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Zach Helfand: The 10 hands that raised up Devin Gardner

Terra Molengraff
Devin Gardner embraces his "little bulldog" after a touchdown. Gardner was the star, but he had help when he needed it. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 8, 2013

Devin Gardner was on his back in his own end zone, looking up at the lights and a sea of maize. It was the fourth quarter of Michigan vs. Notre Dame, and Gardner had made the worst mistake of his football life. Could his legacy be tainted before it even really began? The whole world was here it seemed, and now they were all looking at him on his back in the end zone and he was alone, all alone.

What was he thinking as he lay there, arms sprawled outward, looking up at the sky, at the lights? He stared at Stephon Tuitt, who cradled the football in his arms in Michigan’s end zone. What was he thinking?

Gardner must have known that in the fourth quarter, he had given the Irish the biggest break of the game. The whole night had gone as planned until then, when 12:14 remained in the game. Michigan led 34-20. But then Gardner tried too hard to elude his rushers, and suddenly he was in the end zone and running out of space and options. Austin Collinsworth hit him first. Then Prince Shembo. Gardner got his arm free and heaved the ball. Tuitt was there to catch it.

Gardner stayed on his back and behind him, the Notre Dame cheerleaders went wild. He saw the band lose their mind. He watched Notre Dame players jump over each other. A foot beyond Gardner’s head, the Notre Dame leprechaun jumped up and down, signaling a touchdown.

The lights were on and the night had been flawless, but now the record-setting crowd went silent. It was falling apart, and fast. This was Gardner’s nightmare.

Gardner sat up and stayed there for 13 seconds.

Michael Schofield was the first to get to him. He tugged Gardner by the jersey and tried to pull him up. Gardner threw his hands over his facemask and shielded his eyes, as if just realizing now what he had done.

He stayed on the ground.

Miller was soon there too. Kyle Kalis followed Miller, and then came Graham Glasgow and Taylor Lewan. The whole line was there: 1,514 pounds of human to lift up one man. They pulled Gardner to his feet.

Gardner reached the sideline and ripped off his chinstrap. His face scrunched in pain. Frank Clark approached him.

“Told him we had his back,” Clark would say later. “We call each other not a team, but we call each other a tribe. We’re all in it together. We’re all one.”

Lewan was there, too.

“I went up to him,” Lewan said. “I let him know that you’re our quarterback for a reason. You’re the Michigan quarterback. You’re the reason why we’re in this game.”

But the nightmare continued. After the interception, Gardner threw his next pass to Jeremy Gallon and then had to watch as Gallon, Gardner’s “little bulldog,” stayed down on the field, injured. Gardner watched a player false start, and then he saw tight end Devin Funchess was hurt too, and Lewan was walking off the field holding his eye. Michigan went three and out, and the punt went 21 yards and now the Irish had the ball down by just one touchdown.

James Ross III could’ve swung the momentum with an interception, but it fell through his hands. A field goal cut the lead to just four, and here we go again in this series that has no business ending after next year’s game.

In this rivalry, games like this have become more than a game. They become a celebration, of a team, of a town, of a school. Your dad is in town, and so is your buddy who graduated and you don’t see much anymore. You go to Zingerman’s and order No. 34, just like old times, and you walk through the Diag and drink too much at Rick’s until you stumble back home on a friend’s shoulder.

This stadium is the biggest in the sport, and it’s still a wonder it can hold everyone who has come back to this place.

Mark Harmon came back for his father. Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cazzie Russell were there. Michael Phelps, too. Anthony Carter and Steve Hutchinson and Steve Everett and Desmond Howard. You were there too, and maybe you were sitting next to your West Quad roommate. Eminem was even there. Sort of, anyway.

The game was choreographed from the opening flyover to the Tom Harmon ceremony to Beyonce on the video boards saying “Go Blue.” The game had gone as planned for Gardner too. But the universe tends toward entropy. Things fell apart, and he was faced with panic and disorder. How would he respond?

Five of his buddies did it for him. Gardner was frozen on the ground and his line picked him up. The defense reminded him they’d have his back.

Gardner redeemed himself, on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that sealed the game for Michigan. And yes, this was Gardner’s night. The legacy jersey, the 294 yards passing and four touchdowns and another 82 yards and a score on the ground.

But he didn’t do it alone. He had Fitzgerald Toussaint, who stopped the momentum with a broken tackle and a 22-yard run. He had the sure hands of Drew Dileo in the end zone. He had Blake Countess and his two interceptions. He had his linemen.

Saturday night, under the lights, this team figured it out. That Gardner-to-Gallon could slice up one of the nation’s best defenses and make it look easy. That it could repair its leader’s mistakes. That this team was a tribe.

“We’re starting to get it,” Lewan said after the game. “This team understands what we need to do to become a championship team.”

You gather with 115,109 other people, and it seems like the whole world is there. It’s hard to feel alone. And then you’re on the ground, and the stadium has gone quiet, and everyone is looking at you and it’s your fault and yours alone.

It’s sure as hell nice to have help pulling yourself back up again.

Helfand can be reached at zhelfand@umich.edu or on Twitter @zhelfand