I didn’t know my childhood had come to an end that day in early January, 2000. I was 16 and despite this unfortunate fact, still believed in the Buffalo Bills. Rob Johnson, for all his faults, had just led a gutty drive for the go ahead field goal. He ran the last two plays with one shoe, his heavily taped foot coming undone in the grass of the Adelphia Coliseum. This was, I believed, a hero. I didn’t realize it at the time but when Frank Wycheck rumbled upfield, looked across and threw a lateral to Kevin Dyson running free down the sideline, and I sat on my couch, not able to speak or breath, I stopped believing.
Every so often, a moment happens that is so crisp and poignant that it seems cut from its place in time with an Exacto knife, and it comes to stand for the end or the beginning of something larger than itself. Of course, we almost never see things for what they are the precise moment they happen, never know what will cut through the shades and hazes of the past to stay with us, brighter than when the thing first occurred. No. Despite all this talk of beginnings and ends hastening into sharp focus, it takes time to find what will come to stand for something and what we’ll lose.
That is, despite everything, context is important. This Saturday, Denard Robinson ran through arm tackles and past defensive backs; he threw slants and hooks and screens with such velocity that the completion of these passes seemed preordained; finally, he marshaled the team 72 yards down the field, and when he scored took a knee, handed the ball to the referee and trotted off the field. But you knew all this already.
He was not perfect. But I think I’ll remember that he was. You see, I came to Michigan football late, during the last crescendo of the empire. When I saw my first game, M v Notre Dame in 2006, I thought that this was how it would always be: defenders imposing their will, green space to run through, adults masquerading as youth. By the time that year ended, I was in Columbus, my hands on my head, wanting my team to win a football game so badly it hurt for the first time since I was 16.
I was not yet in love with Michigan football. That would come later, with the arrival of the coach from West Virginia, the outsider who promised so much new for a program that seemed in desperate need of change. And even though they lost, that first team, the one that I hold in my mind at least, fought for everything they got. And even though what they won wasn’t much: self respect sometimes, the right to say, “I was there and I held as long as any man could be expected to hold”, I could tell that I would always root for the teams this coach put on the field. Gone were the men masquerading as youths. Gone were the last perfections of the dying empire.
And onto this field trots Denard Robinson who is not a god. All this feels new, and in weeks or months or years may not mean anything at all to the world. It certainly won’t mean much to most of them. I’m not sure what Saturday will become to me years from now. But for this particular moment Denard Robinson has resurrected something within me. He is, I believe, and I think not for the last time, a hero. I think it was grey in Tennessee that January afternoon. But that was a long time ago and I can’t quite be sure