The final chapter is always the hardest to put down.
The Michigan football team’s 18 seniors bade farewell to Michigan Stadium for the final time with a 42-17 victory over Iowa on Saturday. They each exited differently, each lingered longer than the man before.
Craig Roh walked side-by-side across the field with Will Campbell, burning a hole in the turf with his blank downward stare. He looked up, gazed up at the rows and rows of emptying bleachers.
Jordan Kovacs took his time, slowly blazing a path to the tunnel. When he got there, he spread his arms wide to greet fans on both sides of the entrance with a high-five.
“It was bittersweet,” Kovacs said. “Obviously, it was a big win for us. That was exciting. For it to be the last time in The Big House, I’m not ready for it to end. It’s been quite the journey, and I'm ready to ride it out.”
But before they stepped off the field, they each looked back. They looked to see the iconic block ‘M’ at midfield once more. They looked to admire the historic stadium in which 112,000 watched them win 14 games and lose none in the past two seasons. They looked to see who came after.
Kenny Demens came after, followed by Steve Wilson, J.T. Floyd and Roy Roundtree, each leaving a legacy behind him as he stepped off the turf and started up the tunnel.
Finally there was only one left. It was the man who filled the stadium when Michigan couldn’t field a team worth watching. The one who transcends the quarterback position, the alpha position in college athletics, and does it all with a smile. The one whose swan song ended with an ESPN interview at center stage of the largest stage in the country.
Denard Robinson closed his final chapter at Michigan Stadium just the way he should. The flicker in his eyes re-lit, Robinson trotted past throngs of adoring fans and disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel for the final time.
They didn’t all make the same impact.
Jack Kennedy only took snaps when stadiums had been half-emptied and TVs were shut off. But everyone was watching as Kennedy, not Robinson or Devin Gardner, led the offense to lead Michigan onto the field for the last snap.
Kennedy took the snap, hesitated and dipped his right knee to the turf. As the last seconds started to tick off the clock, Kennedy spun to the man behind him in the victory formation, grinned and embraced him. It was Joe Reynolds, a redshirt junior receiver, and the two know each other better off the field than they do on it. Kennedy used his last season to follow another passion and kickstart a band with Reynolds they later dubbed ‘JDK and Rey.’
Senior day is a bittersweet occasion. You realize that they don’t all have futures in football. Hardly any of them do. In professional football, there’s always next year. On senior day, there rarely is a next year.
College graduation is billed as “commencement” — a new beginning. Senior day is anything but. For a lot of these guys, they don’t flip the channel and play on Sundays. This is it.
With the exception of a few players, the members of Michigan’s ‘Team 133’ senior class who have strapped on shoulder pads and cleats since they were 5 years old won’t do it again after Michigan’s bowl game. And they will never have another stadium to call home.
The last man to greet the seniors before they entered the tunnel was New York Giants safety Stevie Brown. He was one who did flip the channel, who did keep the dream alive.
He had a smile and hug for each seniors as they darted by, stopped and doubled back to greet him. “Stevie, Stevie, Stevie” fans chanted as Brown followed Robinson toward the locker room.
Brown is still a familiar name, but he comes from a different time, a darker time.
Brown spent four seasons at Michigan, enduring the rapid down-trend when Rich Rodriguez took the reins from Lloyd Carr as head coach. He was here when Roh was a true freshman trying to get his feet under him as a starter. He was here when Kovacs was just joining the team as a student-body walk-on. He was here when Robinson was just a blip on the radar, a backup quarterback to Tate Forcier.
There are no do-overs in college football, no second chances at finishing things right. Brown’s senior day was a 21-10 loss to Ohio State, a merciful end to a five-game losing streak to close his career. That’s not the way he ever dreamt it would end.
There’s a reason Hoke says this is the seniors’ team and charges them to lead. They don’t get a second chance, and they’ll fight harder than those who have a next year. They are guaranteed nothing. Nothing other than the assurance that this is it, this is the end.
And, in the end, they enjoyed a proper send-off at Michigan Stadium and kept the goal of a Big Ten title within reach, if only for another week.
Someday, they’ll return like Brown did on Saturday. But they won’t be remembered as fixtures from a darker time. They’ll be remembered for hoisting Michigan back in its right standing among the nation’s elite.
They’ll return with their heads high to revisit that final chapter, the one they’ll never put down.
— Nesbitt can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.