ANN ARBOR — We sat in a campus coffee shop, just a few days before the big game. Had this been a typical Wolverines season, Jamie Morris would have had little time for breathing, much less breakfast. Michigan-Ohio State? This Saturday? Wait. Shouldn’t there be thunder when we say that?
“Last year,” Morris admitted, taking a sip of juice, “no one spoke the entire week of practice before this game. The only word was when Bo called a play in the huddle. No smiles. Nothing. Just hitting. Huddle. More hitting. It was intense.”
That game would become the biggest win of the season, the one that sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl as champions of the Big Ten. It would be glory and honor and tears and laughter. It would be singing “The Victors” in the locker room. It would be Michigan 26, Ohio State 24. It would be the highlight of Jamie Morris’ college football career.
That was the upside.
The downside was he still had a year to go.
Here is how it all began for Jamie Morris at Michigan. Spring practice. Freshman year. He ran a play the wrong way. Not once. Not twice. Four times. Guess who was watching?
“I must have been a FOOL!” screamed coach Bo Schembechler. “Will you SHOOT ME the next time I look at a FIVE-FOOT-SEVEN TAILBACK? WILL YOU?”
“Yessir,” whispered Morris.
Perfect. Every football player at Michigan starts on Schembechler’s dog list. The good ones work their way off. The very good ones win starting jobs. And the great ones? They try to reward the coach with a championship. Jim Harbaugh, the star quarterback who graduated last year, saw his fantasies realized with the trip to Pasadena.
And Morris, Harbaugh’s backfield mate, the little tailback with the waterbug moves, had the same dreams for this season: “I saw us winning the Big Ten, I saw us going to the Rose Bowl. I saw myself winning the Heisman Trophy.”
The waitress came by with coffee. Morris crossed his arms and shrugged. He has put in his time, endured the bangs and bruises, and has pen-knifed out a mountain of yardage, more than any rusher in Michigan history. He is 67 inches of speed, rock-solid, a toy soldier gone wild in the backfield. “A great player,” admits Schembechler. And he’s a senior. If life were fair, this would have been his year on the mountaintop.
It was not. The 1987 Wolverines were too inexperienced at some spots and too injured at others. The result is a 7-3 record going into the last regular-season game. Morris’ Rose Bowl dream is gone; so is the Big Ten title, and any hope for the Heisman. Last year, with Harbaugh “guaranteeing” a victory, the Michigan-Ohio State game was larger than life.
But that was last year.
“Sometimes I think I’ve failed,” said Morris, ignoring his food, his boyish face turning suddenly serious. “I ask myself, ‘What did Jimmy do differently? How come the team responded to him?’ We made it to the Rose Bowl with him. That was dream of mine as captain, to lead us back . . .
“A lot of the guys on the team tease me. They say, ‘You know, Jamie, if we had better leadership, we’d be in the Rose Bowl!’ I know they’re only joking, but I’m serious. And I guess . . . I have failed in that respect . .
Nothing could be more untrue. Morris has been unselfish and hard-working. But you get four years in college, and you take what’s given. If a professor goes on leave, you study under his replacement. And if your star quarterback
— whose skill only makes you better — is due to graduate, well, he goes. And you stay. And make due with the new one.
In Morris’ case, that was Demetrius Brown, a promising but inexperienced sophomore, who replaced Harbaugh (now with the Chicago Bears). Brown made his share of learning mistakes this season, including 15 interceptions. Some cost the Wolverines victories.
“Did that frustrate you?” I asked.
“In the beginning, a lot,” Morris said. “Like the first game (a loss to Notre Dame) I was out there trying to win the game on every play. It was like: ‘GET ME THE BALL. I can do it!’ When Demetrius threw an interception, I would come to the sidelines saying, ‘Why isn’t he throwing it to me? There’s nobody open downfield.”‘
Morris sighed. “It’s just that, Jimmy did so much for us last year. And it felt like everybody was turning to me for this year . . . I finally had to accept that Jimmy played a different position from me. I can’t control things like the quarterback. I don’t determine who gets the ball.”
It was an odd dynamic — Morris, an All-American, huddling up with Brown, a newcomer, a young kid looking for confidence. But Brown was quarterback. He had the reins. And while he was not the only reason for Michigan defeats this year, when he drove off the road, the other Wolverines had to go with him.
