Space, Time & Football: Two of Team 132
When I watch Michigan football games every Saturday, it’s through a telephoto lens. This very small window into the game allows me to capture moments that go by too quickly to appreciate in real time. Every game, my aim is to get “the shot” — the image that sums up hours of action in one still frame. And though I think there is something beautiful about the way a single image can tell its own story, something is lost in the transition from event to image.
I take upwards of 2,000 photos every game with a shutter speed that lasts 1/5,000 of a second. In other words, I capture less than a second of time during a three hour-long game. Despite my best efforts, I can’t rightfully say my view of the game — or of the players on coach Brady Hoke’s “Team 132” — is all-encompassing.
I try to capture moments that illustrate these men as individuals. I'm able to see certain things like senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen's chest bump with Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon and senior center Dave Molk's head-butt with freshman offensive lineman Jack Miller before each game, but there’s only so much I can see through my 300mm lens, standing a safe distance away from the action on the field.
On the field, I’m an outsider looking in, and the only time I can really get a clear picture of my subject matter is when I look up from my viewfinder.
I wanted to see the view from the other end of the lens.
Tuesday night press conferences at Schembechler Hall are always chaotic. As practice ends and players rush to grab food or go to class, a few get pulled aside to answer questions from the media.
On this particular Tuesday night, a little boy stands by the door and holds a Sharpie marker and a football. He blends into the crowd and eagerly watches as players speed by him. He is too overwhelmed by all the action to approach anyone for an autograph.
Junior wide receiver Roy Roundtree could easily overlook this young fan. He has other things to worry about. He already had a full day of class and practice, and now he has to speak to the press about Saturday’s game before heading to yet another class.
Roundtree has his priorities straight, though. He walks straight up to the boy and asks him if he wants his autograph. The small gesture probably meant the world to that boy, and that isn’t lost on Roundtree.
Roundtree is a fan of the game first. At the mere mention of his teammates or his favorite players, his eyes light up. He’s so impassioned that during our interview, he often forgot I wasn’t inside his head, as he told me fragments of stories and omitted names. Those kinds of interviews can be frustrating, but his excitement was so contagious that I didn’t mind listening a bit closer.
As I listened, I was reminded of a lecture in one of my classes. Physics Prof. Robert Savit told us about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity — how time can’t be understood in a linear way because as we move relative to each other, time can actually bend and shift in speed depending on our perspective.
Savit’s explanation of relativity sounded similar to Roundtree’s description of the way he feels when he is catching a ball during a big play:
“It just seems like everything slows down once the ball’s in the air,” he said. “Your mind is so set on focusing on that football — you don’t hear nothing. It’s just silent. Once that ball’s in the air … You think you’d hear the crowd, but you don’t see the crowd because you’re so zoomed in on that target.”
This odd combination of science and sport gave me my first insight into the mind of the players I capture every weekend: Roundtree isn’t just another player on the field who is in the right place at the right time — he is a craftsman of time, a strategist, but most importantly, Roundtree is an individual with his own perspective.
Roundtree discovered the sport after his family moved from Pahokee, Fla. to Trotwood, Ohio.
“I didn't know nothing about football at the time because I was young and I wasn't really focused on football — I was focused on lizards. I wasn’t a sports junkie until I moved to Ohio at 5 years old. That’s when I really focused on football. As I got older, it was just something I always worked hard for.”
In Ohio, Roundtree met his current roommates and teammates, senior running back Michael Shaw and senior tight end Brandon Moore, and they bonded over football. Roundtree learns best by example and he has had a lot of teachers.
“I watched Mario Manningham throughout high school, Braylon Edwards, Steve Breaston. Randy Moss was the wide receiver I looked up to though,” he said. “I just loved Randy Moss. The way he took the game — the way he went up for the ball, ran his routes. He was a fast, big wide receiver. He used to Moss people. That’s what they would call it: ‘Mossed.’ ”
When Roundtree watches his idols play, he isn’t just entertained. He is studying. He watches their technique, physicality and the way they conduct themselves off the field and toward fans. He remembered his first visit to the Big House during his sophomore year of high school — the era of wide receiver Steve Breaston and quarterback Chad Henne. After the game, he was lucky enough to meet Breaston.
“I was with Brandon Moore and his father, and he was like, ‘Go ahead and take a picture with him.’ I was shy. (I thought), ‘He isn’t going to take no picture with me.’ I did it though. I got a picture with him,” Roundtree recalled. “After the games now, I see all the little kids and think back to when I was scared to ask for an autograph so l give it to them, take pictures with them, too.
“Just seeing the people who support us every Saturday, you have no choice but to give back. It’s not mandatory for them to come to the games, it just shows how much they care about Michigan football, and we take that in and embrace it a lot. Every time we walk through that tunnel, and we see 110,000 people, that’s the stuff you can’t ask for.”
Roundtree knows how lucky he is to be here.
“Signing (at) Michigan, I felt like I accomplished something. I told my mom that I was going to work hard so I can get a scholarship to play college football, once I signed on that dotted line, I saw the tears of my mom and my dad and that was something I did. Now I’m working on that degree so I can make them cry again, so I can feel like I did my job.”
Hoke tells his players to play for the man next to him, and Roundtree really takes that to heart. For him, football is more than a sport — it’s a community and a family. When I asked him about having to miss celebrating Thanksgiving with his family to prepare for the Ohio State game this weekend, he was insistent that despite loving and missing his family, this is where he needs be. I realized that, for Roundtree, the hard work and long hours aren’t a sacrifice, but an expression of his love of the game and the people he plays it with.
