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Misunderstood: Mike Milano tells his side of the story

By Luke Pasch, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 11, 2011

As you climb to the Cho La pass of the Himalayas, your body tells you to stop every few steps to catch your breath. You lift your face to inhale, and a gust of freezing wind smacks you in the cheeks. Then the exhale feels like a vacuum sucking all remaining oxygen from your lungs.

At 20,000 feet, it’s one of Mother Nature’s cruelest tricks.

After three weeks of climbing, a beaten up Mike Milano finally made it to Cho La. He had clambered up snow-covered boulders and balanced himself alongside narrow cliffs as the wind bullied him around. He slept on floors that felt like ice, and because he couldn’t breathe the cold air through his nose, he consistently woke up with a burning tongue.

His head pounding and his body bone-tired, he realized that not a whole lot exists at 20,000 feet. No phones, no roads, no electricity. Not even the occasional dinging cowbell of local yaks he had heard closer to base camp — once a sporadic assurance that maybe he wasn’t alone.

Milano had teased death every day of the climb, and his only companion was a hired Sherpa who spoke broken English at best. He wondered if anyone would know if something happened to him.

Who would tell his family if something went wrong? How long would it take for news to travel to quaint Rocky River, Ohio?

He worried, but only briefly. He was far from his family. His body ached. His stomach longed for something that tasted like home. Yet deep within, Milano has always possessed a stabilizing sense of calm.

It certainly came in handy half a year earlier, as he stood in front of a jury, awaiting a decision on his felony charges.

From the middle of the pass, Milano looked up at the Himalayas, and he smiled.

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I am not perfect. I have many flaws, some I have confronted, and some I still deny. I have made mistakes and done things that I am flat-out embarrassed of or ashamed of doing. Though what happened in the early morning of Oct. 12, 2008, is not one of them.

Mike Milano isn’t a particularly imposing figure. He’s stocky, with a natural, athletic build. But at 5-foot-6, it’s hard to believe the guy was once a running back for the Michigan football team. Then again, maybe former head coach Lloyd Carr just had an affinity for tailbacks with a low center of gravity, as Milano played alongside the runty Mike Hart.

Milano met with me last month to relive the events of Oct. 12, 2008 — a morning that, for better or worse, changed the course of his life.

It’s not a story Milano enjoys telling, though he has spent years composing a book on the event. In some ways, getting his words on paper was a solution to avoid discussing it.

“I don’t talk about the book,” Milano said bluntly. “Since I’ve written it, I hate when people ask questions about it because what it is is reaching into the most painful memories I have and reliving them in vivid detail.”

The following story is Milano's account of what happened in mid-October of his senior year, when he found himself in an altercation with Steven Kampfer, then a junior defenseman on the Michigan hockey team who now plays for the Boston Bruins.

The Kampfer family declined to comment for this article. Though his voice is not included in this story, much of it is, indeed, backed by witness testimonials on both sides of the case.

Every year in October, Milano and his housemates in Ann Arbor would throw an annual Halloween-themed party. His senior year would be no different. It didn’t matter that the football team had lost to Toledo and dropped to a humiliating 2-4 record earlier that day — tradition was tradition.

There were costumes, decorations and organized competitions that culminated in a tricycle race. And of course, there was booze. Lots of booze.

Milano said he spent much of the night with Tatjana Thuener-Rego, a former Michigan gymnast. Though he admitted their interactions were often flirtatious, their relationship was purely platonic.

“We had a class together: Evolution of Communism in China, 8:30 in the morning,” Milano said. “We sat next to each other, we studied together, we were spending a lot of time together. We watched the McCain-Obama debate together.”

Late in the night, after the party had mostly fizzled out, Milano, Theuner-Rego and others headed to the ever-popular Rick’s American Café to keep the night alive. Milano recalled how they drank and danced away the disappointment that follows any Michigan loss on the gridiron, and they stayed until last call.

When the lights came on, the group went up the stairs and loitered on Church Street, wondering where to head next.

That’s when Kampfer arrived with his friend Mike Anderson.

Kampfer and Theuner-Rego had had an on-again-off-again relationship, and Milano suggested Kampfer was upset that Thuener-Rego didn’t return his phone calls that evening.

