Anyone with half a brain can get pretty disgusted with college football these days. First there’s the weekly polls, which show about as much consistency as Sybil in a room full of mirrors. Can anyone explain how one poll (Sports Illustrated) drops Michigan from No. 2 to No. 4 on a week when it beat Ohio State? Or how another poll (Associated Press) leapfrogs Miami over Michigan on a week that neither team plays?
And speaking of the Hurricanes, have you ever watched them out on the field? Is it football or a Las Vegas review? After every down, it seems, some Miami guy is dancing for the crowd, pointing to the stands, or looking for a new agent. And then there’s the Heisman Trophy drama — or did you miss that swill CBS put on Saturday afternoon?
REPORTER: Mrs. X, your son is up for the award. Tell us a story about when he was a baby.
MOTHER: Oh, he was so cute —
REPORTER: Thank you. Good luck.
With all this going on, you’d be tempted to lump college football with
“Rocky” movies and Cajun restaurants: a good idea turned ridiculous.
And then you meet Tony Boles.
We had an interview scheduled for last Friday. At his place. Now, Boles, a thin young man with a mustachioed smile, is a pretty fine football player himself, a superb running back with the Wolverines, a Heisman candidate, a junior who led the Big Ten in average yards per carry. He is, as they say in sports, Big Time. You will be pleased to note, therefore, that his “place” reminds me a lot of our “places” back in college: a ground floor room of a weathered old house full of students, creaky porch, mailbox with 100 previous tenants. No condos. No sports car parked out front.
And no Tony. This runner never quits
Turns out he was in the hospital. Surgery on his right knee. It was part of the reason I had gone to see him, to talk about what a serious injury does to a college career. His came in the Minnesota game a few weeks ago. First play. He took a head-on collision, went down hard and felt the knee cap pop off, slide around, then pop back on.
The news was grim. He was out for the rest of the season. He was out for the Rose Bowl. Doctors doubted he would ever play running back again.
“We’ll make him a flanker,”‘ promised coach Bo Schembechler, as much to boost Boles’ confidence as his own.
On the creaky porch, I ran into his girlfriend, who had come for his books. She said he was sorry he wasn’t there, the surgery was last-minute, but he might be able to talk at the hospital. I called. Boles said fine. A half hour later, I was sitting next to his bed, alongside a machine that dispensed pain killer through a tube into his arm. His leg was in a large cast. A second tube drained blood from the knee.
It was not a pretty sight. You would never know it from Boles. “I’m going to come back,” he said. “I have to think that way. I have to be optimistic.”
“What about playing receiver?” I asked.
He forced a grin. “A runner runs.”
Hospitals are not what we think of when we think college football. The pros? OK. They’re getting a paycheck. But Boles, not yet 22, will have to limp through the next few months, first the crutches, then the rehab, then the long, lonely hours on weight machines and treadmills, just to return to where he once was. Nobody pays him for that.
He shrugged. “I felt a little sorry for myself when dit first happened. It was hard to watch the Ohio State game on television, and not be there when we sang ‘The Victors.’ I felt bad. I wanted to be alone.
“Then my mother and my girlfriend told me, ‘You can get better, or you can go downhill.’
“I’m gonna get better.” No star system at Michigan
When Boles went down, he was replaced by Leroy Hoard, another outstanding back. That’s the way it is at Michigan. No cog is more important than the machine. No superstars. That’s why, when Boles had his surgery, there weren’t two dozen reporters dying to know what happened, swarming him the way they might Andre Ware at Houston or Tony Rice at Notre Dame. Not because Boles isn’t as good as those guys in his position. But because he doesn’t get that kind of spotlight.
Which seems to be fine by him. There were several letters taped to his bulletin board in the hospital room. One was from an 8-year-old boy. It began
“Dear Tony, You are my man. . . .” There was also a New York Times story about Danny Manning throwing away his crutches and returning to play NBA basketball. “Inspiration,” said Boles.
Inspiration, indeed. Here is a kid who would be superstar in other programs, he could be living well off a few secret cash-filled envelopes, getting the full-color Heisman treatment. Instead, he’s in that ground-floor room of the creaky house, just another good player with a winter full of pain to deal with.
“What if that was it for football?” I asked him. “What if you couldn’t play ever again?”
“Then I just make sure I get my education,” he said. “I’ve got lots of time now.”
You think about the polls. You think about the Miami dancers. And then you think about a kid with a ripped knee who gave his all for a team and says he’s happy if all he gets in return is an education. “What will you do after school?” I asked.
“I’d like to be a teacher,” said Tony Boles.
He already is.