Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Requiem: Mike Hart.

Mike Hart
Running Back, 5'10, 175
Rivals: 3 stars, #6 all-purpose back
Scout: 3 stars, #18 running back
Committed to Michigan - July 8th, 2003

The closest I've come to meeting a Michigan football player was at the 2004 Northwestern game. Before the stadium was full, I was down near the field watching the players warm up. I caught a glimpse of the receivers, so I shuffled over so I could get within shouting distance. Once there, I shouted, "YOU'RE THE MAN, BRAYLON!", and I got a half head turn and a slight raise of a finger to the sky in acknowledgment. I was happy. Looking back four years, I only have one regret about the exchange.

It wasn't with Mike Hart.

There's a little Mike Hart in all of us. We're all told we can't do things, that certain things are unattainable for common folk like us. And it's the Mike Hart in us that challenges our souls. It dares us to prove everyone wrong. Most people call this human nature, the urge to do what others deem undoable. I call this trait "Mike Hart." When I think of things I've been told I cannot do, I think, if Mike Hart can become only the 4th player in Big Ten history to rush for 5000 yards, how can I think that such trivial tasks are impossible?

Normally, 5'10, 175-pound running backs run 4.3 40s and are thought of as scatbacks capable of scoring 80 yard touchdowns. Not Mike Hart. Nobody will ever mistake Mike Hart for Noel Devine. Most coaches and fans wouldn't tolerate a diminutive back that would always get caught from behind.

Go around and ask any Michigan fan, if Mike Hart needed a kidney, would they give it to him?

People would be fighting to get to the front of the line.

Why? Because no player in recent history has ever epitomized Michigan more than Mike Hart. After David Underwood's injury early in 2004, a pint-sized guy named Hart got his shot at running back against San Diego State. The result: 25 carries, 121 yards. Not eye popping. Nothing that would get the lead story on SportsCenter. Just...workman-like. Just...Michigan.

From there, 99 yards against Iowa. 79 yards at Indiana. And after that, #20 gave us a glimpse of what the next four years would be like. 160 yards against Minnesota. 234 at Illinois. 206 at Purdue. 224 against Michigan State. 151 in that game against Northwestern. Ohio State and Texas slowed him down, but Michigan fans were entranced. 1455 yards and 9 touchdowns for a freshman running back without blazing speed.

In Michigan circles, 2005 is known as the Year of Infinite Pain. Even with recent humiliations, like Ohio State owning us or Appalachian State, Michigan fans will still cringe when asked to discuss 2005. And as much as it hurts us, as much as it haunts us, I think it ate away at Mike Hart more than any of us. Could there be any fate more cruel than missing the vast majority of seven games while your teammates endured the worst season in 20 years? Hart missed all of the Eastern Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana games. He left after three carries against Notre Dame, reaggravated his injury after five carries against Iowa, and was limited by both injury and smothering defense against Ohio State.

What a despicable black mark on the football gods, robbing Mike Hart of any substantial play against Ohio State in either of the home games against them in his career. 27 carries, 59 yards in two home games against OSU, both marred by injury, both marred by poor line play, both ruined by defeat. I toss and turn sometimes at night, thinking that there can't be any justice in this world when someone like Hart goes 0-for-Ohio State.

We remember Hart as a hero. We remember him as the leader of the resurgence in 2006, the face of the pack of men determined to regain their pride. When the blowout in South Bend ended and Henne took a knee and was done holding the football up to present to the Irish faithful as a symbol of their destruction, there was Hart, bounding off the sidelines and leaping into the arms of his quarterback. Finally.
It didn't stop there. Hart and the defense carried the burden of 2005 with them all through 2006, and it showed on the field. As if he hadn't done enough, Hart won us with his vision. Like a seer, he saw the holes in the zone blocking scheme, and he always made the first man miss, often times the second, too.

We all know things ended badly. We all know Michigan lost the 1 v. 2 game in Columbus. I have not watched any part of that game since it was played, and I never will, but I believe one thing. With his performance on the field that day, a day after Bo died, Bo's spirit lived on inside of Mike Hart. For nearly 40 years, Bo was Michigan football. If it is at all possible for that spirit to be passed to a player, Mike Hart is that player. There was never anything more Michigan than the moment when Hart planted the Ohio State defender on his ass as he charged into the endzone.

After the game ended and Ohio State had 42 points to our 39, we raged. We swore. We cried. We swallowed another bitter pill of resentment. I'm sure Mike did all those things too, except he got a microphone put in front of him, and he swore up and down that if given another chance, Michigan would beat the Buckeyes. He wasn't grandstanding. He wasn't appealing to voters to give them another shot. He was doing what he does best - he was speaking from his soul, saying what he believed to be true.

Hart never got that second chance. His final shot at Ohio State was doomed from the start. Would things have been different if Henne was remotely healthy? Would they have been different if the weather was better? Would Michigan have had a chance in that case, even with the offensive line getting destroyed? I like to think so, only because it helps me sleep at night.

