Tim Massaquoi has had this date circled on his calendar for months.
In his fifth year at Michigan, the Allentown, Pa., native finally gets a chance to start against Penn State.
The trash talking began last week when Nittany Lions tailback Austin Scott – a teammate of Massaquoi’s at Parkland High – called Massaquoi to tell him that one of Penn State’s defensive ends has “something special” for him this weekend.
But the game means more than bragging rights for Massaquoi this year. It’s a chance for the Wolverines to beat a top-10 opponent and turn their season around.
And, ironically, a chance to prove Joe Paterno right.
Whatever happens, Massaquoi dismisses the critics who have questioned his decision to attend Michigan in light of the team’s down year.
“Look at my career,” Massaquoi said. “I’ve got a couple of Big Ten Championships. I don’t have any regrets.”
Joe Paterno doesn’t share that sentiment. The long-time Penn State coach aggressively recruited Massaquoi out of high school, and with good reason. Massaquoi remains Lehigh Valley’s all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns; he caught 114 passes for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns in three seasons at Parkland. At the time, Rivals.com rated him as a five-star prospect and the nation’s fifth-best wide receiver.
This is where Paterno made his mistake. Paterno wanted to convert Massaquoi into a tight end, believing that his size and “big, long arms” were better suited to lining up inside. Like almost all of the coaches who recruited him, Paterno was upfront with Massaquoi from the start about this desire for him to switch positions. And why not? Paterno had the hometown advantage. Everyone wanted the local hero to go to State College.
There were just two problems: Massaquoi wanted to be a wide receiver, and Michigan coach Lloyd Carr promised him an opportunity to do just that.
Paterno never had a chance.
“The only thing I feel bad about is I didn’t tell him he’d be a wide-out,” Paterno says. “I was really disappointed we lost him. We tried hard to get him, but I probably made the wrong approach.”
Rich Sniscak – Massaquoi’s high school coach and Parkland’s current principal – agrees, citing Carr’s initial willingness to keep Massaquoi at receiver as one of the biggest reasons he chose Michigan. Even so, it didn’t stop him from trying to convince Tim that he would end up playing a different position at college. And tight end wasn’t the only possibility. Massaquoi had talent on defense, too.
Playing mostly at strong safety, Massaquoi recorded 131 tackles (including five for loss), forced and recovered three fumbles and intercepted seven passes – one of which he returned for a touchdown – during his high school career. Sniscak calls him a “phenomenal” defensive player and believes the “aggressive tackler” could have been a defensive standout in college as well.
Either way, Sniscak knew Massaquoi wouldn’t be a wide receiver, even if his star player refused to recognize it himself.
“I think Tim was the last one to realize he’d be a tight end,” Sniscak says. “It took him a while to realize what most of the rest of us had known for a long time.”
Massaquoi was blinded by the glamour of being a wide receiver. At that position, he was the star, the go-to player, the guy who had every ball thrown his way. With exceptions like Bennie Joppru at Michigan and Tony Gonzales in the NFL, tight ends don’t receive the same attention.
As an 18-year-old kid, Massaquoi seemed to equate lesser hype with lesser ability.
“Tim wanted to be the best player on the field,” Sniscak says. “Wide receiver is where he thought he could be the best.”
So when he came to Ann Arbor in 2001, Massaquoi pursued that position. It was clear from the start that he would have to fight for playing time – Marquise Walker was returning for his senior season, and Massaquoi’s recruiting class included Braylon Edwards. Still, Carr had faith in Tim as a receiver, saying at Media Day that he had been “impressive” in the first two days of training camp.
But it soon became clear that Massaquoi’s career as a wide receiver would probably involve quite a bit of time on the sidelines. He played in Michigan’s season opener against Miami (Ohio) but underwent surgery and did not play again that season. Sitting on the bench as he redshirted the year gave Massaquoi time to re-evaluate his position.
“It was his first experience on the sideline,” Sniscak says. “It was not where he wanted to be. Tim is astute. He wanted to get on the field, and he knew what he had to do. If he stayed at receiver, he was going to be on the sideline longer.”
Before his sophomore year, Massaquoi moved to tight end, a change everyone but him had seen as inevitable.
“It was a process,” Sniscak says of Tim’s decision. “He had to evolve and buy into it himself before he could make the switch.”
The irony is, becoming a tight end is what enabled Massaquoi to emerge as an elite college football player. Massaquoi started his first game at tight end against Minnesota in 2002 and led all tight ends a year later with 15 receptions for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
But 2004 was his breakout season. Then a redshirt junior, Massaquoi started 11 of 12 games and finished fifth on the team in receptions and receiving yards. In perhaps the biggest play of his career, he caught a two-point conversion pass in triple overtime against Michigan State en route to the Wolverines’ thrilling win.
Following the season, Massaquoi was named an All-Big Ten first-team selection by both the coaches and the media.
“It’s a credit to his hard work and dedication that he was able to learn a new position and excel in this way,” Sniscak says.
The stage seemed to be set for Massaquoi to put together an All-America campaign in his fifth and final year at Michigan. But as he’s learned, football rarely follows a predictable course.
