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.
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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.
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.