Thuener-Rego’s housemates, then-LSA seniors Melissa Karner and Katie Smith, said in witness reports that Thuener-Rego was purposefully flirting with Milano in front of Kampfer outside of the bar to make Kampfer jealous. They also mentioned that this was not uncommon for her.

Several interview requests to Theuner-Rego were not returned.

Reports say Kampfer approached Thuener-Rego and pulled her aside to have a discussion across the street from Rick’s.

Most of Milano’s friends — including Thuener-Rego’s housemates — walked home during the exchange. Milano, his brother Chris and his friend Brandon Hahn were left, and they decided to wait for Thuener-Rego before going home. Anderson also waited with them.

Moments later, the group looked back across the street. According to later testimonies — including Anderson’s — Kampfer had Thuener-Rego’s shoulders pinned up against the vinyl fencing on the left side of 624 Church St., just 100 feet north of the intersection of Church and Willard Streets. In the next instant, witness reports said she was on the ground, though none could confirm how she ended up there.

“We saw Steve being really aggressive toward Tatjana,” Chris said in an interview last month. “From where I saw, she was on the ground crying, obviously not comfortable with what was going on. He was kind of standing over her.”

Milano added that Kampfer “had her by both wrists, kind of yanking her off the ground.” Milano decided he must intervene, despite warnings from Anderson to not get involved.

As he walked across the street to confront Kampfer, who had also been drinking heavily that night (medical records state he had a blood-alcohol content of about .15 at 3:55 a.m.), Thuener-Rego reportedly escaped and fled through a parking lot behind the house. All reports confirm that she did not witness the ensuing events.

Though none of the witness accounts match up on exactly how the exchange followed, reports were clear that Milano approached Kampfer out of concern for Thuener-Rego, and language escalated between the two until expletives were exchanged.

After about a minute, it didn’t appear that a physical altercation was developing, and all five decided to walk home, heading south on Church Street. Reports confirm that Kampfer and Anderson walked in front, while the Milano brothers and Hahn were behind them. Their houses were in the same general direction.

They didn’t get too far. Just a couple hundred feet south from Kampfer’s original confrontation with Thuener-Rego, along the east wall of East Quad Residence Hall, the jawing between Milano and Kampfer resumed.

Milano said he doesn’t remember what the trigger was, but Kampfer was fed up and turned around to confront Milano face-to-face, calling him a “cocksucker” as he turned. Anderson later confirmed that as well.

The gap between the two closed quickly.

Anderson’s testimony, as well as independent witness reports of Ann Arbor residents Nick Nedick and Zach Plachety, concur that Kampfer and Milano were facing each other before making physical contact. It did not appear that Milano had instigated a physical confrontation by attacking Kampfer from behind.

Milano, his brother and Hahn claimed they saw Kampfer cock his arm to take a swing. But he never landed it, and within seconds, Kampfer laid on the ground concussed.

“He lunged at me,” Milano said last month. “For me, I just lowered my level and went right through his hips. A double-leg takedown, or a football tackle, if you don’t know wrestling.”

All reports said Milano stood up and immediately left the scene with his brother and Hahn, unaware of the extent of Kampfer’s injuries. There was no further fighting.

Kampfer, who was hospitalized with a concussion and occipital skull fracture from hitting the back of his head on the sidewalk, faced a daunting road to recovery. And Milano, who had spent countless hours training to walk onto the Michigan football team, would soon see his hopes and dreams crushed.

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The thing about Michigan is when you get there, the level of accomplishment and excellence you must have achieved in high school becomes mundane, the stardom experienced in your youth becomes ordinary and you yourself begin to view your life as ordinary when you sink into a crowd of extraordinary people. … There are few atmospheres that I have found that elicit this type of personal desire to achieve.

Milano grew up near an erosion gully in Cleveland that he and his friends fittingly dubbed “the Devil’s ass crack.”

In preparation for football and wrestling seasons in high school, they often drove to the gully, and Milano would run sprints up the hill. It was frighteningly steep, and sometimes he would lose his footing as mud slid down the gully from under his cleats.

He loved training in the elements, outside gym walls.

“We were creative,” Milano remembered. “We had this one idea where I was going to run through the woods, and it was like I had to get from point A to point B. And my buddies were going to do whatever they could to stop me. They could tackle me, beat me up, punch me. One dude wanted to bring paintball guns."

Milano’s motivation was an eerily Rudy-esque determination to be the best in the midst of adversity.

