ANN ARBOR — Jamie Morris sat on the office couch, staring at his feet, still wearing the winter jacket he’d worn to his final exam an hour ago. There was an awkward silence to the room. Waiting. They were all just waiting.
“How did you hear?” Morris was asked.
“I got a phone call just before I left and the guy said, ‘Did you hear about coach Bo?’ And I said, ‘No, what?’ And he said he’d had a heart attack or something, and was in the hospital undergoing surgery. I was stunned.”
Coach Bo? Surgery? The image tried to squeeze into Morris’ mind, and every time it tried, it failed. Bo Schembechler was not the type to lie on an operating table. Bo Schembechler was not the type to close his eyes and let a doctor tear into him. Bo Schembechler was the powerful man who had convinced Morris to come to this university and who had developed him into a star running back and now he was supposed to be out there convincing other kids — like he had been doing, what, forever? An operation? Heart surgery? Bo? “He probably wanted to stay up during the anesthesia,” Morris joked softly, “and supervise.” Life has a way of twisting on itself. A college football coach spends most of his career watching and worrying about his players. Suddenly, during one snow-soaked December afternoon, the formula was reversed; the coach was in trouble. The players were inhabiting the football office.
John Kolesar, the junior flanker, had been there, asking questions. So had Greg McMurtry, the sophomore receiver. John Elliot, the senior offensive lineman was upstairs, walking around the halls. Waiting. Everyone was waiting for news.
“John and I had just seen Bo last week,” said Morris, the senior, shaking his head, “I teased him. I said, ‘I’m gonna quit school after this semester. He said, ‘You do, and I’ll kick your butt.’ ” Schembechler always there
This is the kind of guy we are talking about. Bo Schembechler, the human growl. He had screamed at these players hundreds of times. Told them all they would never make his team. But through the years, they saw the gleam of caring underneath, and now it was in danger of dying.
On Monday Schembechler, 58, went to the hospital for regularly scheduled tests, and on Tuesday morning he complained of chest pains and within hours was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. That fast? That fast.
“He’s had that before, right?” Morris asked.
“Quadruple bypass in 1976,” someone said.
“And a heart attack in ’69” added another.
“Man,” Morris whispered.
He has been coaching at Michigan for 19 years. He is as entrenched as one of the red brick buildings. All those victories. All those championships. There is an aura about this pear-shaped man with the sunglasses that seems invincible. Who is more famous at Michigan than Bo Schembechler?
No one. And it made no difference.
His players waited. The time passed. Mark Messner, the junior lineman, came in through the glass doors. Outside, the cars were splashing past silently, the sun now gone, the light fading.
“The man’s supposed to be immortal,” Messner said, laughing uneasily. “I don’t like it when he’s sick.” Messner could have graduated this year. He’ll stay one more season. Schembechler.
“He’s been like our father here. When we’re sick he calls and makes sure we’re taking medicine. . . . We feel kinda helpless without our head coach. I’ve only been to two practices in four years here that he wasn’t at.” Players learn a lesson of life
All afternoon, the phone rang at the Michigan offices. Players called one another. Heart surgery? There was a bowl game to be played in less than three weeks. Heart surgery? There was a season to be played next year, and the year after that.
Heart surgery? Can that happen? The coach who had taught them all about blocking, catching, winning, and losing, was now, in a crazy way, teaching them again. Life, to many of these young players, was a series of lights that would all turn green. But suddenly, here was their coach, tougher than leather, unconscious on a table with his heart in another man’s hands.
It can happen.
Bo Schembechler should be OK. Tuesday evening, the doctors said the operation was a success — they had caught him just hours before perhaps a massive and fatal heart attack. With proper care, he can return to coaching next year.
Nobody knew that at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Here were a group of kids, there for their coach, without pads, without helmets. Just people. “He always prepared us to know when one man goes down, another takes over,” said Morris. He sounded very grown up.
Life is funny. Sometimes, in the poorest tragedy, you find out how rich you are. Bo Schembechler, for all of his antics, has raised a group of players who will come to the office and make phone calls and care. That alone should make his heart feel much better.