by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PASADENA, Calif. — Suddenly, the grass had turned to track, the football to a baton, and he was back in his lane, chugging his arms and lifting his legs and leaving them all in the dust. Tyrone Wheatley was gone, baby, he was cape and boots, nobody would touch him. The crowd was roaring and the TV announcers were gushing and the end zone was getting closer and closer, he was going in — he was going in! — the longest run in the history of the Rose Bowl, 88 yards of gobbled grass, and nobody knew that he was doing it all on one leg. The right leg. He could barely feel the left, only his toes when they hit the ground.

“It was numb from the first quarter when somebody hit me in the back with his helmet,” the former track star would say after Michigan’s crazy 38-31 Rose Bowl win over Washington. “I was in spasms. It was scary. All I could feel was this tingling.”

In between series, he would lie on the sidelines, being yanked like a wishbone by trainers trying to stretch him. Ice pads. Then heat. Then ice. Then heat. Maybe in another game, he comes out for good. Maybe in another game, he saves it till next week. But this is Pasadena, where too many a Michigan player has left his heart stomped and broken. One leg?

“You gotta play with this pain, Tyrone!” his position coach, Fred Jackson, had yelled after the injury. The day before, Jackson, a bit of a father figure to the kid, had purposely taken Wheatley to a wall outside the Rose Bowl, where the heroes of New Years’ past are engraved in copper plaques.

“Tyrone, you know the last time a Michigan player was on that wall? It was 1989. It was Leroy Hoard. You know what Hoard was?”

Jackson paused for effect.

“A running back.”

Tyrone Wheatley, one leg, was staying in this game.

He stayed in for his first touchdown, a 56-yard burst that unfolded like quick theater. The curtain came up, the Washington defense was smeared out of the way, and Wheatley, on a delayed handoff, motored straight to the end zone.

He stayed in through his second touchdown, that 88-yarder, the record-breaker.

He stayed in for his third touchdown, late in the third quarter, the one that truly showed the Washington Huskies that this was not last year, and Michigan was not losing. The Huskies had just fumbled. It was first down. Wheatley took the ball and, from memory, since the left leg was really nothing now, ignited. Twenty-four yards and three broken tackles later, he dove into the end zone, the score was tied. Washington would lead no more.

“Unbelievable!” the announcers crowed.

Yes. Unbelievable. Until finally, with the sky turning dark, the body said “no more” and Gary Moeller, head coach, agreed. The kid had 235 yards. He had three touchdowns. Bent over, muscles throbbing, he sucked air and watched his teammates finish what he had started, a Rose Bowl that could not be denied.

Somewhere outside the stadium, a copper plaque began to warm to the name of Tyrone Wheatley. Nothing important?

“Tyrone? He was good today,” Moeller said, trying to stifle a laugh, after Michigan had won its first Rose Bowl for him and avenged last year’s blowout with a victory that could only have been better had it meant something. No national championships were decided here. No important rankings. And yet, there was magnificent drama on this California night, and it was more than enough.

A game? This was a Russian novel, all plot twists and character turns, heroes and goats, death and resurrection, plays that seemed to be pivotal that were washed away by later action. There was Elvis Grbac, in his Michigan farewell, racing across the field with the game ball held high. There was Washington’s Mark Brunell, the slippiest quarterback this side of Randall Cunningham, who almost won this game for Washington by himself. There was Steve Everitt, the Michigan center, who had missed last year’s Rose Bowl with an injury suffered the week before, and had waited, like most of the Wolverines, 51 weeks to get that rid of that bad taste.

But the hero of the game, the star of the play, the guy in all the photos when photos are all that’s left of this game, was Wheatley.

“We couldn’t get a grip on him,” Huskies coach Don James admitted, sounding like Popeye having tried to tackle the Silver Surfer. “I kept saying,

‘We need to stop him.’ But when a guy is 225 pounds — he’s more like 240 in pads — well, that’s easy to say, and hard to do.”

Impossible was more like it. Consider that Wheatley only carried the ball 15 times all game. That means he averaged a touchdown every five plays, and each handoff was worth an average of 15.7 yards. Can that be right — 15.7 yards per carry?

On one leg? The hero rests

In the pandemonium after the game, the U-M players ran to the stands, stood

on benches, and began to lead the marching band in a round of “The Victors.” Grbac did a shimmy and waved a victory finger. The offensive line was dancing. Wheatley, only a sophomore, was sitting down, his body still trembling. He asked a coach to help him up, so he could at least stand for this memory.

“I couldn’t dance,” he would say, “but . . . “

But nothing. This was a spectacular and gutsy performance that will rank with the best ever in this bowl game. Two- hundred and thirty-five yards? In just three quarters? A former track standout and Michigan state high school champion in the 100, 200 and long jump — Carl Lewis in pads — Wheatley, once upon a time, thought about doing both sports, maybe trying for the Olympics.

And now?

“Now, I think football is working out for me,” he said.

Yeah. And this election thing is working out for Bill Clinton.

On the visit to the stadium the day before, Jackson, the coach, had pointed to the empty plaque that read 1993. “You know, Tyrone,” he said. “One day, when you’re 56 years old, you’ll be able to come back here and see your name right there. All you have to do is have a great game tomorrow.”

Anybody got a chisel?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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