“When we were younger, Chris and I would always play sports together, and Mike would tag along,” said Nick, the oldest Milano brother, now a neurosurgical resident at the Cleveland Clinic. “We would sort of just beat him up a little bit — I think he used that.”

Mike would never grow to the height of his brothers or father, but he was rewarded for his hard work with a scholarship to wrestle for coach Joe McFarland at Michigan. He was the first of the Milano brothers to receive a Division-I athletic scholarship.

Early in his sophomore season at Michigan, Milano met with Mary Passink, who worked in the offices of Schembechler Hall, to discuss the remote possibility of walking onto the football team.

A sluggish Lloyd Carr walked past her desk, and Passink introduced the two, explaining that Milano intended to try out.

“Hope it works out for you,” Carr said. And he returned to business as usual.

Milano didn’t tell his family about the meeting. He was afraid they wouldn’t approve — that they’d remind him he’s on a wrestling scholarship, and he should stay focused. He was afraid they would tell him he couldn’t do it, that this was Michigan football, not just any program he was talking about.

Only his younger sister knew what he was up to. The rest of the family didn’t learn of it until he was invited back to spring camp weeks later.

“In high school I was his number one fan — literally wore his jersey to every game,” said Mike’s sister Jessica. “I remember he texted me and told me, and he was like, ‘You can’t tell anyone. You can’t tell mom and dad. I haven’t told Chris or Nick.’ I thought it was so cool.”

By day, Milano trained for wrestling. By night, he drove over to Crisler Arena, where he and a friend snuck in after hours to run sprints up and down the bleachers. They even figured out how to use the PA system and blast their workout music through the arena.

In mid-January 2007, Brad Labadie, then-director of football operations, told Milano the coaching staff was impressed with his high school highlight tapes and wanted to see more.

Labadie laid out the map for walking onto the Michigan football team.

First, he had to make it past the strength coach, and then the speed coach. If he succeeded, he would try out during spring practices. If he made the grade there, he'd get the opportunity to play in the spring scrimmage on March 14.

And if he impressed coaches in the scrimmage, then Carr might grant him the opportunity to play on the scout team come fall practice.

Milano passed every stage with flying colors, and Carr invited him back for fall practices, where he had his own locker in the varsity locker room, his own cleats (at first, the equipment room didn’t have a pair small enough for his 8.5 shoe size) and his own jersey — No. 38.

“He was a hardworking kid,” Mike Hart remembered. “He was a good kid to be around, and we all liked Mike. He used to make some big plays in practice, some big runs, and we’d all get excited for him.”

The day after the last practice of fall camp, Labadie called Milano into his office for an impromptu meeting. The coaching staff decided to give him scholarship No. 85, which was the last remaining football scholarship for that season. It was an honor Milano had neither expected nor dreamed of.

After profusely thanking Labadie and walking down the hall to thank Carr as well, Milano immediately called his father.

“When Coach Carr ultimately gave him a scholarship, I e-mailed my friends,” said Mike’s father, Jay. “ I said, ‘The little turd has once again bent the world to his will. The University of Michigan just gave a 5-foot-6 running back a full ride!’ ”

The morning of Sept. 1, 2007, Milano suited up, winged helmet and all, and prepared to run out of the Big House tunnel in front of 109,000 fans for the first time. His family and friends from Rocky River made the trip to watch the town’s favorite son make his college football debut against Appalachian State.

Standing in the tunnel, former Michigan tight end Mike Massey turned to Milano and asked, “You ready for this?”

Milano had been ready for it his whole life. But he suddenly felt nervous.

“My biggest fear is that I wouldn’t be able to hit the banner,” Milano laughs. “I mean, maybe that banner is built for people who are 6-foot-3.”

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On a national scale I was made out to be a mindless thug, someone just looking for a fight. I was abandoned by an athletic department that I was very loyal to. I was lied to by some of the men whom I respected the most, and I was threatened with expulsion from school. Friends and acquaintances were suspicious of me, wondering constantly if I was lying to them. … Worst of all, my family was put through hell for over a year.

On the Monday morning following the incident between Milano and Kampfer, the snowball began to roll.

Without full knowledge of the situation, and before the Athletic Department could confer about the details, Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson began commenting to the media.