I remember watching video of Mike at Big Ten media day before the 2007 season. His air of superiority was there, like it had always been in some form or another. The media wasn't asking questions about him being pegged as Preseason Player of the Year. They were asking about Jim Harbaugh, whom Hart had thrown under the bus for comments made about Michigan allegedly steering its athletes toward easier classes. When Lloyd was asked about Harbaugh's comments, he had to be diplomatic; he couldn't come out and call Harbaugh an asshole. I could tell he wanted to, but he couldn't. Mike didn't have such restrictions on him. So he let it fly, to the effect of stripping Harbaugh of his "Michigan Man" status and claiming to be embarrassed to be from the same school as Harbaugh.

That bravado, that spirit...two weeks into the season, you would think it would've been zapped. The fiasco that was Appalachian State and the debacle that was Oregon could've broken the spirit of a man. What did Mike Hart do? He declared that he wouldn't want to be on any other team in the nation than the one he was on, and he guaranteed a win over Notre Dame. And then he went out there and backed it up.
2007 was unfair, on so many levels. It wasn't supposed to go the way it did. The unspeakable disaster that started the season was bad enough. And then, with only so much left to be salvaged from a season gone terribly, terribly wrong, Mike's Heisman chances had to be ended by an unfortunate ankle sprain against Purdue. Through that point, the first seven games, Hart had run for 188, 127, 187, 153, 106, 215, and 102 yards, with 12 touchdowns. Outside of 18 ineffective carries against Ohio State, Hart's regular season was over after the Purdue game - except for the game in East Lansing.

I'm not sure Mark Dantonio knew what he was getting himself into. The popular thing on the internet is for anonymous idiots to dismiss "bulletin board" material as an overrated tactic. ORLY? Tell that to Bill Belichick. He's won three Super Bowls using the other team's signals motivating his players by telling them everyone thinks they aren't good enough. Bulletin board material is a tangible factor, and Dantonio's childish comment about sarcastically asking for a "moment of silence" after Michigan's loss to Appalachian State did not go unnoticed in Ann Arbor. It's no coincidence that Sparty hasn't beaten Michigan since stealing the 2001 game; Lloyd never forgot. And it's no coincidence that the MSU game was the one game Mike and Chad played through; they never forgot what Dantonio said. Even then, Mike's ankle was too mangled to go the whole way, and he had to spend most of the second half on the sideline, his final play being his heroic recovery of Mallett's fumble. And after the game, Hart decided to put Dantonio in his place, saying what no Michigan player or coach had ever had the balls to say, but every fan had wanted to: MSU, you are Michigan's little brother. Now sit in the corner.

Like everyone else, Mike went out with a bang in the Capital One Bowl against Florida to the tune of 129 yards and two touchdowns. Of course, it could've been four touchdowns. Seriously, was there any doubt that the football gods have some kind of grudge against Michigan when Hart fumbled twice? He fumbles in the fourth game of his freshman year, doesn't lose another for his entire career until he loses TWO inside the five yard line in his final game? There is no god!

But all's well that ends well, or so they say. And when it was over, there was a victory, and Mike helped lead Jake in the most emotional singing of The Victors this side of 1997.

Pete Townshend once wrote and Roger Daltrey once sang that no one knows what it's like to be the sad man. That's not true. When I think about Mike Hart, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, I get sad. Sad that in two trips to the Rose Bowl, Mike didn't win. Sad that in four games against Ohio State, Hart left the field each time on the losing end. Sad that Hart had to deal with the Appalachian State fiasco. Sad that Hart had to watch for much of 2005. Sad that while Michigan football endured body blow after body blow from all angles, Hart was doing what he did best - holding the whole thing up on his shoulders. No one in the history of mankind will ever be more aptly named than Mike Hart. Perhaps it was fate that such a man was delivered to us. Perhaps it was destined to be this way. Perhaps some higher power decided it to be so that a 5'10 (and that's generous) running back that didn't know what the word "quit" meant would become the face of our program for four years, and would win the hearts of every Wolverine fan. Perhaps it was cruelly supposed to happen the way it did, that Hart was supposed to be a tragic hero for the death throes of the Carr era.

I don't know. I just know that I love the guy for what he's done, and now it's over.

So the next time you're up against it, the next time you feel like you're facing a challenge that can't be conquered, I want you to think of Mike Hart. I want you to think of Mike Hart dragging a linebacker, or slipping through the pile for a first down, or rolling over a Purdue defender and suddenly springing to his feet for a touchdown, or leaping over the mass of humanity into Notre Dame Stadium's endzone, or finding a way to not touch the ground while contorting his body into the endzone against Michigan State.

The next time someone says you can't, I want you to think about how Mike Hart could, and did.

Five years to the day of Mike committing to play football for Michigan, I bid him adieu.

Good night, sweet prince. There will never be another like you.


Rudy said...

Excellent work on Mike Hart. I loved his MSU comments and thought Dantonio was an absolute baby for his comments afterwards.

dubby said...

I am disappointed with the lack of Mike Hart highlights on youtube. If I had it my way, there would video of every play that he touched the ball available at my fingertips. I love that man, and want to have more than my mind's recollection in a few years.

johngg25 said...

Mike Hart (Webster) is a d-bag. It's called "little man syndrome". His albeit brief NFL career will look nice on his resume at the Ann Arbor coffee shops.