You are a freshman. You attend Michigan. It is a long way from home, a long way from your mother and your sister and your two younger brothers. Your friends are not there. You old schoolmates are not there. You are a freshman. You are on your own.
You go through the normal freshman hurdles. You find your dorm room. You meet your roommate. You weave through a maze of buildings on the first day of classes. You locate cafeterias. You buy your books. You get plenty of homework.
You are a freshman, getting used to college life. But you are also a football player, a running back, so on top of your classes and your dorm and your homework, you must find time for three-hour practices and two-hour weight room sessions and meetings and films and talks with your coaches.
And, oh, yes, a game every Saturday.
You are not expected to see much action. “Maybe a few plays here or there,” you tell yourself. After all, you are a freshman. “I’ll get my feet wet. I’ll get ready for next year.”
But things change. The running back ahead of you doesn’t get it done. The coaches call your name, and you run in and you do what you’ve always done, you look for daylight and keep your body low. You pick up a few yards. You pick up a few more. You are only 5-feet-9 and weigh less than 200 pounds — some teammates call you “the midget” — but you are able to shake a few defenders and you do OK.
After the first game you tell yourself, “This isn’t impossible.”
After the second game you say, “I think I can play here.”
In the third game, you get 25 carries, three times more than your first two games combined. The coach keeps putting you in, calling your number, putting you in, again and again. You run, you scamper, you dodge, you plow.
When the gun sounds, you have 121 yards.
After the game, people treat you like a star.
The numbers keep growing
Your name is Michael Hart — although “Mike” is fine by you — and week after week, you get more and more carries and week after week you get more and more yards. You get 99 and your first touchdown against Iowa. You get 35 carries against Minnesota and you gain 160 yards. Thirty-five carries?
Your numbers add up like a pinball scoreboard. Against Illinois, you get 40 carries for 234 yards, breaking freshman records. Someone asks you if you knew how many times you handled the ball and you say, “Not really. I thought maybe 20.”
You are still a freshman, you are still living in that dorm room with your freshman roommate — who is also on the team. The rest of your floor is not. The rest are typical freshmen, consumed with books, papers, lattes, iPods, e-mails, posters and phone calls home.
On Saturday nights, when you leave the stadium, with the din of 110,000 fans ringing in your ears, you return here, to the dorm, and the world feels as if it has been stuffed into a closet. So quiet. So calm. So … normal.
And then you flick on the TV and you are all over the news, and you get up the next morning and you are on the front page of the sports section.
Why MSU is same as other games
You are a freshman, your name is Michael Hart, you are a long way from home, and now they are telling you this weekend’s game is really special. Really unique.
“It’s Michigan-Michigan State, dude,” they say. “There’s nothing like it.”
You nod and grin. Who is this Michigan State? You know the Spartans are the “other” school. You know they are the “rival.” But in truth, they don’t mean much to you. You didn’t grow up picking sides. You didn’t grow up green or blue. You grew up orange, with Syracuse just down the road. What do you know from green or blue?
But you are on the team now. You will get behind the spirit. You tell a writer, “I’m sure come Saturday it’ll mean a lot to me,” but in truth, all games mean a lot and you will do in this one as you’ve done in the ones before it. You will take that football and try to make them miss.
You are a freshman, who never expected to play this much, who never expected to rack up this many yards, who never expected the eyes of so many fans would be upon you so quickly. It is not even Thanksgiving, you are but halfway through your first college semester, and you wonder if anyone else has ever had to go through all this. Why, the only person who could feel more intensity would be a quarterback!
And then you look across the huddle.
And you see Chad Henne.
And you wink.
And he winks.
And in the crazy world of college football, you exhale a bit, because at least you are not alone.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org