“I can’t tell you that (Kampfer) did anything bad,” Berenson said. “He just was a victim.”

At the time, one anonymous eyewitness account was willing to speak to the Daily on record anonymously, detailing the scene of the previous Saturday night. Now identified as Neil Patel, then a senior in the College of Engineering, he claimed he saw someone attack Kampfer from behind, pick him up and slam him onto the sidewalk.

Nobody else would speak on the record, though others confirmed that Mike Milano was the student who tackled Kampfer. Patel’s story became the prevailing account of the incident.

Milano said last month that the Daily had asked him to comment before the story ran, but he wanted to hold off until he discussed the matter with his coaching staff.

That was an opportunity Milano wishes he could have back.

Before he even had a chance to discuss the situation with his coaches, Milano was portrayed as a villain in the media, and venerable 25th-year coach Red Berenson was the only voice the Athletic Department directly or indirectly offered.

Today, it appears that Patel’s account doesn’t match other witness reports. He claimed that the “attacker was accompanied by two other men with athletic builds and blonde hair.”

Chris Milano is bald. Brandon Hahn is African-American, with very short, black hair.

Independent reports from Nedick and Plachety that surfaced later also stated that the attack was a face-to-face encounter. Milano said Patel was the only one who portrayed his actions as an attack on Kampfer from behind.

It didn’t matter. Early that week, The Detroit News and Ann Arbor News picked up the story. The situation was getting ugly for first-year football coach Rich Rodriguez, who was already a media target upon suffering four losses in just six games.

It didn’t help that Kampfer had been seriously injured either. In a paper he wrote for a class and revealed earlier this year by University Prof. and author John Bacon, Kampfer detailed the extent of his recovery process following the incident. It disclosed how difficult it was for him to eat, shower or carry out a typical daily routine while living life in a head and neck brace.

Many believed that his future in hockey was finished.

Still, in a meeting the Monday after the incident, Milano explained himself to his coaches, and he said Rodriguez informed him and his father, Jay, that everything would be fine. He assured them that Mike’s senior season was not in jeopardy.

Milano said Rodriguez told him not to come to practice that Wednesday because the media would be present, and the coaches didn’t want the incident to be a topic of discussion. After initial objection, Milano complied and stayed home.

Reporters showed up to practice asking questions about Milano’s absence, and when Rodriguez declined to comment, they assumed he’d been suspended indefinitely.

“More bad news for Michigan,” reported ESPN.com’s Adam Rittenberg in a blog post that Wednesday evening. “Football player Mike Milano has been indefinitely suspended after being investigated for an alleged assault on a Wolverines hockey player last weekend. … Head coach Rich Rodriguez cannot comment on the alleged violation until the investigation is completed.”

It was just four days after the incident. On the heels of Kampfer’s injury, Berenson’s comments, a single witness testimony and a questionable decision by Rodriguez, Milano had all the cards stacked against him.

To the world, he was a monster.

Milano recalled how Rodriguez approached him when he was warming up for the team’s 6 a.m. workout the next morning. The coach told him that he had to pack up and leave, and until he heard better news from the investigation, Milano could no longer be a member of the football team.

“Why don’t you ask the team if they want me around or not?” Milano suggested.

Rodriguez apologized and reiterated that he had no choice. Milano said it was the last time they would ever speak.

Several interview requests for this article to Rodriguez — now the head coach at Arizona — went unreturned.

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I am ashamed to admit at that point I even considered just folding and saying I did everything they said I did. Just so those close to me would not continue to think I was lying, and I could begin making it up to them. That was my weakest moment.

Milano never thought he’d read his name in the same sentence as “felony.” Yet there he sat, helplessly watching the ESPN ticker at the bottom of the screen: “Michigan running back Mike Milano, charged with a felony — indefinitely suspended from the Michigan football team.”

Milano was charged with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder, as well as a misdemeanor of aggravated assault. The prosecutor initially offered a plea deal of six months in prison upon admission of guilt.

Still, Milano stayed calm, maintaining that he did the right thing getting involved between Kampfer and Thuener-Rego, and that he tackled Kampfer out of self-defense. He claimed he never intended to injure Kampfer in the altercation.

