ANN ARBOR — There are moments when football looks like a good, clean sport, and there are moments when it simply looks like war. The moments can come one right after the other.
John Kolesar, a small but gifted Michigan flanker, was running a pattern in the first quarter of Saturday’s game — running fast, but the pass was long, and he dived for it, landed head first, and slid into the Illinois marching band.
The marching band? Yes. For some reason, they were seated near the sideline. And now John Kolesar was lying in the middle of them. Five seconds passed. Ten. Twenty. A small crowd formed, the first sign of a football wound
— like the first cry you hear when a soldier takes a bullet.
Kolesar wasn’t getting up.
Thirty seconds. Forty. Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan quarterback who threw the pass, stood in the middle of the field, hands on his hips. “Damn,” he thought. This is one of his best receivers, a big-play man, fast, reliable, great blocker. But Kolesar wasn’t getting up and Harbaugh walked in a small circle, still waiting.
“Kolesar injured on the play,” boomed the voice over the loudspeakers.
That is the second sign.
Finally, the band parted, and Kolesar walked slowly across the field, holding his right arm delicately with his left hand.
Harbaugh watched, then slapped at the air, a silent curse, and rejoined the huddle. “I knew something was broken,” he would say later. Kolesar sat on the bench, as two trainers pulled his shirt over his head, trying not to hurt him.
The whistles blew. Play continued.
Play always continues. Dice betrayed him Big wins. Little losses. Michigan would eventually beat Illinois by a country-and-a-half, 69-13. It would be a laugher. Easy money. The second string would play. The third string would play. Points would come like coins from a hot slot machine. By the final whistle, one play — any one play — hardly seemed significant. 69-13? What difference could one play make?
But John Kolesar, naked from the waist up, sat on the bench after his one play — the first time in his college career that he had been seriously injured — while the trainers wrapped his shoulder in a white bandage.
He didn’t see his team march down field. He didn’t see Harbaugh take the ball in for a Michigan touchdown. He didn’t see any of it. Someone threw a jacket over his bare shoulders and slowly led him to a motorized cart that would take him to the locker room.
“What did you think when you saw him go off?” someone would ask Harbaugh later.
“That’s football,” he would say, with a shrug. “It’s a roll of the dice on every play. . . . It’s like going to Las Vegas. Let’s roll the dice and play some football.”
John Kolesar — who, in person, looks more like a high school junior than a big-time college player — wound up in the hospital Saturday afternoon with a broken collarbone. He will miss the rest of the season, and quite likely any bowl game.
“You don’t realize how much that will hurt us,” Bo Schembechler would say.
“It’ll really hurt us,” Harbaugh would say.
Last November, when he was 18, Kolesar broke open the Ohio State game with a 77-yard touchdown catch.
This year, at 19, he will miss it. A dive for a pass into a band that shouldn’t have been there.
It’s going to hurt John Kolesar a lot, too. A course in reality Big wins, little losses. There was an odd scene Saturday as the white cart carrying Kolesar wheeled along the sideline. At that very moment, Illinois fullback Jeff Markland took a shovel pass and ran down field. He ran within the shadow of the white cart. And for a brief instant, they were moving together as if in a race, 10 yards apart, the healthy fullback, the injured flanker, one running, the other being driven away.
What did Harbaugh call it? A roll of the dice? Each week, there is a player or two or three who go down in this sport, and they are replaced, and the team goes on.
Maybe this isn’t what you expect to read after a Michigan victory like Saturday’s. Then again, John Kolesar hardly expected what he got, either.
Big wins. Little losses. Football coaches, like generals, will tell you to attain the former you must survive the latter. This is the way it is.
In the interview room after the win, Harbaugh stood in coat and tie, his hair still wet from the shower. In a moment, he would be on TV, on radio, in the papers. He was a winner. And a survivor. While he waited, someone asked him how school was going and he said it was going good.
“I just got an ‘A’ on my test,” he said.
“What course?” someone asked.
“History of Wars in the 20th Century,” he said, proudly, not realizing how much he already knew.