In the Wolverines’ season opener against Northern Illinois, Massaquoi broke his right arm and had to miss the next two games. When he returned against Wisconsin, he wore a cast covered in a large wrap of protective foam that hides everything except his fingertips.
In addition to the cast, Sniscak says Massaquoi has been playing with two pins and a plate in his arm for the past three weeks.
“The first week he played with the cast, he looked like he was not fully engaged,” Sniscak says. “He had some pain still. But he felt he could catch the ball. Then he drops a couple, and it weighs on him.”
In the three games since his return, Massaquoi has just two receptions for 11 yards, both of which came in the win over Michigan State. At first, Massaquoi claimed the cast and protective wrap didn’t affect his ability to catch the ball. But a number of dropped passes later, he now admits the protective foam impedes him as a receiver.
“It is difficult,” Massaquoi says. “In practice, I can make those plays. But during the game, when the ball is is thrown to you, you have a tendency to not look at the ball and just catch it and go. That’s something I can do with two good hands, but I can’t do that with the cast.”
Instead, Massaquoi has tried to guide the ball into his body with his left hand, using his right “stump” only to slow its speed. The wrap has also affected Massaquoi as a blocker. He says there have been situations in which he has a defender in good position but can’t bring his hand around to finish the play.
But whether it’s the last remnants of a receiver’s bravado or pure desire to help Michigan win, Massaquoi wants the ball – wrap or not – and balks at the idea of reducing his role in the offense.
“As a competitor, I would never say that,” Massaquoi says. “That would show a lack of confidence in myself. I don’t ever want my coaches or my teammates to think I’m not confident because then they would lose confidence in me. When it comes down to it, I’m a playmaker, and I have to go out and make plays.”
Said Carr after the Wisconsin game: “He’s such an outstanding leader that it’s great to have him even when he’s not at full strength.”
Massaquoi would like nothing more than to beat Penn State this weekend. But his motivation is likely very different than it would have been in 2001. He no longer feels as if he has to prove all those coaches wrong; he doubts he will even address his recruitment when he sees Paterno on Saturday.
Now it’s all about doing whatever it takes to help Michigan turn its season around.
“Three and three at Michigan – that’s as urgent as it gets,” Massaquoi said. “I don’t care what our record says; we’re still going to be competing until the end.”
Even so, Massaquoi can’t quite forget the game’s special meaning.
As he says with a smile, “I’ve never played Penn State as a tight end.”
Players from Pennsylvania
Name: Steve Breaston
Year: redshirt junior
Position: wide receiver
Hometown: North Braddock
When Breaston came to Michigan, fans heard that he was wowing teammates on the scout team. Once his redshirt season was over, he showed the rest of the college football world what he could do. In his redshirt freshman season, he had a combined 520 yards rushing and receiving while also returning two punts for touchdowns. His efforts resulted in being named Big Ten co-freshman of the year. So far this year, Breaston has been slowed by nagging injuries, but last week he returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
“It’s exciting. I’ve been waiting for it – to play them. It’s a game when I got here that I wanted to play. It’s unfortunate that they moved off the schedule for a couple years. I’m happy to have a team like that back on the schedule – the way they play football.” – Breaston
Name: Chad Henne
Henne was one of the most highly recruited athletes ever to come to Michigan. His high school coach said that he received letters as early as his sophomore year and was recruited heavily by more than 30 schools. He had over 7,000 yards and 74 touchdowns at Wilson High School. As a freshman last year, Henne catapulted himself into the Michigan record books – throwing for over 2,700 yards and connecting on 25 touchdowns while leading the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl. This year, Henne has shown weakness – something he was immune to last year – but he still has nearly 1,300 passing yards and 11 touchdowns.
“Everybody around here wanted him to go to Penn State, including myself. Well, you know, I was selfish. I wanted him to go to Penn State so I could see every football game. – Penn State was not the best choice for him. Michigan was.” – High school coach Jim Cantafio
Name: Scott McClintock
Year: fifth-year senior
Position: inside linebacker
Hometown: Belle Vernon
McClintock played both fullback and linebacker at Belle Vernon High School. As a three-year starter, he accumulated 440 tackles and rushed for 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns. But when he came to Michigan, he redshirted and converted to a full-time linebacker. At Michigan, he has made 143 tackles in four years but has seen limited action so far this season because his injuries.
“I want to make this clear, he has had back problems throughout his career at Michigan. He has had a good career anyway, but it has always been something that has been a problem for him.” – Michigan coach Lloyd Carr
Name: Ryan Mundy
Position: free safety
Hometown: Wilkins Township
Even though Breaston was a teammate of Mundy in high school, he didn’t pressure the younger Pennsylvania native to join him in Ann Arbor. But Mundy did follow in Breaston’s footsteps and made his impact early. In his first two seasons, Mundy played in 23 games, starting 12. He had 60 tackles, three interceptions and two pass breakups in those two years. But this season, the junior played in just one game before having to sit out the rest of the season with a nerve injury.
“One of the reasons we played him (as a freshman) was because we liked his maturity. He’s a smart guy. I can say this; it’s unusual for a guy to step in and start as a sophomore free safety and play as well as he’s played in the first two games.” – Carr