HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — The helmet will not go easily. He has had it since arriving at Michigan, five years, five autumns, same helmet, same face mask. Every spring he would hand it to the equipment man for safe-keeping, and every fall he would make sure to get it back. Once, after a practice in his junior year, an excited fan tried to grab his chin strap, yank it off as he ran past. Elvis Grbac made the save.

“It was down to its last snap,” he says, clearly relieved. “I got it just in time.”

He will keep the helmet, he swears, for ever and ever. Holding onto Michigan will prove more elusive. You get your time in college football, and then, poof, it’s over. And Grbac is down to his last chin snap.

So while it seems like yesterday that he leapt through the curtain, running onto the field as a substitute quarterback during the biggest game of the year, against Notre Dame, on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, and the announcers said “Elvis . . . Grbac? Well, this will really be a test for Michigan” — while all that seems like yesterday, it really was a lifetime ago on the college football clock. There were high times since then for this gangly kid with the short blond hair, there were Rose Bowls and Big Ten titles and weekends spent as the No. 1 team in the nation. There were injuries and crutches and bruises and aches. There was a teammate who went on to win the Heisman Trophy, and teammates who left and now star in the NFL.

And after Friday’s Rose Bowl, Elvis Grbac, son of immigrants, engaged to be married, lover of sweat who admits that when he arrived in Ann Arbor he
“really didn’t know much about football” — that Elvis Grbac will hang up his uniform alongside storied U-M quarterbacks such as Tom Harmon, Rick Leach, Steve Smith and Jim Harbaugh.

He out-passed them all, in his ratty old helmet.

Imagine that. Up from the depth chart

“Did I surprise myself at college?” he says, standing outside a hotel training room, waiting to be taped for one of the last times in his Michigan career. “Yeah, I guess I did. I bet I surprised some of the coaches, too.”

Sure did. When Grbac arrived, he should have had “BOTTOM OF THE PILE” stitched onto his uniform. People forget that the Wolverines were already stocked with high school All-America quarterbacks during Elvis’ freshman season, and that he was fifth on the depth chart going in. They forget that he really only played one year of full-time high school football, and that all Gary Moeller knew when he recruited him was, “Elvis could throw the ball and hit somebody with it.”

Not exactly a promise of greatness.

But things happen. Sometimes, you’re just wearing the right helmet. Demetrius Brown was supposed to be starting quarterback in 1989, but he was declared academically ineligible. Michael Taylor was next in line, but he was injured in that very first game against Notre Dame. There were other quarterbacks Bo Schembechler could have gone to, but the heads turned, and look, here came Grbac, all 6-feet-6 of him, loping onto the field like an excited young deer. And the Elvis jokes began and there was, you might say, a while lotta shakin’ going on.

“He has grown so much through football,” Moeller says now. “There’s such a difference in him. He really learned the game here, and he keeps learning. He’s one of those jock types that likes to get there early, and you end up having to throw him out of the trainer’s room and tell him to go home.” Elvis’ head hasn’t grown too big

Elvis and his helmet have seen some fine moments over the years. There will always be that fourth down against Notre Dame when he shook the heavens and called for a bomb instead of a safe running play — and had Desmond Howard not pulled that pass in by his fingertips on a dive in the end zone, well, who knows what we’d be saying about Grbac today? But Desmond did. And they won that game. And they won the Big Ten title. And they won it again this year.

In fact, Grbac has lost only two Big Ten games in his entire Michigan career, and both of them were by a single point. He owns all the big U-M career passing records: yardage, completions, attempts, touchdowns. He is No. 1.

And yet, were he not so tall, you would still barely notice him walking across your path. Some quarterbacks seem to bubble with presence. Trumpets sound. Women gather. Grbac slides right past you, under a baseball hat, looking at his feet. He hangs out with linemen. He’s engaged to be married.

And yet . . .

“I can still remember my first practice, the two-a-days. I had never seen anything like it. And now I’m down to my next to last practice. . . .

“It has been amazing what has happened to me here. . . . That’s why I want to keep my helmet. Just put it on my desk and always have it to look at. I’m gonna wear it Friday, and then one more time in the Senior Bowl.

“And then I’m gonna steal it.”

He laughs, and goes in for a taping. Sometime this spring, another helmet will slide onto another Michigan quarterback and begin to take shape, swelling with the dreams of the young man inside it. Life goes on. You keep your chin strap snapped as long as you can.

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