Oh, to be under that ball as it falls from the sky, an army of scarlet monsters thundering toward you, ready to kill, and from the stands you know it looks absolutely impossible, this maze of danger to the end zone, impossible, no way, and yet in your mind, you know the secret path. Your breath comes quickly. Your muscles tingle. You hear a distant “Ahhhhh” from the crowd and here comes the ball, thudding into your hands, and now everything goes silent, your legs flip on, automatic churn, you are moving, moving, moving in some frozen zone where your legs become your eyes, they steer you past that first lunging monster and past another who brushes against you, and now you are building speed as you whisk past another body and another body, they are standing still, it seems, and you lose them easily and suddenly, there is only green grass and you are into a gallop, free as flowing water, you hear your heartbeat inside your helmet and you can make out now the colors of the end zone, the fans on their feet, gasping, unbelieving, it’s you who is doing this to them, you, you, and from under that helmet you feel your cheek muscles rise until they hurt, they can go no higher but you are not in pain, you are . . . smiling! Smiling as big a smile as you can get, the landscape whizzing past you, you cross the stripe, your engines cool, the world returns to your ears, and now the noise is so close you can almost touch it and suddenly, awash in that glory, you point to the crowd and tuck the football and lift a leg and you freeze, just for an instant, long enough for a million snapshots around the world, Mr. Heisman, live and in color. . . .
Oh, to be Desmond Howard at that moment! Was it that Ohio State punt return that made you choose him as Michigan’s best athlete of 1991? Was it that famous dive in the end zone against Notre Dame, arms out, legs straight back — he looked like Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four, elastic flesh, stretching beyond human form — was it that? Was it the two touchdowns against Florida State, which was supposed to be able to stop him, or the two against Michigan State, or was it just that whole streak of weeks where his scoring two touchdowns was so predictable, the publicity department wanted to rename him Desmond Two-Two?
Or was it the Heisman Trophy? What’s not to like? Any one of those memories seems stirring enough to have earned this fellow the title of Michigan’s Best of 1991. But there was more, a complete package, a heart as well as a body. We came to know Desmond Howard in 1991, came to know him in many ways: as a young man, as a student, as the focus of endless flashbulbs — and we were pleasantly surprised at what we saw. Here was a fun person with an explosive laugh, like a tickled baby. Here was a thoughtful student who dreams of a doctorate and is scheduled to graduate on time, next May, four years and a diploma, the way it’s supposed to be.
Here was a multifaceted person, who revels in the cheering of the crowd, yet lives off-campus, by himself, away from the attention and favors that await him on campus. He meets celebrities. He jokes with high school kids. He shakes everybody’s hand. He seems to embody that old Rudyard Kipling poem, about “walk with kings, yet never lose the common touch.” Is there anyone who doesn’t like Desmond Howard?
Not too long ago, I went to Michigan to speak in a seminar on athletics and academics. The panel included an administrator, the hockey coach, a hockey player, a local TV broadcaster, myself — and Desmond Howard. I think it fair to say he was more famous than the whole panel by a 3-to-1 margin. That week, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, everyone from the television networks to the New York Times wanted his attention. Yet here he was, on this panel in a campus auditorium, mostly, I think, because he wanted to be there. He wanted to say something.
You give Howard credit for that. Just as you give him credit for accepting his Heisman and mentioning the hostages coming back from the Middle East. I often tease Howard that he is a throwback to the ’60s, when students had something to say besides, “How much does it pay?” He always laughs.
“The ’60s, yeah, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha,” he says.
I think he likes it. Anything’s possible with Magic There were other fine candidates for this award. Ernie Harwell, whose voice stuck in our hearts years ago. And Cecil Fielder, the home run king, and Barry Sanders, who does things with a football that make even Howard blink in admiration, and John Herrington, who continues to churn out winners at Farmington Hills Harrison High School, year after year, how does he do it?
And yet Howard was selected perhaps because he did so many things we never figured would be done. (Fourth-and-one against Notre Dame? A bomb?) He made every punt return an adventure. He made double coverage on pass routes look like a double exercise in futility. He makes Michigan fans feel as if there is a chance against anybody — including Washington, the opponent next week in the Rose Bowl. Don’t tell U-M fans about the team’s sorry tradition in Pasadena. This is a new deal. This is the Desmond Howard year. A Wolverine was never supposed to win a Heisman Trophy again, either, remember? Things have changed. No. 21 is out there; anything can happen.
So maybe that is what earned him your votes. Or maybe it was because, in a year that dragged with news of war and layoffs and foreign countries collapsing at the seams, here was a kid who seemed to smile through everything, having a ball playing ball, he made us feel young and alive. Howard’s father, J.D., a tool-and-die maker in Cleveland, recently told his son: “You make this whole family feel good. Just the idea of you.”
It is the idea of Desmond Howard — as well as the man himself — that we salute today. Michigan’s Best. And he’s not done yet. HOW READERS VOTED Top vote-getters in fan balloting for 1991 Michigan Best award: NAME NUMBER Desmond Howard, Michigan flanker, return specialist 778 Ernie Harwell, former Tigers radio announcer 582 John Herrington, Harrison High football coach 573 Barry Sanders, Lions running back 426 Cecil Fielder, Tigers first baseman 408 Others receiving votes in order of number cast: Meg Mallon, Steve Avery, Gary Moeller, Julie Farrell-Ovenhouse, Dennis Rodman, Doug Kurtis, Jerry Ball, Sergei Fedorov, Jerod Swallow, Greg Skrepenak, John Mazza, Rick Comley, Chris Webber, Ben Braun, Mike Barrowman, Steve Smith, Chris Byrd, Mike Hill, Marcus Kennedy, Jill Schlabach, James Toney. Previous winners
* 1990: Cecil Fielder, Tigers first baseman.
* 1989: Ella Willis, Detroit marathon runner.
* 1988: Steve Yzerman, Red Wings captain.
* 1987: Alan Trammell, Tigers shortstop.
* 1986: Walt Braun, Marysville High football coach.