BO SAVED HIS NO. 1 HONOR FOR JUST THE RIGHT PLAYER

MINNEAPOLIS — Four years ago, Greg McMurtry sat at the family kitchen table in Brockton, Mass., across from a football coach named Bo Schembechler.

“Would you like to wear No. 1?” Bo asked. “If you come to Michigan, I’m gonna give you that number.”

“OK,” said McMurtry. “Great. Sure.”

The kid had no idea how flattered he should be. No. 1 had belonged to Anthony Carter, the Wolverines’ star receiver, the jewel of Schembechler’s eye, his favorite; he loved him like a son. And from the day Carter had gone off to the pros, the number had been tucked away, like flower petals in a scrapbook. Jim Harbaugh’s number was handed out the year after he graduated, to some freshman quarterback. And Jamie Morris’ number was gone by spring football of his senior year. But Carter. Ace. No. 1.

That was almost holy.

“I figured Bo was offering that uniform to at least 10 other recruits,” McMurtry recalled Saturday. Instead, he found it hanging by his locker at his first practice. “I knew,” Schembechler would later admit, “that this kid was something special. He could live up to it.”

Never more than Saturday. Did you see him out there against Minnesota? During the second quarter — in a single 10-minute stretch — he caught three touchdown passes, worth 108 yards, and spun a must-win game for U-M from
“close” to “rout.” The balls were coming his way like metals to magnet. A 49-yarder. A 34-yarder. A 25-yarder. End zone. End zone. End zone.

No. 1.

It was a record performance, a quick kill; only one receiver in Michigan history, Ron Kramer, an All-America, had ever caught three touchdown passes in a single game (1955), and nobody had done it in a single quarter. The Minnesota defense was left staring at McMurtry’s back, wondering how a man could make himself invisible like that.

“Do you just get a feeling on days like these?” I asked McMurtry as he dressed, after Michigan marched to within one victory of the Rose Bowl, routing Minnesota, 49-15.

“Yeah, you do,” he said. “The ball feels extra sticky. Every route you run, you’re thinking positive, like ‘Here comes another one. Here comes another one.’ “

Here comes another one. How perfect a sentence for Saturday’s performance. Seven catches, three touchdowns, 165 yards. Remember this day, folks. Mark it in your football memory. Sometime soon, McMurtry will be a star in the pros, and people will be saying “Where did this kid go to school?”

No mystery here. I have always felt McMurtry is perhaps the best athlete on this team — and one of the least utilized. Because they are run first, pass second, the Wolverines have sipped McMurtry like champagne, instead of guzzling him like beer. He makes the big plays, but not the frequent plays.

He waits his turn. His freshman year, there was Harbaugh, Paul Jokisch, John Kolesar. His sophomore year, Morris, a running back, was the offensive workhorse. Junior year, there was Tony Boles and Leroy Hoard, grinding it out.

“I sometimes wonder what I might do at a school like Houston,” he said, folding his arms across his now bare chest. “I guess I’d catch a lot more passes. But we wouldn’t win like we’ve won since I’ve been here.”

And that was the Michigan pitch. We may not throw all the time, but when we do, they’ll count. And chances are, you’ll see a few end zones.

He saw a few Saturday. Heck. They should have charged him rent. His first score was a lofty bomb from Michael Taylor that hung up too long. McMurtry had to slow down, the two defenders flanked him, but he went up between them and came down with the ball, as they fell away like Keystone Cops. He tiptoed across the goal line. Touchdown.

Five minutes later, he ran a crossing route over the middle. Taylor zipped it to him, on the number, and he braced for the inevitable crunch. It never came. His feet were still moving, and next thing he knew, he had danced past three defenders and was tossing the ball to the referee again. “Usually on a route like that you take some mean hits,” he said, “but nobody touched me.”

Same went for touchdown No. 3, which he caught in the front corner of the end zone, just staying in bounds, a 25-yard timing pattern. Up went the referee’s arms. McMurtry, a quiet sort, handed over the ball and jogged back to the sideline.

“He’s a fine athlete, isn’t he?” Schembechler would say.

Nothing like an understatement, huh, Bo?

No matter. Wolverines fans should enjoy McMurtry while they can. He has but two games left in a maize and blue uniform, this lean, smiling kid who turned down $150,000 to play baseball with his hometown Boston Red Sox, choosing instead to study and compete in Ann Arbor. You gotta give him credit for that. And for accepting the burden of his uniform. Let’s face it. You wear No. 1 and you’re a target for something: praise, laughter, jealousy. Or, in Michigan, comparison. No. 1 will always be Carter here, the same way No. 77 will always be Red Grange in Illinois.

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted it as a freshman,” McMurtry admitted. “The pressure and all. People come up to me and say, ‘No one should have that number. It should be retired.’ I don’t say anything back. I figure that’s their opinion.”

“Would you like to see it retired after you’re through?” I asked

He thought for a minute. “Nah,” he said, “doesn’t really matter.”

Give it to some other young hopeful, some receiver the coaches figure will one day be leaping in end zones and coming down with the football. And setting records. Carter may hold about three million bests in Michigan football history, but on Saturday, McMurtry grabbed one for himself. Three touchdowns in a single quarter. Take a bow. No. 1 in your programs, and doing it proud.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight from 9 to 11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests: Scott Hastings, Mike O’Connell.

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