When the final seconds of the 2003 regular
season expired, John Navarre raised both arms, the right one
clutching the ball, the left one clenched into a triumphant fist.
And then the place erupted into an exhilarating celebration.
I was in the middle of it, swallowed by the joyous crowd and
swept to the center of the field. I could barely breathe, although
I’m not sure if it was because the crowd was smothering me or
just because it was so unforgettable.
I was trying not to get trampled, trying to interview players,
and just letting it all soak in. For us seniors, this was the last
game in Michigan Stadium in our college careers, and it was the
best way you could possibly end it.
For the seniors on the team, who felt firsthand in October the
threat of their last season slipping away, the feeling must have
been even more special.
“I can’t even describe it right now,”
fifth-year cornerback John Shaw said. “It’s a great
experience to know we’re going to get to go to the Rose Bowl.
When you come to Michigan, you just feel like you’re going to
get there. And I think about the class before us that didn’t
get a chance to play at the Rose Bowl.
“It just feels great to finally get to the
Fans and players, in one exuberant mass, celebrated the
Wolverines’ 35-21 win over Ohio State, Michigan’s sixth
straight victory and its biggest in years. The past disappointments
and the crushing upsets were washed away by the pure emotion that
filled the Big House.
“What a great, wonderful time it was during the
game,” fifth-year tight end Andy Mignery said. “Words
can’t express how I feel right now … To be out there
in our victory formation, when the last minute was winding down,
and to see all the people react. Just the emotion the crowd was
giving. It was what Michigan-Ohio State is all about — the
greatest rivalry in football.”
It was a feeling that we almost didn’t even get a chance
to have in Ann Arbor.
Remember, these Michigan players, whose smiles and boyish
excitement lit up the evening Saturday, were left shaking their
heads, eyes to the ground, just seven weeks before. It seems so far
away now, but after the Iowa loss, when John Navarre was near tears
and Chris Perry had no answers, this team was trying to comprehend
how it had two losses just six games into the season.
At that midway point, the season looked like it would be
forgotten in its mediocrity — or worse, remembered for its
demise. The team that had so soundly beaten Notre Dame and
announced itself as a real national-title contender had quickly
unraveled and could not lose another game if it were to even have a
chance at a conference title.
At that point, the Wolverines had to win out — a daunting
Then, something happened. Staring down its knockout punch in the
Minnesota game, Michigan turned it around right there in the
Metrodome. Since that 31-point fourth quarter, the Wolverines have
been a different team — focused and determined.
“We, as a team, have so much character,” offensive
lineman Tony Pape said. “I think this team has really shown
all its heart to go and take those two losses and use them in a
positive way. Those losses made us stronger as a team, and we built
on that. We built on teamwork and camaraderie. We stayed together
all season and pushed each other.”
On Saturday, Michigan was the team we expected this season. The
Wolverines won with big plays from their big stars and with
contributions from everybody else. They won as a team. When
receiver Jason Avant went down, four guys stepped in to help fill
the gap. And when the Buckeyes were threatening and Michigan
desperately needed to answer back, little-known tight end Tyler
Ecker came up with a 30-yard catch.
During that electric post-game bedlam, I eventually ended up in
the midst of a throng of fans that had surrounded defensive end
Larry Stevens, chanting, “Larry! Larry!” Stevens held
up a delicate rose in his giant hand and said, “This is all
that matters. This is all that matters.”
The missed chances, the losses, the criticism were all forgotten
in one sweet moment.
I looked down and saw a single red petal lying on the turf, and
I picked it up and put it in my pocket.