HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — On the last day of the year, and the day before their college football careers end, I’d like you to meet five guys you’ve never heard of. Sometimes, I think their coaches never heard of them either.
They do not start. Some back up the backups. One guy never got in a game in four years.
They are about to leave Michigan. The Rose Bowl will be their swan song —
and if any of them get in the game, it will be big news. But where you would expect bitterness, you don’t hear it. Where you would expect anger, there is none.
True, they are the first athletes I’ve interviewed who ever showed up early.
But listen to these voices from the far end of the bench:
“I look at it this way: I’ve had a great seat for the game.” Julian Swearengin
He was recruited by mail. Invited to walk on. He never even met Bo Schembechler until his first practice. “If Bo doesn’t know my name today, I wouldn’t be surprised,” he says.
He is a wide receiver, but he has never caught a pass in a game that counted. In fact, he didn’t even get into a game that counted until this, his senior year. It was late in the game against Houston, and the Wolverines were blowing out the Cougars by 48 points.
“Julian!” a coach yelled. His heart raced. He dashed onto the field. He saw the ball snapped and banged his defender and knocked him down. He was proud of that. And since they were running down the clock, that was about all he could do.
But wait. Third-and-long. A passing play. Could this be his chance? He looked up — and here came the first-string receivers back onto the field. He was out. A pass was thrown, while he watched, as usual, from the sidelines.
“That didn’t bother me,” he says. “The thing that was kind of sad, was that once I got out there, I was so excited, I didn’t get to stop and smell the roses. When I think back, it’s all just a blur.”
He will go to law school next year. He obviously did well in class. And although he was always a walk-on and never got an athletic scholarship, he says he got a lot — including this interview, which is his first.
“I enjoyed being a member of the team. That’s what I’ll remember. And I enjoyed the friendships.”
He also enjoys the fact that current coach Gary Moeller actually knows his name.
“He doesn’t always pronounce it correctly,” he says, “but that’s OK.”
“Mostly our teammates joke about us being fat. They say, ‘Don’t go to the beach, or they’ll want to roll you back into the ocean.’ ” Mike Lewis, Troy Plate
They are big fellas. Offensive linemen. Coming out of high school, they were loaded with promise. Plate was recruited by Big Ten schools. Lewis was pursued by Nebraska and Penn State. Big fellas. High hopes. But things happened. Injuries. Academics.
“I probably discovered the weight room too late,” Lewis admits.
“And we’re playing behind some talented guys,” Plate says.
So, somehow, the promise came and went. They were backups to backups. They banged in practice and sat during games. They dragged themselves home, week after week, year after year. Finally, they had their moment. It, too, came in the Houston game, with the score 61-7.
“PLATE! LEWIS!” the coaches yelled. And out they rumbled — for seven consecutive plays. They can remember every one of them.
Plate: “The Houston guys were exhausted, and we were trying to kill them.”
Lewis: “Yeah, they kept saying, ‘Hey, the game’s over, relax, will ya?’ “
Maybe now and then, they felt like quitting. They wondered if it was all worthwhile. But if they didn’t get much of a highlight film, they did get each other. They are best friends now. They room together. They are even the butt of the same jokes.
Lewis and Plate say the best part of this experience was making friends with other linemen, and getting to wear their championship rings. Their fantasy for Friday’s Rose Bowl?
Plate: “Just to win, and have our offensive line be the MVP. Even if we don’t play, that would be great for them.”
Lewis: “Yeah. Although it would be really great if we were blowing them out, and they let us go in and roll some dudes.”
“I may be on the second team, but I’m on the second team for Michigan.” Paul Manning
Compared to the others, Manning is almost a Heisman trophy winner. He has actually played more downs than he can count. An All-State offensive lineman at Birmingham Brother Rice, Manning figured, like the others, it would only be a matter of time before he starred in college.
It didn’t happen. There are only so many stars. So Manning played backup. And he waited. The years passed.
Finally, in last season’s Minnesota game, both centers got injured, and suddenly — “MANNING! GET READY!” — he was practicing snaps with Elvis Grbac.
“We fumbled the first practice snap,” he says. “Then we fumbled the second. I said, ‘Oh, no. We’re in trouble.’ But we went out and we did OK.”
In fact, for that one Saturday, Manning felt like the Big Time. He played the rest of the game, he was graded in films, and he practiced with the first string that whole next week.
But come the next game, he was back to backup.
He never did get to start.
“I’m playing behind some great players, so I don’t get down on myself,” he says. “If I didn’t think they deserved it, I’d be upset.”
He has already graduated. He is proud of that. His favorite souvenir, he says, will be a photo of the entire offensive line. A large, framed picture of his football friends. Not surprisingly, the starters are in the front row. And he is in the row behind.
“Typical,” he says.
“I benched 225 pounds for the strength coach once. That will always be a highlight.” Joshua Wuerfel
He could have gone to a smaller school. He could have had a full scholarship. But as the son of a former placekicker who always regretted not choosing a big-time program, well, Josh Wuerfel had destiny before him.
He chose Michigan. As a walk-on.
He has never played.
“Like everyone else, I figured I’d make an impression, and get to play eventually,” he says. “But the difference between high school and college is so great. I spent the first two years here just trying to get respect because of my size (5- feet-6). Leroy Hoard would always call me ‘Peanut’ or ‘Lucas.’
There were times that quitting must have seemed attractive. But Wuerfel
— who kicked a 46-yarder in high school — didn’t quit. “In my family, quitting isn’t an option.”
So game after game, his parents have come, hoping to see him play and knowing he wouldn’t. Only one time, in a spring scrimmage, did Wuerfel get to kick. An extra point. He made it.
And that was his career at Michigan.
Is he angry?
“No, I’m glad my father was there to see it.”
Like all of them, Wuerfel makes you shake your head. How can they be so upbeat when they did all this work and got none of the glory?
“Being here shaped me,” Wuerfel says, “even if I didn’t play. I’ll never forget the experience.”
Some leave with Heisman trophies. Some leave with one extra point in their pockets. When you look at the sidelines in Friday’s Rose Bowl, you’ll see lots of bodies in maize-and- blue uniforms — and not all of them are where they dreamed they would be. On this New Year’s Eve, we salute those who have learned to live with that, and made peace. They might one day realize how much growing up they truly did in college.