RUNNERS LEARN RIVALRY IS FIERCE AS ONES BACK HOME

You would never think — with all these folks running around during Michigan-Michigan State week, wearing blue or green clothes, yelling blue or green insults — that anyone could wander this landscape saying, “What’s the big deal?”

Especially not the running backs on each team.

But we forget something. Not all these players were born here. Some of them come from . . . (gasp!) somewhere else!

Chris Howard comes from Louisiana. He is a star running back for Michigan, a junior. But in his freshman year, he played on special teams. And he remembers running downfield on a kickoff during his first U-M/MSU showdown. No big deal, he thought. Just another opponent. And then he looked over at a teammate alongside him, Chris Floyd, who comes from around here, Detroit’s Cooley High.

“Chris was running like a crazed man,” Howard recalls. “He was out of control. He wanted to take on the whole wedge! I was like, OK, you take on the wedge, I’ll make the tackle.”

He laughs. “That’s when I figured out this game means a whole lot more to certain people.”

Right. Sedrick Irvin is also finding that out. Irvin is the sensational freshman running back for State. He is from Miami. He has never witnessed a Wolverines-Spartans tilt. Blue and green are just colors to him.

But he’s learning fast.

The other day, Irvin made an offhand comment to a reporter. He said something like, “Playing Michigan is no different than playing Eastern Michigan.” It was interpreted as an insult.

“Guys at practice the next day were saying, ‘Dang, Sedric, how could you say that?’ ” Irvin says. “Then Brian Mosallam (who grew up in Dearborn) came over and started explaining what this game meant, and you could see it in his eyes. The burning desire. It looked like he was ready to cry. It was like someone had just killed someone in his family or something.

“I could tell. He would play this game if his leg was broken. He’d play this game for seven days straight. I mean, these guys really want to win this, don’t they?”

Like I said, he’s learning fast. Fridays to remember Of course, anyone who has played football has been part of some rivalry. Whether it’s the preppie crosstown high school or the big college with its fancy stadium or the high-spending, professional team with its superstars wearing sunglasses — there are always games in which one team feels overdue and the other feels entitled. Red-letter games. Games of the heart.

For Howard, it might not have been Michigan-Michigan State, but it sure was John Curtis High vs. St. Augustine in New Orleans, once a year. These rivals would open their seasons against each other, on a Friday night, in the sweltering heat. The game was played in a huge stadium. It was televised.

In his senior season, Howard was the star of his team. Supposedly, the enemy St. Augustine players hung his jersey over the tackling dummies during the week. But Howard had the last laugh. His team won again.

“We got to brag for a year,” he says.

For Irvin, who went to Miami High, the rival was Killian. Last game of the year. It, too, was played on the sweaty fringes of a Friday night, in downtown Miami. In a big stadium. Maybe 16,000 fans.

“It was the type of game that if you had to go to work, you made sure you were off by 7:30 that night,” Irvin recalls. “If you played for another high school, you made up an illness so you could miss that game and come to ours. That’s how big it was.”

And of course, Irvin’s team won.

“All three years,” he crows.

See? This rivalry thing comes naturally. Who’ll control ground? What is a little less natural is a Michigan-Michigan State game where running backs aren’t front and center, the story of the showdown. In the last decade, the Wolverines have entered this ring with heavyweights such as Leroy Hoard, Jamie Morris, Tyrone Wheatley and Tshimanga Biakabutuka, and the Spartans with Lorenzo White, Blake Ezor, Tico Duckett and Duane Goulbourne.

This year, the focus is more on the quarterbacks, or the defenses, or the receivers. But make no mistake. The team that runs the ball better will have the advantage. And Howard and Irvin are looking to put their marks on this whole Wolverine- Spartan thing.

“I may not be able to work up the hatred that some of the guys have in this game,” says Howard. “You know, I didn’t grow up here, I don’t have a lot of guys I went to school with on the other team. But once you see your teammates involved, you can’t help it.”

“I can get into it like everybody else,” says Irvin. “I’m hyped.”

College football. They come and go. White went to play for the Houston Oilers, Wheatley went to the Giants, Morris, Ezor, Biakabutuka, all left to play for the NFL. For the fans, this showdown is a yearly occurrence, like the leaves falling, like the holidays, an annual boiling of the blood, a circle on the calendar.

But for the players it is, at most, a four-time thing. And some arrive here without a clue as to what it all means.

That’s OK. Before they are gone, the blues and the greens have bled into their skin and embedded under it. If you look closely at Howard and Irvin, two out-of-town running backs, you can see the colors taking hold already.

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