a throng of Michigan Men enjoying the opportunity to righteously enact some minor harmless violence on a Buckeye mouth-breather. We were sick of the cockiness and undeserved arrogance that 2002 had brought to their already aggravating fan base. Until that win we had little to say in response. Now? We were back. Our fall from the mountain brief.
The cops came and it was broken up. We all laughed about how stupid a guy must be to initiate a fight with Michigan fans in Ann Arbor after The Game. Our sense of superiority - already mounting after the victory and the subsequent field-storming - grew ever larger. We were content. Order had been restored to the Michigan football universe after a national championship was delivered to Columbus the previous fall. We planned a trip to Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl that coming New Year's.
I recalled that moment this week for a number of reasons, not the least of which was my desire to feel connected somehow to the emotions that must be flowing through Ann Arbor right now. I couldn't recall whether I had joined the fray. I believe a handful of my friends had, and I somewhat often found myself needlessly entering frays in college and shortly thereafter. While this was partially due to some heightened sense of duty to my friends - although that usually was my (post-hoc) justification - I've always found that there's something inherently and undeniably thrilling about knocking someone down who deserves it. Also, blind rage. That doesn't suit my narrative though.
The familiar post-game story following Saturday's win has focused primarily on the seniors, and they deserve it. They fought through thick and thin. They undeniably dealt with more bullshit than any Michigan team in recent memory, and to be sent off on Senior Day with a win over Ohio is their well-earned, just reward.
But looking back on that Saturday in 2003, it got me thinking about Denard's journey to Saturday. How his climb to the top of the mountain was so much more arduous than it was for that 2003 team. How he must have felt knocking out the naysayers he knew were wrong all along, once for and all.
Let's go back to January 2011. Michigan had just been throttled not only by Ohio
State but by a middling SEC team that would return a majority of its starters and go 6-6 next year. Denard's head coach who had recruited him to Michigan to play quarterback was fired. Michigan's rivals openly mocked our fall from grace. A new pro-style sheriff was coming to town. Many questioned whether Denard should stay or go.
We've all heard the memes. Denard can't be successful in the Big Ten. Michigan is finished. Michigan needs to clean house and return to statues in the pocket, etc., etc.
Denard and his team had been the whipping boys of the media and the often less than classy opposition they call their rivals. They may not have attacked him - although in some instances they certainly did - but more importantly they were attacking Michigan and his Michigan family. Denard all along believed that their criticism was bullshit. He might not have Brady Hoke's background, but to Denard Robinson, "This is Michigan fergodsakes" is a saying that rings true and holds perhaps an even deeper meaning than it does to anyone else. After all, where but Michigan could his story have unfolded the way it did. Denard knew that they had something special. So Denard stayed.
Denard though, wasn't hell-bent on knocking his detractors down because "that would show them" or because "they deserved it". No, he's likely a much better person than I was. Denard's quest for a return to Michigan glory was undeniably driven by the duty he felt he owed to his teammates, his coaches and to this university. Denard would restore order to the universe. Denard would show the world what he could do, not to prove his doubters wrong, but so that these seniors could defiantly and proudly proclaim that Michigan never went anywhere. That these group of players don't care what anyone else says: this is Michigan and this group of players commands and deserves your respect.
So all Denard did was go out and play one of the single greatest games this rivalry has seen. Commanding an offense that heretofore this rivalry had maybe never seen. Beating back the undeservedly arrogant and smug naysayers, who for so long had relished his and his team's failures. This Saturday was not theirs. This Saturday was Denard's. This Saturday was Michigan's. Denard's turn to knock the weakened yet defiant challengers to the ground. For Michigan. For his teammates. He endured what we likely could not. He struck the blow that we definitively could not. For Michigan. For his teammates.
On November 26, 2011, order was restored to the Michigan football universe. We owe Denard a big thank you for that.