COLUMBUS, Ohio — The ball was coming down from the darkening sky, there were two men around him, the angry crowd roaring like certain 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 were back in the lead. And the Buckeyes crowd was suddenly silent. Touchdown? Touchdown.
“The biggest,” Kolesar, a senior, would say, “of my career at Michigan.”
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? Here was a blowout in the first half, Michigan was playing as if it were a big rig truck and the Buckeyes were a highway rest stop. U-M led at halftime, 20-0, and it should have been more.
And then, in the second half, it all reversed. Flip-flop. Somewhere surely, the gods of this Michigan-Ohio State rivalry had 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 over 20 years. Forget it all. This, suddenly, became a war like the past Wolverines-Buckeyes wars, a great game, Ohio State scored three straight times, they 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 this 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.
He 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, “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.
But Saturday. Well. How can you top this? How many yards did John Kolesar account for on Michigan’s final drive? Try 100 yards. 100 yards? Yes. 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: With the Buckeyes leading, 31-27, and just 2:02 remaining, he took the kickoff in his own end zone and busted through the coverage all the way to the Ohio State 41 before the kicker tripped him up.
“He ran like a man possessed,” said his coach, Bo Schembechler, who can recognize one when he sees one.
Two plays later, Kolesar was in the Buckeyes end zone, leaping between two defenders, reaching for that wobbly spiral from quarterback Demetrius Brown
(who later said “I knew he would catch it, because he had dropped one touchdown pass 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. But 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. “So to do it in my senior year was really special.”
So Michigan wins the Big Ten title outright, it goes to the Rose Bowl with no asterisks. And, on top of that, the sanctity of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is preserved. Good. It was, well, almost unseemly for this game to be anything less than dramatic. Teams rebuild. Teams restructure. Inevitably, one is going to be stronger than the other. But tradition, whenever possible, should be honored.
And it was Saturday. By a kid who grew up here and played back there, and helped win the game with the most memorable 100 yards we have seen in a long time in college football.
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.