“Once I got to college, there was no free time, more studying, lifting weights a lot,” he said. “You know your body's tired — all you want to do is go to sleep when you get home. You aren’t home with your parents, so you can’t say, ‘Oh mom can you cook for me?’ The transition was very, very hard. Most of us stayed together though and made it through it.”
Even though Roundtree puts the work in and takes the game and influence he has on fans seriously, it is refreshing to see him recognize that football should be fun. For him, football means meeting new people, traveling to new places and getting the chance to play the game he knows inside and out.
Roundtree is a fan and that gives him a unique perspective as a player. He doesn’t think that the time he takes to ReTweet a message from a Michigan fan on twitter or sign an autograph is going above and beyond the call of duty. For him, it’s just as much a part of the job as running his routes every Saturday.
Although it only takes 10 minutes to get to from Central Campus, senior saftey Troy Woolfolk’s version of college life could not seem more foreign to me.
Immediately upon entering his apartment, I’m welcomed by his dog Julius, his cat Jasper and the sounds and smells of the dinner his girlfriend Ashley is cooking in the kitchen. There is something distinctly adult about the way Troy lives. He is far removed from the rest of campus, and that is no accident.
“When I was in the dorms my freshman year, I had my campus experience and it was fun,” he said. “I feel like I need my own time, my own space, to just go home and get my thoughts recollected. Just play with my dog or chill with my cat. I just need my time. This is my man cave, and no one can come here.”
The setup in his apartment is basic: a couch, TV, kitchen and bedroom. The only decorative accents are two framed Michigan jerseys featuring the Woolfolk name: one displays No. 29 and the other No. 24. The latter is the number his father Butch wore when he was a running back for Michigan.
Butch was a star athlete. Not only did he lead the Wolverines in rushing for three consecutive seasons — setting the school record with 3,850 rushing yards — but Butch was also an All-American track athlete at Michigan.
Woolfolk followed in his father’s footsteps. He has been running track since he was 8 years old and is now playing for his father’s alma mater.
Because of his father’s legacy, Woolfolk arrived at the University with a predetermined identity — something he has strived to change by making a name for himself.
“I didn't have a name freshman and sophomore year. My name was Butch's son,” he said. “He was a great running back, and everyone knows about him. Once I got here, it exploded on me. I just thought my accomplishments were being overshadowed by my dad’s figure. I just wanted acknowledgement for my own accomplishments as well.”
Woolfolk related how he appreciates being recognized for his own identity.
“I specifically remember the first fan that came up to me and said, ‘Troy Woolfolk,’ and that was big for me,” Woolfolk said. “I got my own name, and I'm becoming my own person and that was really special to me.”
The expectations of his team, family and fans, coupled with the very sobering reality of multiple potentially career-ending injuries, have made Woolfolk tougher than the average undergraduate student. On Aug. 17, 2010, Woolfolk broke his leg during practice.
“You could visibly see something was really messed up,” he recalled. “The realization of being able to see your bone dislocated, just chilling outside in a spot it’s not suppose to be, is really scary.”
Woolfolk was out for a year after that injury. Instead of spending his time on the field with his teammates, Woolfoolk’s spent his time on the couch in his one-bedroom apartment — causing him to suffer from a bad case of cabin fever.
“When I was able to get off the couch with crutches … I found myself on campus a lot,” Woolfolk said. “I would even try to go out just so I wouldn’t have to come home. Being in a spot too long, you want to leave it naturally.”
Now that he is back on the field as a fifth-year senior, his view of football has shifted more than even he anticipated.
“Going back out there for the first few games, I felt like a freshman again because it had been so long since I had been on the field,” Woolfolk said. “So I had to refocus myself and re-teach myself skills that I once had, but seem to have lost, and I am still doing that now.”
The injury that kept him off the field for a year is never far from his thoughts.
“I would be lying if I told you (the injury) doesn’t (affect me),” he said. “It is going to take me getting over the past, and realizing that it was a freak accident and being able to move on to become a good football player. I am slowly but surely getting over it, but it is something I think about.”
It’s not surprising that Woolfolk keeps returning to the field. He knows football, having grown up in a sports culture. He also has all the physical prowess that a player at his level could hope for, but a body prone to injuries that prohibit him from utilizing those strengths.
But that is only part of it.
He spends so much time studying the game off the field that technical schemes and strategic plays roll off his tongue like lyrics to a favorite song. Yet every game forces Woolfolk to put aside reason and trick himself into thinking he can bring order to situations completely outside his control.
“You lose a sense of control in a way when you don’t know what’s going to happen to you at any given play, any given tackle. You don’t control that,” he said. “I wish I could, so I could go on the field and play without worry, but you can’t. That’s football.”
While Woolfolk’s approach to life is practical in a lot of ways — like his home and focus on his education and future — the fact that he keeps getting back up after getting knocked down over and over again speaks much more to his character than his last name can.
Like Prof. Savit’s explanation of physics and time, what it means to watch and play Michigan football shifts with perspective. The more players I speak with, the more I realize just how little I know about what it means to play Michigan football.
I can never hope to capture everything that goes into a game in a single frame. All I can do is narrow my focus, shoot from as many angles as possible and hope that my experience of the game can do it justice.