You may remember some stories about Morris’ childhood in Ayre, Mass. — how his military father would inspect the children’s rooms, bounce quarters on the beds, wake up Jamie and his brother Joe (who now stars for the New York Giants) at 5 in the morning, just to tell them there was a spot on the floor they forgot to mop, and they’d better get down there and do it now. “He brought the army home to us,” Jamie said. “I wasn’t crazy about it then. But I appreciate it now.”
Sure. Compared to sweeping, painting, raking and mowing, scotch-taping your dreams back together is relatively easy. So it was that Morris and the other Michigan seniors, who obviously weren’t going to win them all, decided to win all they could. “We had a meeting after the loss to Indiana (U-M’s second Big Ten defeat),” Morris said. “We could have folded right then. But we dedicated ourselves to a strong finish.”
Since then, the Wolverines have beaten Northwestern and Minnesota and Illinois. And Morris? Well. He may not control the scoreboard. But he has a way with numbers. He is averaging over 130 yards a game, has 1,339 yards this season (the single- season mark is within reach Saturday: 1,469, held by Rob Lytle, 1976.) Two weeks ago, against Minnesota, he became Michigan’s all-time leading rusher. In another time, another season, he might have been swamped with reporters. But most observers were following the progress of Michigan’s arch-rival, Michigan State, which was cruising toward its first Big Ten title in over two decades.
“It didn’t bother me,” said Morris, of the small group of reporters that stopped by his locker in Minnesota. “At the beginning of the year, when I dreamed about breaking the record, I thought there would be microphones everywhere. But then I started thinking: ‘Why am I breaking this record?’ I realized it’s the blockers, the guys up front. I’ve been with some of these guys a long time. And when I broke the record, they recognized it, they congratulated me. That was enough.”
He smiled, his fingers tapping against one another. “I don’t know if I would have realized that had we been winning big and me getting all that attention.” A lot of fans fell in love with Morris during his time at Michigan. He was one of those “cute” rushers, too small to be doing what he was doing but — whoops! — there he goes, slamming into big bodies and bouncing off like a pinball. He was big in big games (witness last year’s Ohio State showdown, and the 1986 Fiesta Bowl). And his attitude? Take Mr. Sunshine and Mr. Effort and let them marry Mr. Energy.
During that Minnesota game, there was a play where the Gophers came with a linebacker blitz. Morris picked it up, blocked the defender, and allowed Brown time to throw a touchdown pass. When Morris came off the field, Schembechler slapped his helmet, grabbed him and said: “That’s why you’re one of the best players in the nation!”
Morris beams at the memory. “At that moment,” he said, “I could have ran through a wall.”
So he’s got that in his memory box. And last year’s championship, if not this year’s. College, by nature, will always be tied to a calendar. You accomplish what you can in the time given.
And the time is about to end. Morris would like to play pro football. His brother has proven it can be done. Or else, maybe communications. Behind-the-scenes TV stuff. “Keith Jackson of ABC is my favorite college football announcer,” he said. “He’s doing the game Saturday.”
“What would you like him to say about you?” I asked.
Morris seemed embarrassed. Then he flashed that laughing smile. “Well, like, if he said: ‘That little scatback really hit that hole!'” He laughed at his imitation. “Oh man! I’d be going cra-zy!”
Time was late. Morris had a meeting. We grabbed our coats.
“What else?” I asked him finally. “If you could draw the perfect scene for Saturday, what would it be?”
He thought for a second. “First of all, we’d win. Second, I’d have a big game. I’m thinking 220 yards, maybe 29 carries . . . I see the fans going crazy. I see us all singing ‘The Victors’ in the locker room afterwards, and Bo getting up on the chair and making one of his speeches like (he lowers his voice) ‘What a wonderful game it was . . . ‘ and me just standing right beside him, kinda looking up, just soaking it all in . . . “
“How about a final bow? Would you like to be taken out with a minute left, so you can be acknowledged with a big ovation?”
“No,” he said. “I’d rather be on the field when the clock runs out.”
“Because at Michigan, for four years they tell you it’s the team and not the individual.” He grinned. “I want to show them I’ve learned that.”
We shook hands, he slipped on his coat and headed out the door. Jamie Morris, who finishes Saturday, may not have everything he wanted.
But he has everything he needs.