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Michigan QB Cade McNamara’s leadership may be why it has chance at CFP title

by | Dec 31, 2021 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Cade McNamara is explaining his approach to the game.

“I always liked making sure everyone was focused, making sure we took every game and every practice with a level of seriousness.’’ 

Sounds like what you’d expect from a major college quarterback, right? Except the game he is reminiscing about is baseball. And the level he’s talking about is …

Little League?

Yes. Little League. McNamara has been in charge since he was 8 years old. Leadership? Ha! This guy could cajole a marching band down a sewer hole. Guide a group of Sherpas off a snowy cliff. He was born into a four-star general’s uniform; he just had to wait until it fit.

“It’s the way I was raised,” McNamara said, talking on a private Zoom call before Michigan football headed to the Orange Bowl for its biggest game in decades, a playoff tilt against No. 3 Georgia on Friday night for the right to play for the national championship. “Being the oldest of three brothers, you gotta set the example. So I did.”

You’ve heard of old souls? McNamara apparently emerged from the womb calling signals. From all accounts, he was leading competitions in his childhood basement, then in pickup baseball games, then travel team ball as a shortstop and pitcher, later in high school football showdowns as quarterback. He came out of Nevada as the state’s most prolific prep passer in yards and touchdowns. He was its Player of the Year as junior AND a senior, with career totals of 12,804 passing yards and 146 touchdowns.

Yet McNamara came to Michigan not to throw up pinball numbers, but to command the offense. Leading. Rising to the moment. That was always his bailiwick. That’s what Jim Harbaugh saw in him. At 6 feet 1, McNamara will never be the biggest passer, nor does he have the strongest arm, the swiftest feet or the twitchiest reflexes.

But he’s the quarterback of the moment because he’s the quarterback for the moment. From the time he raced onto the field as a mid-game replacement in last season’s matchup against Rutgers, McNamara has been large and in charge. That day, he led the third-biggest comeback in Michigan football history, erasing a 17-0 deficit and steering a 48-42 triple-overtime win in which he threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another.

Ironically, he came into that game in what he calls “my lowest moment” at U-M.

“The week before, against Wisconsin (when he came in mid-game to replace Milton) I thought I had demonstrated that I could move the team down the field and help us win.”

But when he didn’t get the start against Rutgers, he wondered what went wrong. Harbaugh told him that having to wait would one day make him “stronger.” But McNamara didn’t understand. What more could he do? How had he fallen short? Would he ever be able to prove himself to these coaches?

That soul-searching lasted about 90 minutes. Then Harbaugh told him to get in there.

He hasn’t come out since.

The ability to … continue

In person, McNamara is a beefy, compact athlete, with a broad, boyishly chiseled face reminiscent of Tom Cruise in “All the Right Moves.” You can picture him marching around in a varsity letter jacket, hands shoved in the pockets. The kind of guy who might wear eye black to class, just so he arrived at practice ready to go.

He is often hard on himself. He admits “I need to earn five compliments for every piece of criticism I get.” But he works so hard, his confidence is supreme. At times, it has needed it to be.

McNamara is polite and pleasant but also guarded, focused, and aware of his critics, not unlike another guy who played quarterback at Michigan named Tom Brady, who also had to battle a supposedly more physically talented quarterback (Drew Henson) to earn the catbird seat of the Wolverine offense.

For McNamara, the first “other” quarterback was Milton, an incredibly skilled athlete who just couldn’t get it done on the field (and who later transferred to Tennessee.) Now it’s J.J. McCarthy, a speedy freshman who will get snaps every game, including, most likely, tonight’s.

McNamara, a junior, is too honest to fake excitement at McCarthy running in to replace him. “The coaches feel he gives us something in the run game,” he said. “So if that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes. My mindset is he’s just making the field shorter for me.

“That’s the only way I can think about it, because no matter how I react I know it will affect the team.”

And he’s too much of a leader to let it affect them negatively.

In that way. McNamara is a mirror image of Harbaugh, his coach. Both have endured criticism and doubt, particularly last season, when in a COVID-19-shortened campaign, the Wolverines went 2-4. You lose like that, everyone will question everything — starting with the coach and the quarterback. But if it bothers you, you can’t let it show, because everyone is looking at you.

Ironically, that’s what brought the two men even closer.

“Being the quarterback, you’re put in the position where you get criticized,” McNamara says. “And obviously, it’s the same thing for the head coach. So when things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to, you know, it’s on us. The outside noise, the negativity that has been put on me or Coach Harbaugh, I think we’ve both done a good job of just … continuing.”

Continuing. It’s a perfect word. Head down. Eyes on the next step. Harbaugh likes to refer to it as “burnt wood.” Nothing you can do but keep moving through the forest, hoping to find the field of gold.

Ready for another ‘surreal moment’

That field is now within sight. Michigan has never played in the College Football Playoff (U-M’s most recent national title, in 1997, came in the days when the crown was mythical, decided by votes, not a scoreboard.). The Wolverines come into tonight’s game as an underdog to Georgia, a team that was undefeated and looked like world beaters until it faced Alabama in the SEC championship and got scorched, 41-24.

Few experts favor a Big Ten team over an SEC team these days, unless it’s Ohio State. And it feels as if some pundits have forgotten that McNamara and the Wolverines notched a big offensive (and defensive) win over the then-No. 3 Buckeyes last month, ending nine years of misery and propelling Michigan to a Big Ten championship win over Iowa.

“That was a pretty surreal moment,” McNamara said of the win over Ohio State. “It’s like you’ve been working for one thing your entire life and when you finally achieve it, it’s like the reason you came to that university, the reason you put in all the work. There’s not many feelings that can compare to it.”

Then he pauses and adds, “But we have to have the leadership to refocus — to not have our story end on that day.”

McNamara says he started watching tape on Iowa the morning after the Buckeye win. And he started watching tape on Georgia the same night his team learned of its bowl matchup. Interestingly, tonight’s semifinal will pit him against another quarterback who has had his detractors, Stetson Bennett, a former two-star prospect who gets the nod over five-star quarterback JT Daniels, because Bennett is seen as steadier and more ready for the big moment.

If that’s true, he’ll have his match across the field. McNamara may be a tank compared to college football’s sportscar quarterbacks, but — to use McNamara’s word — you know what tanks do really well?

They continue.

And when the final whistle blows, that’s all Michigan wants.

“I don’t think I’ve ever looked in the mirror and said, ‘I wish I was this’ or ‘I wish I was that,’ ’’ McNamara admits. “I feel that no matter what size I am or what I can do physically, the detail and the discipline I play with allow me to be a good player and a good teammate.”

Just to be clear, this time he was talking about football, not Little League. Then again, for a kid with the soul of a four-star general, the only difference is a few inches, a few pounds, and a few million people watching.

No big deal. He’s still in the middle of the action. Right where a leader expects to be.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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