When Dymonte Thomas was growing up, his father had some words of wisdom for him and his family: “You fight one, you fight us all.”
Fighting them all would be a tall task — Thomas has two older brothers, two little sisters and a little brother on his dad’s side, and an older brother, older sister and two little brothers on his mom’s side.
Now, as a junior safety for the Michigan football team, Thomas applies that mindset to the Wolverines. Fight the offense, and you fight the defense, too. Fight the defense, and you fight the offense, too. Fight one player, and you fight the whole team.
That mindset was on display last Saturday when Michigan took on Michigan State in a crucial rivalry game at Michigan Stadium.
On 2nd-and-9 from the Michigan 45-yard line, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook ran up the middle, sliding for a gain of six. As he lay on the ground, Bolden and Spartans left tackle Jack Conklin were locked in a one-on-one battle, and Conklin pushed Bolden onto Cook. The officials called the penalty, and immediately Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin and defensive line coach Greg Mattison started shouting and gesturing in protest.
“Hard to fathom,” Harbaugh said after the game.
Replay upheld the ruling, and when the referee said Bolden was disqualified, Bolden turned around with a look of disbelief. He pointed to himself as if to ask, “Me?” He loosened his helmet and pleaded his case, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, he did a half-lap around the field, raising his arms to pump up the crowd on his way into the tunnel. The Spartans needed just two more plays to get into the end zone and tie the game at seven.
One member of the Michigan defense had been scorned. All were eager for retribution.
“That’s the kind of mentality we build,” Thomas said. “One man out, next man up and we gotta compete and fill that hole. Being a ‘we’ team, it allows us to be able to do that. Next guy coming in is already ready, and the guy who just went out is most likely telling him, ‘Hey, you gotta do this, watch out for that,’ and then he’ll walk off the field.”
On the next series, after the Wolverines took the lead with a field goal and then gave up a quick first down, they smelled blood. On 3rd-and-8 from the Michigan State 44, redshirt junior defensive lineman Chris Wormley shed his block and hammered Cook in the backfield. The Spartans had to punt, and they gave redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers an opportunity for a big play. As he took the ball up the sideline and a Michigan State coverage man chased him, Thomas came in from the side and blindsided the Spartan, knocking him to the ground. He earned more than a few pats on the back as he returned to the sideline.
Everyone remembers what happened on the final play of the game, when the Spartans ran back a fumbled punt snap for a game-winning touchdown. Most people even remember Bolden’s targeting penalty. What gets lost sometimes is what happened right after the penalty.
You probably only saw the ejection, and not the sack that followed it. Or you saw Peppers’ return, and not the hit that sprung it. But the Wolverines’ message had been sent. It was the same one Thomas’ father gave him: You fight one of them, you fight all of them.
“Guys are willing to throw it all on the line for each other,” Thomas said. “That family bond is really important. That’s a big difference — we’re all playing for each other. There’s no ‘me’ guys out there — everyone’s playing for each other, and we’re more like a ‘me’ team than an ‘I’ or a ‘me.’ ”
Wormley’s sack, Thomas’ hit and Peppers’ return helped Michigan hold down its lead — until the final play. Of course, that caveat has taken the luster off of statements about Michigan’s play against Michigan State.
But the Wolverines insist they are unshakeable, much like they were after the adversity of Bolden’s ejection, and senior linebacker James Ross’ the week before that.
“We knew that play wasn’t the way it was supposed to be ruled, but ain’t nothing we can do about it,” Thomas said. “We know when one (player) goes out, everyone’s got to step it up. The next man’s got to step it up.”
Michigan returns to the field at Minnesota on Saturday night. Ross will start, as will Bolden. Thomas’ family on defense may have faced a setback, but it’s back at full strength now.