COLUMBUS, Ohio — The ball was coming down from the sky, there were two men around him, the angry crowd roaring like death, he was on the goal line, he bent his legs and he leapt in the air and all he could think of was . . . practice.
“A drill,” wide receiver John Kolesar would say later, after he made a spectacular jump-ball catch in the end zone to give the Wolverines the final edge, 34-31, in the most exciting Michigan-Ohio State game to never really matter. “We do this drill in practice all the time, throwing the ball up between two men and trying to catch it. I was just thinking of that, really.”
And he got it. Oh, how he got it! With just 97 seconds left. Pulled down a miracle in a game that only a miracle would win. His teammates mobbed him. The Wolverines — who had gone from way ahead to seriously behind — were back in the lead. And the Buckeyes’ crowd was suddenly silent. Touchdown? Touchdown.
“The biggest,” Kolesar, a senior, would claim, “of my career.”
Which is saying something, coming from this guy. But then, you had to see this game. Wow. How can you describe it? How had things gotten so crazy that Kolesar had to save the day — twice? This had been a blowout in the first half, Michigan was going through Ohio State the way a bull goes through a fence. U-M led at halftime, 20-0, and it should have been more.
And then, somewhere surely, the gods of this Michigan-Ohio State rivalry nudged each other and mumbled, “Hey. Wake up. Look what they’re doing to our game. It’s . . . boring.”
And forget about records. Forget about Rose Bowls. Forget that the Wolverines (7-0-1 in the Big Ten) had the major prizes sewn up, while the Buckeyes were in danger of their first losing season in more than 20 years. Forget it all. In the second half, this suddenly became a war like the past Wolverines-Buckeyes wars, a great game. Ohio State scored three straight times, took the lead from a stunned Michigan, and, to quote a certain effervescent TV sportscaster, we had a “hummmmmdinger.”
In other words, the perfect game for John Kolesar.
He is an Ohio kid. Did you know that? Grew up in Westlake, a couple hours north of this campus. As a boy, he visited the big, gray Ohio stadium —
“The Horseshoe” they call it — and he loved it and he fantasized about playing here. After all, an Ohio kid plays for Ohio State — with a few exceptions.
John Kolesar was an exception.
His father had gone to Michigan.
So much for Ohio State.
“A Buckeye by birth, but maize and blue in my blood,” Kolesar sang with a huge smile, all teeth showing, in the U-M locker room afterwards. His hair was still wet from the shower. His tie was knotted around his neck. But there was a Rose Bowl pin on his lapel, and down the bench, a teammate was pretending to put a championship ring on a make-believe Michigan State player
(the Spartans would have tied for the Big Ten championship had U-M lost Saturday), then he pulled it away and squealed, “Oooh! Sorry! We’ll take that! Haha!”
“It’s a fairy tale,” Kolesar admitted of Saturday’s final minutes, “this game, my senior year, last series, unbelievable. This tops everything.”
Which, as we said, is saying something — because there are big-play guys and there are big-play guys, and then there is John Kolesar. This is the kid who, as a freshman, caught the 77- yard touchdown pass from Jim Harbaugh to beat Ohio State. The kid who, as a junior, caught the winning touchdown with 50 seconds to go (another leap over a defender) to beat Alabama in the Hall of Fame Bowl. He is bombs-away on kickoff returns, bombs-away on punt returns, bombs-away on reverses, post patterns and end-zone leaps.
Big play? Kolesar ought to have “Highlight Film” stitched on the back of his jersey.
But Saturday. Well. How can you top this? How many yards did John Kolesar account for on Michigan’s final drive? Try 100 yards. One end of the field to the other.
“Earlier in the game, a kick bounced off my body and out of bounds. I couldn’t believe it. Then I dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone. So, I had some resolve to take care of,” he said.
And here is how he did it: The Buckeyes had marched through a suddenly inept Michigan defense for the fifth consecutive time, they had scored a touchdown to go ahead, 31-27, with just over two minutes left in the game. Kolesar took the kickoff deep in his own end zone (“I was coming out no matter what”) and busted through the coverage all the way to the Ohio State 41.
“He ran like a man possessed,” said his coach, Bo Schembechler. And following a first-down incompletion, there he was again, in the Buckeyes’ end zone, leaping between two defenders, reaching for that wobbly spiral from quarterback Demetrius Brown (“I knew he would catch it, because he had dropped one earlier in the game, and he never drops two in a row”). And somehow, he came down with it.
One hundred yards.
In 25 seconds.
And that’s counting hang time.
In the stands, his father, Bill, was so excited he began to kiss everybody around him. On the field, the U-M players mobbed Kolesar, grateful for one more crack at winning this thing. True, it would take a Marc Spencer interception with 29 seconds left to truly ice the game. And true, the excellent running of Leroy Hoard and Tony Boles provided the majority of U-M’s offense. But big plays win big games. And without Kolesar’s kickoff and catch, the Buckeyes would have already been celebrating.
“I never really got to play in an Ohio State game here,” said Kolesar, who was injured when the Wolverines were here in 1986. “To do it in my senior year was really special . . . and who would have believed this? 34-31? Usually Michigan-Ohio State games are 9-3 or 14-10.”
And then again, maybe they don’t. Michigan wins the Big Ten title outright, it goes to the Rose Bowl with no asterisks, while Ohio State goes home for the holidays. Yet somehow, thanks to the inspired Buckeyes’ second half and Kolesar’s last-second heroics, the sanctity of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is preserved. Good. It would be, well, almost unseemly for this game to be less than dramatic. Tradition, whenever possible, should be honored.
And it was honored Saturday. By a kid who grew up in Ohio and played in Michigan and helped win the game with the most memorable 100 yards we have seen in a long time.
And in the final glorious moment, he was thinking of . . .
“Practice, I really was,” he said, smiling again. “I know it sounds weird. But that was what was on my mind. I was so glad we had done it in practice.”
You know what practice makes.
Mitch Albom’s new talk show “The Sunday Sports Albom” can be heard Sundays from 9-11 p.m. on WLLZ 98.7-FM. Tonight’s guests include Mark Messner, Mike Gillette, Wayne Fontes and James Jones.