MORE TO HART’S CHATTER THAN MEETS THE EAR

Talk, talk, talk. They talk about his talk. Did Mike Hart really say this? Did he really mean that? Michigan would win a rematch with Ohio State? Michigan will beat Notre Dame, guaranteed? Michigan State is Michigan’s “little brother”? Talk, talk, talk. They talk about his talk.

And that’s just what he wants.

Because when Mike Hart talks, everyone focuses on the motor mouth atop the man’s powerfully quick body and nobody sees the 5-year-old nervous kid inside it, or the shy 7- or 8-year-old walking into yet another new classroom, or the 11-, 12- and 13-year-old who had to, over and over, with his struggling mother and siblings, pack up his belongings and move within 30 days, “because you get 30 days when you’re evicted.”

Talk? Talk is how Mike Hart sets the table. Talk is how he clears a path. Talk is the machete that cuts down the big leaves and allows him his opening. In grade school recess. In high school hallways. On the college campus. Hart tells everyone how good he will be. How good his team will be.

And then he tries to make it happen.

Understand this: Mike Hart, all of 5-feet-9, may be amazing going forward, but he does one thing consistently backward.

First he convinces everyone else.

Then he convinces himself.

“It’s a defense mechanism,” he admits in a candid moment, sitting alone in Crisler Arena last week. “Even if I’m not confident, people are gonna think I’m confident. … My freshman year, I was nervous. I was worried. But I would never let anyone know that. … I was like, ‘You’re not gonna stop me,’ that kind of thing.”

He smiles. “But I didn’t actually believe that until it started happening.”

Wait a minute. He’s down to his last home game as a Wolverine. He holds almost every important Michigan rushing record. He has been a whirling dervish of speed and confidence and talk, talk, talk ever since he broke 100 yards in the third game of his freshman season.

And all this time he had … doubt?

A confidence game

Well, take the week he guaranteed the Notre Dame victory. It was a crowded news conference. His Wolverines had just been blown out by Oregon and were 0-2, unranked, out of the national championship picture. Yet here was Hart insisting the guys would be just fine, you could count on a victory over the Fighting Irish.

But in his mind, he now admits, “I was like, ‘Wow … how good are we? Is this team really ready for this? … Did (Jake Long, Chad Henne and Hart) make the right decision coming back?’ “

Wait, I say. If you had such doubt, why not just admit it?

He looks at me as if I asked him to dance naked on State Street.

“I can’t let people know I’m thinking that!” he says. “I have to let the team know I had confidence.”

Hart is the ultimate glass half-full public persona, the kind of guy who jumps from a plane and figures the parachute thing will work itself out.

And that is precisely why he will be so sorely missed. Coach Lloyd Carr gets almost teary-eyed when you ask him what influence Hart has been in Ann Arbor the past four years. His teammates seem to stand up straighter when they talk about him.

Hart rubs off on people. His energy. His positivism. His confidence. There are guys you hate to play against and there are guys you wish were on your team. And I guarantee you almost every opponent Hart has faced has privately fantasized how much better it would be if Hart switched jerseys.

Why is he so unique? Perhaps because he plays with the exuberance of a son and the wisdom of a father.

Much as he has lived his life.

A difficult childhood

By now, Hart’s story has been told more often than an E! network rerun. Grew up in the Syracuse area, his parents divorced when he was 6, his single mother, brothers and sisters constituting the family of which he was suddenly, despite his age, the most responsible child. When Hart was 8, his 2-year-old sister, Kaitlyn, drowned in a swimming pool. Hart was the one who found her and jumped to pull her to the side. He has a tattoo of her on his arm, with the words “Never Forgotten.”

The family moved often – financial strains, he says – and Hart bounced from school to school and home to home, attending, he says, at least 11 different schools before eighth grade. He was cooking for his family as a boy, a 10-year-old at the grill, making hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, later cooking with oil and grease and frying chicken and more elaborate dishes. He was never a tall kid, never big, but he was fast and strong and his athletic skills were incredible, so he played sports and he excelled in sports and somehow with all that, he also stayed an amazing student, a National Honor Society member, a reported 1280 score on his SATs.

Telling Mike Hart’s story is as dizzying as listening to Hart tell it himself. So much is crammed in that he seems to be living under the fast-forward button on his personal remote control.

But he is still human. He still has fears and worries. “I’ll only share those with people I know really well – my family, my girlfriend,” he says. “You can admit your fears to them, what worries you, what you’re scared of.”

He grins. “It’s like counseling, but you’re not talking to a shrink.”

The biggest game of all

So you wonder, this week, if the colors scarlet and gray have come up in those more private conversations. Because for all he has done – the all-time rushing record, leading the Big Ten as a freshman, countless honors and awards – there is one thing he hasn’t experienced: smiling after an Ohio State game.

“It’s irritating, I can’t lie,” he says. “It’s real irritating, especially with the way the game went last year and the year before. … It’s hard.”

Can you put it into words?

He doesn’t blink.

“I’d rather lose to Appalachian State than lose to Ohio State.”

And there you have it. Another combustible sentence. But this is not for effect. This is not for the Buckeyes’ bulletin board. It is honestly, genuinely how Hart feels. He wants this weekend’s victory because he likes things complete. He likes numbers. He likes to know he has passed 100 yards in a game. He likes to know how many guys he made miss when he scooted through the line, cut left, juked right, barreled straight, rumbled forward. He likes to rank himself among the top five “complete football players” in the country.

Besides, a victory over Ohio State would be like a dam burst of cleansing water over the debris of this season. Even as highly regarded as Hart is, remember this year: 1) He missed three full games with injuries and parts of several others. 2) He will not win the Heisman Trophy as many predicted in September. 3) He may not exceed the rushing yards he collected as a freshman.

Yet a victory Saturday, as he battles an ankle injury, could cap a year that, in its own way, may be Hart’s most satisfying. “I’ve never had a season like this,” he says. “This team had high expectations, then we didn’t have any expectations at all, like we couldn’t even make a bowl game.

“And then to go through what we went through and see where this team is now. I feel like an old man talking like this but – it’s kind of like watching a kid grow up.”

Carr, his coaches and many fans feel the same way about Hart. You don’t often see forces like this in college football, and we won’t see one like him very soon. In a world where cameo stardom is more common – one great season, a few great games – Hart has been a four-part documentary, on the screen seemingly forever.

How fitting if, after four years, he saved the biggest scene for last, one huge burst just when you thought you’d seen it all. He hasn’t spoken to the media this week, but you know, should U-M win, he will be inseparable from those microphones Saturday. Talk, talk, talk. They talk about his talk. He now admits that all this time he worried, he fretted, he had his doubts. But you could have fooled us. And that may be his greatest feat of all.

SIDEBAR

All Hart

Mike Hart, game by

game, this season.

He did not play

against Illinois, Minnesota or Wisconsin:

OPPONENT ATT YDS AVG TD Appalachian State 23 188 8.2 3 Oregon …… 25 127 5.1 0 Notre Dame .. 35 187 5.3 2 Penn State … 44 153 3.5 1 At Northwestern 30 106 3.5 1 Eastern Michigan 22 215 9.8 3 Purdue …… 21 102 4.9 2 At Michigan State 15 110 7.3 0 Season .. 215 1,188 5.5 12 Career …. 965 4,867 5.0 39

Big Game

Matchup: No. 23 Michigan 8-3, 6-1 Big Ten; No. 7 Ohio State 10-1, 6-1.

When: Noon Saturday. Where: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor. TV: ABC (Channel 7 in Detroit). Line: OSU by 4 1/2 . Series: U-M leads, 57-40-6.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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