Their hair is thinner now. Their bellies jell over their belts. Their muscles are fleshy, no longer tight. Some have had doctors tell them to slow down, watch the blood pressure. When you meet them, many do not seem big enough to have done what they did on that cold Saturday in November 1969.
But then, what they did was the stuff of giants.
There are big games, huge games, and once in a while, life and football actually switch places. I never used to believe that. It wasn’t until I did a book with Bo Schembechler a few years ago, and talked with dozens of his former players, and kept hearing “1969.” Over and over. Like a password from a secret society.
“Oh, 1969” they’d say, “nothing tops ’69 . . .”
They were talking about a season — Schembechler’s first, when many players quit under his tyranny — but mostly they were talking about a game. The last game. The championship game. Michigan-Ohio State. They talk about it still. It binds them like a shoelace, weaving through their pride then yanking tightly.
Was there ever a day like that? Unlikely heroes, like Barry Pierson, a defensive back who is now in the fish business. He caught three interceptions that day — “A career in one game,” people said. And Garvie Craw, the running back, who now works on Wall Street. He dove for two touchdowns against a defense that just didn’t give up touchdowns.
Maybe the greatest one-day accomplishment in U-M football the last 30 years — is this: Of all the players Schembechler has coached, none are closer to him than the men who wore the helmets that Saturday.
And he didn’t recruit a single one of them. Bo and Woody, face to face
“They’re on our side of the field!”
Schembechler swallowed. He had just led his team out of the tunnel, whooping with the fever of playing the best team in the nation, and here was Woody Hayes’ mighty Ohio State Buckeyes, unbeaten, untouched, warming up on the Michigan side of the field. It was a psyche job. Woody knew better. He was seeing if anyone had the guts.
All eyes fell on Schembechler. A few years earlier, he was Woody’s protege, his football son, the man who would succeed Woody at Ohio State. Instead, he struck out on his own. Now, here he was, telling his mentor to skedaddle. His players watched. A test of faith.
“Woody,” Bo announced, heart racing, “you’re on our side of the field . .
Hayes glared at him. For years he had coached this pugnacious kid, made him the pit bull that he was. Would he laugh now and shoo him away? They stared each other down. Four seconds. Five seconds.
“FINE,” Hayes finally barked. “OK, MEN! LET’S MOVE!”
Schembechler exhaled. He turned back towards his team, and saw them whopping in celebration. “BO TOLD WOODY!” they cheered.
Some feel the game was won right then.
But you could trace this thing to a million openings. There was the year before, when the Wolverines were embarrassed by the Buckeyes, who went for a two-point conversion when leading, 48-14.
There was the week before, when, in the locker room after beating Iowa, the entire U-M team stayed in uniform and chanted, “BEAT THE BUCKS!”
There were the days before, when Schembechler taped photos to each player’s locker, photos of their Buckeye parallel, a quarterback for quarterback, lineman for a lineman. And then he hollered, “You, Thom Darden! Are you ready to outplay the great Jack Tatum? . . . And you, Don Moorhead! Are you ready to outplay the great Rex Kern?”
“YES SIR!” they shouted back.
It was every movie you’d ever seen.
‘They will not score again!’
And so, naturally, it had to have the perfect ending. Truth be told, it was over at halftime, after Michigan, on liquid adrenaline, scored three touchdowns and a field goal and stunned the nation. It was like wiping out a Navy fleet. Ohio State was the best team in college football — some said better than several NFL teams — and no opponent had come closer than 27 points. Here was Michigan, a laughable underdog, leading, 24-12?
“THEY WILL NOT SCORE AGAIN!” yelled Jim Young, Schembechler’s defensive coordinator, in the wild halftime locker room. He pounded the blackboard with both fists. “THEY WILL NOT SCORE AGAIN!”
They didn’t. That was the final: 24-12. And more than just a Rose Bowl was decided when the sun set. A football program was born again. A coach was made. Schembechler, who stayed up all night greeting well-wishers at his house, became an instant legend, and the war between he and Woody was begun.
“The upset of the decade . . .” reporters typed in the press box, even as the last strains of “California Here We Come” wafted into the late autumn air.
Twenty five years later now. Schembechler does the radio analysis. Moorhead is a schoolteacher. Dan Dierdorf, one of the lineman, does “Monday Night Football.” Dick Calderazzo, another lineman, is a lawyer.
They are all over the place, but they are back here, every November — at least in their minds and hearts. I call Schembechler and ask if he could, right now, sit down and recite every play, every series, of that one game 25 years ago.
“Of course,” he says, as if it’s a stupid question. And maybe it is.