It was the winter of 1984, and Mark Messner was seeing things he had never seen before: girls in string bikinis, men lifting weights on the beach, 80-degree weather in the middle of February. California. He was being recruited to play football. Wow. A small-town kid from Michigan? He was sold from the first warm breeze.
“This is for me,” he told himself. He ate hamburgers in an outdoor cafe. He went to frat parties. When his folks picked him up at the Detroit airport, he immediately pasted a UCLA sticker in the back window and said, “Mom, Dad, I’m a Bruin. How’s that sound? I’m a Bruin.”

His parents smiled. California was so far off, they would never get to see him play, but OK, if this was what he wanted. That night in bed, young Messner went to sleep thinking of sunshine and blue water and glory days on the West Coast.

Only he couldn’t fall asleep. He tossed and turned. He saw his parents’ faces. He saw the forced smiles. Mostly he saw his stepfather, Del, who loved to watch him play, and who, in 1980, had been diagnosed as terminally ill, cancer. They told him three-to-five years were all he could expect.

By morning, Mark Messner had made a decision.

He was going to Michigan.

Just when you figure all college football players are phony, that they grab money from boosters, bulk up on steroids, own condos, Trans Ams, and have someone take their tests for them, along comes Mark Messner to tackle your cynicism.

Why not? He tackles everything else. With two regular-season games left in his collegiate career — and a Rose Bowl hanging on Saturday’s showdown against Illinois — Messner already has more tackles, more sacks and more tackles-for-loss yardage than anyone who ever wore a Michigan uniform. He has started every game since his freshman season, and, in all likelihood, will soon set the iron-man record for the football program.

And yet, he will fool you. You meet him, you want to ask, “Which way to the Cub Scout meeting?” He has apple cheeks and dimples and a high-pitched giggle, and his hair is curly and sits atop his head like a Brillo pad. His muscles do not ripple through his T-shirt, and he need not duck walking through doorways. He does not chew tobacco. He does not spit. When he addresses you, if you are older than he, he calls you “Mr.” until you tell him otherwise.

This is a defensive lineman?

Yes. Not only a defensive lineman, but one who helps the opposing quarterback to his feet after a tackle, does not butt heads in pre-game drills, never punched out a Coke machine, and forgoes trying to see how much weight he can bench press, because he’s afraid he’ll drop the bar and “slice myself in half.”

And then there’s the Notre Dame story.

“It was my first start. I was so nervous! On the third play, third down, I said, ‘Ohmigod, they’ll be coming right at me. It’s on national television.’ And I threw up! Right on the offensive lineman’s hand.

“Of course, he can’t move, but he’s looking at his hand and going,
‘Uggh!’ And the ball was snapped. He didn’t get off the count. And I made the tackle. They had to punt.”

Well.

That’s one way to do it.

You won’t find that play in your standard college football guide. And you won’t find Messner, either. This is an unusual kid. That he is as good as he is (arguably the best defensive tackle ever to play for Michigan, and one of the best in the country), is credit to his perseverance against the odds. And I am not just talking about his 6-foot-2, 235-pound body, which is puny for a defensive tackle.

I am talking about life’s odds. The things that really throw you. Here is a child of divorce, his mother has re-married twice, his natural father has remarried and divorced, his stepmother is still around, his stepfather is now alone — and instead of being bitter, he says things like, “Hey. You should see me on Thanksgiving. I get nine different meals!”

How many kids are able to do that? How many kids are able to face their stepfather’s terminal disease, and care so deeply? Del Pretty, 50, has no biological relation to Messner, his stepson. He bears no physical resemblance. He is a gentle, silver-haired man who runs a piano store, Hammell Music Inc., in Livonia, and yet, Messner says, “He is the most important person in my life. He’s the reason I do what I do, and try as hard as I try . . .

“When I was growing up, my natural father (Max Messner, who played in the NFL for the Lions, Giants and Steelers) was the ‘fun’ dad. I’d see him on weekends and it was always, ‘Let’s play ball, let’s ride the mini-bike.’ Del was the disciplinarian: ‘Take out the garbage. Mow the lawn.’

“But as I got older, I came to appreciate him more. I’d talk to him and say, ‘Boy, he’s smarter than I thought.’ He’s not a real expressive guy. You know, like when he gets a Christmas present, he says, ‘Very nice, thanks.’ But then, a few weeks later, I’ll get a letter from him, out of the blue, saying,
‘I’m so proud of you, son . . . ‘

“His illness brought us closer together. I remember the night my mother found out he had cancer, she was crying. She said, ‘He may not get to see you play football in college.’ . . . I wanted him to see me play. That’s part of the reason I chose to play here instead of California . . . “

Del Pretty was not expected to live this long. And yet, eschewing chemotherapy and radiation, he was able to beat the cancer into remission, using a special diet and experimental drugs. He has seen every one of Mark’s home games, and flies to the away games that are not on TV. They are a remarkable pair, as close a father and stepson as I have seen.