“I ended up driving home (one) night and telling my dad, ‘I don’t care what they do to me,’ ” Milano said. “ ‘They can do whatever they want to me. There’s nothing they could do to hurt me.’ ”

At the time of the trial in a Washtenaw County Circuit Court in October 2009, Milano had a solid case. Nedick and Plachety had countered Patel’s initial story as reported in the Daily. Kampfer’s friend Anderson also testified that the physical confrontation was face-to-face, not an attack from behind.

Anderson did not agree that Kampfer wound up to punch Milano before being tackled, but there was enough evidence to suggest that either Milano or Kampfer could have been injured in the exchange — that it was essentially a fair fight and Kampfer wasn’t as innocent as everyone had believed.

Thuener-Rego’s housemates, Karner and Smith, also testified in court on the volatile relationship between Thuener-Rego and Kampfer. They mentioned that Kampfer often yelled at Thuener-Rego, and on multiple occasions, his bouts were turned on them as well.

And during the trial, the Athletic Department produced new voices.

Michigan wrestling coach Joe McFarland and former football coach Lloyd Carr testified in court on what they knew of Mike Milano. Both made it clear that they don’t give scholarships to students of questionable character, and they believed in Milano’s integrity.

Milano broke down and cried during their testimonies.

“I think he felt a combination of gratified and upset that he had to lean on two men that meant a great deal to him,” said John Shea, Milano’s attorney. “To come to his aid, to come to his defense … that was important to Mike. And I think that he was a little overwhelmed that they actually did it and did it as well as they did it.”

During Milano’s testimony later in the trial, when asked why he was so emotional, Milano said he was ashamed that two great Michigan Men would always remember him in the courtroom, rather than on the field or the wrestling mat.

Ultimately, he was acquitted of the felony charge and convicted of misdemeanor by the jury. If any consolation was needed, Circuit Court Judge David Swartz looked at Milano after the decision was read and told him that he would have acquitted him of both charges.

“I think Mike was more gratified when the judge, at sentencing, didn’t even place him on probation,” Shea said. “The judge also said, ‘In five years when you’re eligible for expungement, make sure you come back to me and apply for it.’ ”

After the trial, former Michigan Athletic Director Bill Martin presented Milano with the ‘M’ ring that’s typically awarded to graduating football players, a privilege that Martin had said he would grant if Milano was acquitted of felony.

But that was a private matter. The Athletic Department never commented on the situation publicly, and it still won’t today.

In an e-mail to the Daily last month, Associate Athletic Director David Ablauf wrote that the Athletic Department would not comment on Milano’s book, “Michigan Men?” released in November, and that the department was not willing to “rehash the past.”

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There is a war we can fight and win, and that is pain and suffering dealt not by the hands of nature, but by the hands of men. A war against injustice. That is what this book is about, injustice.

After sitting down with Milano, it’s hard for me to believe the whole country thinks this guy is a punk.

When the media reported that he was acquitted, many accounts made it seem as though he had gotten off easy. Most of them never delved into the details of the case, and enraged readers continued to blast Milano on comment threads.

Since the trial, he has traveled to South Africa to work with underprivileged youth. He spent two months in Nepal teaching English at an orphanage. And he’s now a volunteer with Teach for America, based in New Orleans. Bill Martin wrote his recommendation for the program.

Is this really the guy that was ostracized by nearly everyone in Ann Arbor?

Sure, it always takes two to tango, and Milano probably could have taken measures to avoid what happened on that fateful October night. If he had just walked home in a different direction, maybe Kampfer wouldn’t have been left on the sidewalk with a cracked skull.

But Milano claims that he did the right thing by getting involved in the middle of what appeared to be an abusive relationship. He would still make the same decision today. And in his book, he includes a compelling appeal for people to always do the right thing, particularly those in positions of power whose decisions have a profound impact on the lives of others.

The title “Michigan Men?” targets Rich Rodriguez and other members of the Athletic Department who he feels did not act for the right reasons, or for the right causes.

“I think we can do a lot better for the people around us,” Milano said. “And if I could use my story as an example of saying how people didn’t do what’s right for the people around them, maybe people will at least think about that."

Today, with the incident in his rearview, Milano seems to be a genuinely happy person. Just before leaving his photo shoot with the Daily, he told me he’d prefer if we could use a photo of him smiling, instead of a serious one.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s kind of a serious story, Mike.”

“I’m a smiler,” he replied without hesitation. “Use as many smiling pictures as possible.”