TAMPA, Fla. — Even after it was over, Denard, you made three strangers smile.
After the miracle attempt failed and the clock ran out Tuesday, after South Carolina pulled out a 33-28 victory in the final seconds, you walked to the middle of the field and shook hands.
For once, you didn’t smile.
A group of three stadium staffers approached you with a camera phone. It was 4:44 p.m., two minutes after your career ended. The pain was still fresh — you hadn’t even made it off the field. Yet, at your lowest point, you posed with them for a photo.
One last memory.
Thirty-seven minutes later, at your press conference, you talked about memories, sitting on a black plastic chair in a dim concrete alcove beneath Raymond James Stadium. On the cinderblock wall above your head, on laminated paper, someone had scrawled “16 Robinson” in red dry-erase marker, as if a reminder were necessary. Here, still no smile, just downcast looks and shiny glass eyes.
“I want (the fans) to remember whatever they want to remember,” you said. “The ups and downs.”
They already do. They remember the little things.
A teacher from western New York took his friends to their first Michigan game. It was your first too. You fumbled a ball and picked it up and ran for a touchdown. They’ve been fans ever since.
A law student watched your freshman year, and at first, he thought you were just a speedy athlete. Then he saw the look on your face after you threw a game-ending interception at Iowa. He saw how devastated you were; he saw how much you cared. From that moment on, he cared too.
Ups and downs.
A sophomore watched your improbable win over the Irish two years later. After your game-winning pass to Roy Roundtree, he felt like he was swept up in a wave, like the student section had swollen and burst. He hugged weeping strangers.
Everyone has his own photograph of your career.
The reporters asked questions about your legacy. You said you don’t know what it should be.
These four years were long and messy. How do you condense four years into a neat picture? How do you define a legacy?
Sometimes your crazy scrambles worked. Sometimes they didn’t. But like the law student, we cared because you cared. Because you danced with us at basketball games. Because you were one of us.
We cared because when there wasn’t much to be excited about, you supplied the excitement. As Desmond Howard said of you Tuesday, “The whole nation, when they watched him play, just kind of held their breath.”
It was messy, but that’s okay. We don’t need to define you. We have our memories.
As you talked, nearby, your teammate, Quinton Washington, described what he’d remember about your career. It’s not just the plays on the field. It’s the effect you had on people off it.
Just this year, a junior saw you walking into Angell Hall. You smiled at everyone as you held the door for your classmates. You told her to have a good day, and she did.
Last year, a senior sat next to you at the library. Surely you don’t remember him. But he’ll remember forever. You offered him a piece of your Kit Kat.
Chin up, Denard, we need your smile.
But we didn’t get the goodbye right, did we? After four years, 10,776 yards and a lot of magic, your end came on a sideline in Florida with your helmet in your hand — watching an offense that used to be yours — and a photo with three strangers. A frown instead of a smile.
In your first game, you did no wrong. You had the fumble touchdown on your first carry. Your last rush, after you set the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback, was a three-yard loss. Your last pass was a duck.
Your team didn’t need you anymore.
The big plays happened elsewhere, and often you just watched, like everyone else: a Gardner sneak or scramble; a Jeremy Gallon catch; a Drew Dileo fake punt.
After the photo, you jogged toward the tunnel, stopping to walk off the field with your fellow captain and friend, Jordan Kovacs. You rubbed your hand over your face, adjusting your skull cap, and the Michigan fans, though still dejected, stood up and applauded. And then you ran by that concrete slab of an alcove toward the locker room.
Forty-four minutes later, at 5:28, you got up from your plastic chair after your press conference and walked up to another camera. For two minutes, you answered more questions, and then you were done.
You walked down the tunnel back to the locker room. As you did, a man holding a towel climbed the plastic chair and wiped off “16 Robinson,” until all that was left of you was a faded blur.
Soon, the darkness of the tunnel swallowed you. One day, maybe, you’ll come out clean on the other side, to the NFL and beyond.
Until then, we’ll wait, watch, hope. And, always, Denard, we’ll remember and together we’ll smile.
— Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @zhelfand.