by | Dec 5, 1986 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

HONOLULU — “Wilcher, I want to see you. . . . “

It was trouble. He knew it, and the whole team knew it. Bo Schembechler doesn’t ask to see one of his players after a game. Not alone. Not unless there’s trouble.

Thomas Wilcher approached his coach.

“Come on back here,” Schembechler said, turning down a hallway.

Wilcher followed.

“This way,” Schembechler said.

Wilcher followed.

They walked to an isolated corner of the arena behind the football locker room. Wilcher felt a shiver of fear. Was it anger he detected in Bo’s voice? No. It was not anger. That was what worried him.

Finally, Schembechler stopped. He turned to his senior running back and took a breath. The game had ended less than 20 minutes ago and a press room full of reporters was waiting to hear the coach explain Michigan’s first loss of the season. It was big news, national news.

It would have to wait.

There was another loss to attend to first.

“Your sister,” the coach said to Wilcher. “I . . . heard something. I believe she might have passed away.”

He motioned to a nearby phone.

“Call your family,” he said.

No one else knew this. There were no questions about it in that post-game press conference. But Thomas Wilcher made the call that Saturday afternoon, with his coach standing alongside him, and the news was confirmed; his step-sister, Rose — “I considered her my real sister,” he would say. “She was the one who really raised me” — was dead, a heart attack at age 33. Schembechler had known it hours before but did not tell Wilcher until after the game against Minnesota.

“Were you upset that he waited to tell you?” someone would ask Wilcher.
“No,” he would say. “I wish he’d never told me.”

Schembechler told Wilcher not to worry about school or football. Just go home. But he did not go home, not right away. He sat in his room for a while, then drove around. Finally, around 11 p.m., he headed back to his mother’s house in Detroit. He knew she’d be sick — she was sick much of the time — and his five sisters and brother would be there attending to her. He wondered to himself, as he drove, where his sister’s four children would live now. And he knew they’d probably end up with his mother as well.

He never thought twice about that day’s upset by Minnesota. Football was no longer as crucial as it had been that morning. It still isn’t.

Wilcher and his teammates are here in Hawaii for their final regular-season football game, and there are palm trees lining their hotel driveway, and papaya sold in the market downstairs. If you could check your emotional baggage at the airport, it might be paradise.

But you can’t. You never can.

And this is not as much fun as Thomas Wilcher once figured it would be.

Three days ago, Wilcher, a thickly muscled 22-year-old, sat in an Ann Arbor coffee shop near his campus apartment, his coat wet with rain. When death was mentioned, he simply shrugged, because he is tired of it coming around. Rose is gone now. His stepfather died (of cancer) in July. His natural father passed away when he was “about 9 or 10” — he’s not sure which. But he remembers the night it happened, because his mother, who had been separated from the man for several years, was watching TV and saw a report on a Southfield resident who had been shot by robbers. She went out and bought a newspaper, and when she returned she went upstairs and told her two sons, who were playing in their room, that their father had been murdered.

“I faced it then,” Wilcher said in the coffee shop. “I was younger, and I faced it. But I don’t want to face it anymore. I really wish I just never found out. It makes you lonely, and it makes you depressed. It makes you . . . I . . . lonely and depressed, that’s all.”

There was a plate of food in front of him, but he wasn’t eating. His close-cropped hair was damp. His eyes were teary, but then, it had been cold outside.

“My sister took care of me a lot when I was younger,” he said quietly, ”
’cause my mom got sick a lot. We were always staying at her house, so we got close. When I found out she died, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to go home.”

He picked up a fork, then put it back down. “I haven’t been going to class since it happened. I’m gonna ask for incompletes, you know, finish the work later, if the professors let me.

“I gotta go talk to some of them,” but he appeared to be in little hurry.

Thirty-three is not an age to die — not for the rich, not for the poor. But in families like Wilcher’s, where money is scarce and children far outnumber paychecks, there are no funds for preventive check-ups, for credit-card phone calls, for another opinion. Wilcher still doesn’t know what really killed his sister. He probably never will. “She was healthy,” he said, shrugging. “She never had no heart trouble before.”

She was sleeping downstairs in her Muskegon home that night, and her kids were upstairs, and her husband wasn’t around. The medical people said 3 a.m., something happened, a clogged artery maybe. But they had to do an autopsy anyhow, Wilcher said, because they really didn’t know.

And by the time the body was finished, it was Friday before she could be buried — Friday, the day before the Michigan-Ohio State game. After the funeral, he came back to school and traveled with the team to Columbus. The next day, he played.

He didn’t play particularly well. With about three minutes left and Michigan leading, 26-24, he fumbled. And until the final seconds it looked like that fumble would cost Michigan its biggest game of the year. “I was on the sidelines and I said to myself, if we lose this game I’m going to have to quit the team. I’m just gonna have to quit the team, that’s all.”

He had been on the team for four years.

The Wolverines did not lose that game. They won when an Ohio State field goal attempt missed wide left. In the locker room afterward, Wilcher did not join in the celebration. “I didn’t really feel part of the team,” said its third-leading rusher.

He has spent much of his time since then shuffling between school and home, moving things, checking on his nieces and nephews, thinking. He said he had figured to live at home for a while after he graduated, but now, “that’s definitely out, ’cause my sister’s kids gotta live there. There won’t be enough room.”

Schembechler has been understanding, he said, but his running back coach keeps riding him about that fumble. “He keeps saying, ‘You almost lost the game for us. You almost let everybody here down. You better never do that again.’ He won’t stop telling me.”

He shook his head. He looked confused, more confused than a 22-year-old should be.

He cried for a moment. Then he stopped.

There are people here with Michigan sweaters on, who have flown all the way to these islands just for this game. They’ll take in some sun, some scenery, some football. They will watch “their team” Saturday, and at some point they will watch Wilcher carry the ball. And, having flown 7,000 miles for the privilege, they will still know almost nothing about him.

How much do we really know about any of them?

“Did your sister ever come see you play for Michigan?” Wilcher was asked that rainy afternoon.

“No,” he said, quietly.

“That’s kind of strange, what with you playing for such a big team, isn’t it?”

“Well,” he said, after a pause, “she had four kids and . . . you know, she lived in Muskegon, and all, so . . . “

“But still . . . ” the questioner said.

Wilcher lowered his eyes for a moment, then looked up.

“She didn’t have no car,” he said.

Nobody knew his story before. Maybe nobody needs to know it now. All it proves is that even here, where the palm trees grow along the hotel driveways, real life needs no credentials to enter a locker room. It just walks in whenever it damn well pleases. CUTLINE Bo Schembechler Thomas Wilcher


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