When Messner talks about him, knowing the word “remission” is not the same as “cured,” his eyes turn soft and his voice chokes up.

All of which makes you wonder how this kid gets so darn aggressive during a football game. He is everywhere. In the backfield. In the flat. Stepping over fallen offensive linemen. Pulling down quarterbacks.

“Quickness,” say his opponents.

“Smarts,” say his coaches.

Indeed, the shifting Michigan defense allows Messner to outthink the opposition (rather than stand them up like a head- butting ram, and then decide what to do). It is a defense where a smaller man can excel. Find a weakness, get under it, or behind it — and exploit it. “To be honest, if I had gone anywhere else but Michigan, I don’t think I’d have gotten this much chance to play,” he says. “I’m smaller, slower and weaker than most defensive tackles.”

You would never know it from the games. Heck. You would never know it from the practices. Bo Schembechler may have considered taking Messner off the team — for his other players’ protection.

As a freshman on the demonstration squad, Messner would constantly charge through the line and tackle somebody. Running backs would throw the ball at him. Offensive coaches would yell, “How did you get in on that play?”

“I just did what the book said,’ Messner would explain.

“No way,” the coaches would say, scratching their heads. “Now . . . get back over there!”

After a while, Michigan players learned to avoid Messner during drills. In a 1985 practice, he was in on a play that injured Doug James, the senior offensive line captain. James’ leg was broken. In 1987, he tackled his man into teammate and linebacker Marc Spencer. Spencer’s leg was broken. Minutes before last season’s first game, he tackled his man into Carlos Bostic, U-M’s fifth-year senior linebacker. Bostic’s knee was injured. During a pre-game drill, for Pete’s sake!

“I seem to be more dangerous than the opponents,” he says, shrugging and embarrassed. “I don’t mean to do it. When I pull on that chinstrap I’m a different person. Something switches on . . .

“I haven’t hurt anybody so far this year in practice, though. Thank goodness.”

Thank goodness? Did he really say thank goodness? Are we sure we’re talking to a defensive lineman here? Where is the gristle? Where is the keg of beer? Where is the unwashed hair, the bulging arms, the fourth-grade vocabulary? Messner, the picture of polite, is so far along on his degree, he’s only taking two classes this semester. He’ll graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and marketing.

No wonder the first time Bo Schembechler met him, in the cafeteria of Redford Catholic Central High, he looked at him and said, “I like you. You’re a Michigan man.”

Whoa.

And now, he has his biggest chance to prove it. A win against Illinois Saturday will lock up the Rose Bowl for the Wolverines. It is every senior’s dream: Pasadena in January. “I couldn’t ask for a better situation. To be captain, to be part of a defense that’s doing well, and to have the roses on the line for our last game in Michigan Stadium. I can already envision the scene. I see us winning, I can see the goal posts coming down and me hanging from one of them . . . “

He laughed. UCLA could be Michigan’s Pasadena opponent (if the Bruins beat USC). The irony of playing his first-choice school in his last game has not escaped Messner. “I’d like that,” he says, “very much.”

But mostly he’d like to go out a winner, to have his family there. And to have his father be well again. It may seem a little corny these days to find a player who wants so much to make his parents proud — all six of them. But so what? Isn’t that what college was once all about?

About a year ago, I walked into Hammell Music in Livonia, looking to buy a piano. I met a silver-haired man who, upon learning my occupation, told me he had a son who played for Michigan. He joked that I might want to write a column about him. Judging by the father’s size, I figured the kid was a kicker.

When I learned it was Messner, I was surprised. And ever since, I’ve avoided writing about him because I didn’t want to do anybody a special favor.

My mistake. On Saturday, the father, whose time on Earth is precious, will be watching the son, who is doing it all for him. “Tackle for a loss!” the announcers will bellow. “Tackle for no gain!” Tackle from the heart, they should say, because that’s really what it is. PUSH ‘EM BACK, WAY BACK

Big Ten school records for career tackles for losses: PLAYER COLLEGE CAREER TOTAL Mark Messner Michigan 1985-88 65 Keena Turner Purdue 1976-79 58 Van Waiters Indiana 1983-87 44 Larry Bethea Michigan St. 1974-77 43 Dave Ahrens Wisconsin 1977-80 43 Eric Kumerow Ohio State 1984-87 39 Don Thorp Illinois 1980-83 37 Keith Cruise Northwestern 1981-84 37 Mark Bortz Iowa 1979-82 36 Steve Neils Minnesota 1971-73 33 Mitch Albom’s new radio talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” can be heard Sunday nights from 9 to 11 p.m. on WLLZ (98.7-FM). This week’s guests are Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Channel 4’s Bernie Smilovitz. CUTLINES

Senior defensive tackle Mark Messner rules the trenches for the Wolverines.

Mark Messner walks with his stepfather, Del Pretty, on the quadrangle at U-M.

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