Here is Blake Corum at 6 years old, walking barefoot in the morning through thick Virginia grass, wandering lazily to a nearby creek. He picks up rocks, looking for crawfish. In the afternoon, he drops a piece of charcoal into a bucket of water, then dips a stick into the blackened liquid and paints on trees.
Later, his grandmother joins him and they catch a few frogs. At night, he sits outside and listens to the sound of crickets while staring at an endless sky. Years later, when his weekends are highlighted with 100,000 Michigan fans cheering him across a football field, he will look back on these days and call them “free.”
Welcome to the many leveled world of Blake Corum, the Michigan football star who, like that old song says, is a little bit country. When people use the phrase “buy the farm,” they usually mean someone dies in combat. Not Corum. He literally wants to “buy the farm” — but he means the one he grew up on.
“I still drive by it to this day,” he says wistfully, sitting in an office in Schembechler Hall last week. “Someone owns it now but he’s not living there. I think it’s like an investment for him. One day, I want to own it all. The whole thing. That’s my dream.”
The farm he is talking about is a 200-acre parcel in Marshall, Virginia, a town whose entire population could fit inside the dining room at Michigan Stadium. It was a one-stoplight town when Corum grew up there. His family rented a small house on the property. Blake still remembers getting excited by the beep-beep-beep of his father’s landscaping truck backing up after a long day’s work.
If all this seems a tad bucolic for an electric Michigan running back who is better known for speed, explosiveness, 100-yard games and Heisman Trophy chatter, well, yeah, it does. But one thing remains the same.
Even when he was a Virginia tyke, Blake was so good at running a football, they invented a catchphrase for him:
“Can’t Stop Corum.”
They still can’t.
The long road from small town to atop college football world
“What do you think about when they hand you the ball?” I ask him.
“I don’t think — I just do,” he says. “I rely on all the work I put in over the years to take control.”
He smiles. He constantly smiles. To sit with Blake Corum is to be tested as to how long you can go without smiling back. It’s like interviewing a Cheshire cat.
But then, Corum, 21, has a lot to be happy about. He’s young, in college, and having a monster season — with 901 rushing yards in just seven games, and 13 touchdowns, which ties for best in the nation for running backs.
There are times when Corum runs that you almost tilt over just watching him lean. There are other times when he explodes into the secondary like one of those water bugs that shot across the creek waters of his youth.
He credits all this to endless practice, drills that he runs to cut around cones, drills to practice leaning while he speeds ahead. And he credits all that endless practice to his father.
“Seeing how hard he worked, I always admired that,” Corum recalls. “I wanted to be a hard worker like him. In my yard, you know, I’d try to be like him, pulling weeds or just doing something. Then I started playing T-ball, probably age of 5 or 6, that’s when I fell in love with sports.”
He began a climb through youth football — where he was “always the fastest kid” (if not the biggest; to this day, he is only 5 feet 8). He always got picked for the older kids’ teams. He moved quickly from level to level. And the journey would take him a great distance, from tiny town to Big House.
But along the way, he made several stops. At one point, during middle school, he was traveling two hours every morning to train with a top group in Maryland. His father told him to set an alarm get up at 4 a.m, then wake him up.
“He said, ‘If you don’t wake me up, that means you don’t want it,’ ” Corum recalls.
So he did. And when facing better competition meant moving to a big city, he did that, too. Corum says he lived by himself for two years in an apartment while attending St. Francis Academy High School in Baltimore and playing for its celebrated football team.
It was a long way from crawfish and creeks.
“Being from the country, you know, I didn’t grow up seeing too much violence. But my first day there somebody was shot.
“It was a robbery that went wrong. A van pulled up on the dude on the sidewalk — a guy with a mask on — and the dude on the sidewalk ended up shooting. All I saw was him limping down the alley.”
It was part of a whole new landscape for the crawfish-chasing kid. Corum’s walk to school also took him past a state prison, the Baltimore City Correctional Center. The better he got at football, the larger his reception.
“Every time I walked past, they were yelling out the windows, ‘We see what you’re doing! Keep it up! We’re proud of you.’ ”
His parents came to see him play and sometimes Blake would go home with them to Virginia on the weekends. But by this point, it was clear: There was no keeping Corum down on the farm.
By his own estimate, Blake had recruiting offers from nearly 40 schools, including Georgia, Ohio State and USC. He chose Michigan, he says, because he felt the football would be high quality wherever he went, but the big picture stuff was better understood by the staff in Ann Arbor.
“Coach Jay Harbaugh recruited me. He talked about stuff other than football, which really stood out to me. I was like, cool, these coaches really consider things bigger than football. Because a lot of coaches, you know, they’re all football, right? But coaches here, all of them honestly, on and off the field, they’re not just a coach for you — they’re someone you can go to.”
“Was there another school that finished a close second behind Michigan?” I ask.
“Not really,” he says.
He smiles again.
Way more than just a running back
To this day, Corum does not use an alarm clock, a byproduct of those early Maryland mornings — and the fact that he’s just too darn excited to sleep.
“My dreams and aspirations wake me up,” he says.
Those aspirations include all the Michigan team goals — and eventually an NFL career. And, sure, a Heisman Trophy would be nice.
“It’s cool,” he says of the Heisman chatter. “But I say the award is at the end of the season for a reason. I’m worried about Michigan State, worried about getting better. At the end of the season, if I’m blessed to go to New York, that’s where I’m gonna go.
“But I know where I really want to go, you know? I know what I really want to do, Beat Michigan State. Beat Ohio State. Go back to the Big Ten championship — go to the College Football Playoffs. Win.”
So far, he remains on track for everything. And one day, he says, he wants to achieve his ultimate goal. To reach a mortgage closing — on a certain 200-acre farm he has been hankering for.
“I’m buying it,” he says, smiling again. “I want it. It’s a dream of mine. I felt at peace when I was there. I want to go back.”
If I were the current owner, I might start preparing papers. This kid has a tendency to follow through on things.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.