by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You’ve heard about the loneliness of the long-distance runner. You never hear about the loneliness of the departed quarterback. But Brian Griese discovered who he was only when he was forced to be alone. Somewhere in the middle of running steps at the track stadium, in a self-imposed training torture, as his breath balled in his chest and sweat rolled down his temples, he could see, a half a mile away, the Michigan team that he no longer belonged to, working out together, having fun.

And Griese heard his voice.

This is what it said:

“When I get back, I’m gonna be a bitch.”

You need to understand how far Griese had fallen from the path others expected for him. Son of an NFL legend, quarterback for the Wolverines, intelligent, confident, academic — and then one night it came apart.

An incident in a bar. A broken window.

And suddenly, Griese was making the most uncomfortable call of his life.

“Dad, I made a big mistake….”

Looking back on it now, the son realizes how his world changed at that moment. He was asked to leave the team. He was without organized sports.

“It was something my father had never had to deal with,” Griese says. “He didn’t know what to tell me. It was the one thing in my career that had never happened to him.”

Brian Griese, in the strangest way, had finally achieved originality.

Dad cast a deep shadow

Imagine the pressure of trying to do a job that your father once did to perfection. Bob Griese was quarterback for the 1972 Dolphins, 17-0, the perfect season, the NFL’s last undefeated team. He was smart, efficient, economical in his passing. He went into the Hall of Fame. In short, he played quarterback like a very mature adult.

Imagine that shadow. Imagine growing up in it. Brian Griese tried to play other positions. In Pop Warner. In junior high.

“I wasn’t big enough, or fast enough,” he says. “I was kind of stuck at quarterback, where I didn’t have to run or tackle.”

And so it started.

Another Griese? A quarterback?

Even before he played a down in high school, newspapers predicted he would dominate. Griese! He’s a Griese! The name was hallowed in south Florida. The father was a legend. Could the son be any less?

Imagine that shadow.

“I would never change who my father was, who he’s been for me personally,” Griese says, speaking as he watches his Dad’s old team play on “Monday Night Football.” “But there were times when I wished I could have come home and said, ‘I have a game this weekend,’ and it would be the first time anyone in the family had said it, you know?”

What could he do? You are who you are. Griese spurned offers from such colleges as Georgia Tech and Virginia to walk on at Ann Arbor — “I kind of took it personally that they didn’t offer me a scholarship,” he says — and we should have seen the depth of his character right there.

In less than a month, Griese had his scholarship. By his sophomore season, he was the starter. He threw four touchdown passes against Minnesota. He threw for 323 yards against Penn State, the third-best day for any quarterback in Michigan history. He was heading for his junior season with a promise that matched his father’s.

And then the “bar thing” happened.

“It was an isolated incident,” he says. “It was an irresponsible thing, and I was responsible. I was off the team. Coach Carr said I couldn’t work out with them or anything.

“I missed from March to July, spring football and workouts, which is when the new team really gets to bond with each other. Guys hanging around in the weight room, training together, laughing, talking. And I couldn’t be there. That really hurt.”

Instead, Griese set up his own routine, mimicking the hours of his lost teammates. When they lifted weights in the football building, he lifted in the student gym. When they ran drills on the football field, he ran alone in the track stadium. He set up a parallel universe, but he was the only person in it.

“I could have gone one of two ways at that point,” he says. “Fall by the wayside, or stand up and make a statement about who I was.

“I decided to make a statement. What kept me going was imagining the day I would get back. I kept saying to myself, ‘They’re not gonna want to play me, but I’m gonna make them do it. I’m gonna make them play me.’ “

He pauses. “It’s funny. I never had that attitude before.”

Maize-and-blue glue

When people look at Brian Griese now, they see a calm, level-headed player. They hail him as the ballast of this so-far spectacular season. Lee Corso, the ESPN analyst, calls Griese “the glue that holds the Michigan team together.”

If he’s all that, it’s only because he has earned it and he has learned it. Remember, this is a guy who went from starting quarterback to off the team to pooch punter. That’s right. Last year, he was mostly used for short punts, while Scott Dreisbach handled the quarterback chores. A pooch punter? The former starting quarterback?

“I know people think it must have bothered me,” Griese says, “but after all that had happened, it felt so good just to run on the field and be a part of things again. I really didn’t mind.”

Eventually, Michigan needed him to run on and do more than kick. He came in midway through last year’s Ohio State game, in relief of Dreisbach, and played his old position as if out of a storybook.

“I had nothing to lose,” he admits now. He completed eight passes, threw for 120 yards and a touchdown, and led the team from nine points down to a stunning upset of the Buckeyes, ruining OSU’s undefeated season and chance at the national championship.

He was all the way back.

And, in keeping his promise, he made everybody notice. Griese saga continues

So now — after a wonderful season, an undefeated team, with so many highlights, from the comeback against Iowa to the domination of mighty Penn State — now there is one game left for Brian Griese. One last Ann Arbor moment, one last run through the tunnel at Michigan Stadium. Saturday. Ohio State.

The fact that it is the biggest game of his whole career seems only fitting.

“I can’t imagine a better ending to the whole thing than winning this game and going to the Rose Bowl,” says the fifth-year senior. “My career has been like a saga. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here forever. But that works to my advantage. When I’m on the field, I feel older than most of the other players. And I look for the younger ones on defense. If there’s a freshman at cornerback, I know about it.”

Some have observed that Griese seems so in charge out there, he doesn’t even look excited.

“I’ve heard that,” he says, laughing. “Someone told me I look like I’m half-asleep when I come out of the huddle. That’s fine. I don’t have to look emotional. But there are times when we need a spark plug, where we need someone to yell in the huddle. And I’ll do that, too.”

Whatever happens Saturday — and in whatever bowl U-M goes to — it could mark the closing stanzas of Griese’s life as a quarterback.

“I know I don’t have the talent that a lot of guys who plan to play in the NFL do,” he says. “I’m pretty realistic. There are guys who can throw harder and run faster.

“I have my strengths and I play to them. And yeah, if an NFL team wants to give me a tryout, I’ll definitely do it.”

But if that doesn’t happen, he’s prepared. His plans include the George Washington University graduate program in international studies. That’s right. He speaks Spanish fluently. And he hopes to go to South America and work with developing cultures on schools, buildings and the economy.

Who ever heard of an educated, bilingual graduate student who wants to travel and help the world and who also, just by coincidence, happens to be starting quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines?

Well, as he said, it’s a saga. It reaches its crescendo Saturday. The game will be played in a sold-out, screaming-loud stadium — only steps from where Griese ran those lonely stairs and huffed and puffed and looked at his own reflection and made a vow.

I don’t know whom you’re taking in this game. But I know where Brian Griese is laying his chips. On himself.

It’s a pretty fair bet.

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie,” 7-8 p.m. Tuesday at B. Dalton in Macomb Mall in Roseville. To call in personal inscriptions for later pickup, contact Little Professor in Plymouth at 1-313-455-5220 or Barnes & Noble in Rochester at 1-248-853-9855. To leave a message for Albom at the Free Press, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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