Sometimes, when Spencer Brinton thinks
about it, it seems as though nothing on the football field has gone
his way since he first set foot on campus in the spring of
2001.

Beth Dykstra
(TONY DING/Daily

He came to Ann Arbor just days after completing a two-year
Mormon mission in Durbin, South Africa. The plan was to spend a
year getting back into playing shape and learning Michigan’s
offense while Drew Henson quarterbacked the Wolverines one last
year. Then in 2002, Brinton and John Navarre would battle it
out.

Just before Brinton’s arrival, Henson decided to leave
Michigan and sign with the Yankees. Lloyd Carr needed a quarterback
right away, and only Navarre, who had spent two years in
Michigan’s system, was ready for the job. The job stayed
Navarre’s for three seasons.

In a blowout loss to Iowa at Michigan Stadium in October of
2002, Brinton filled in and mysteriously injured his shoulder. For
nearly a year, he played through excruciating pain before finally
undergoing surgery last September.

He was told by doctors he would fully recover. Based on that
information, he asked for and received from the NCAA a sixth year
of eligibility, with the hope that he could replace Navarre at
quarterback this year at the age of 26.

But Brinton’s shoulder refused to cooperate. Though the
strength in his shoulder is back, he is unable to throw with the
same velocity and accuracy he once could. He has tried to
compensate by changing his mechanics, but it has made little
difference.

For most college football players, these developments would
likely be devastating. Eight years ago, Brinton himself probably
would have been distraught. But it is what Brinton has experienced
during that span that has given him an entirely unique
perspective.

 

Coming out of Temecula Valley High School in California in 1997,
Brinton was a top-10 quarterback. Midway through his freshman year
at San Diego State, with the team just 1-5, Brinton took over.
Though his numbers the rest of the year — 72-of-162 for 1,097
yards, with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions —
weren’t phenomenal, the Aztecs closed out the year 4-2.

The following year, according to Brinton’s father,
Merrill, “everything got out of control — even I got
caught up in it.” Spencer was even mentioned in a San Diego
magazine that listed “25 People to Watch,” along with
the owners of Qualcomm and the Chargers.

But the fun times were short-lived. Just two games into the
year, he injured his thumb and, though he thought he could continue
to play, was forced to sit out the rest of the year.

Suddenly away from football, Brinton made two decisions. First,
he would go on a mission trip, something he had never been sure he
would do because he did not know how it would affect his football
career. And, tired of seeing “20,000 people in a 60,000-seat
NFL stadium” and believing that his opportunity to start may
have passed by, he decided not to return to the Aztecs.

 

While in South Africa, Brinton spent a large portion of his time
in the township of Umlazi, where the Zulu tribe resides. Every day
was filled with unique experiences, but one day early on in his
mission stands out.

Though apartheid had ended, South Africa was still largely
segregated. Umlazi was a small area populated by millions of black
people, and for the most part, they feared all white people —
especially the 6-foot-5 kind.

As Brinton was walking around, he walked toward a yard in need
of cleaning and went to work. Throughout the day, people watched
what he was doing in shock. They had never seen a white man assist
them before.

“He’s the kind of person who never really likes to
bring attention to him and what he’s doing,”
Brinton’s wife, Whitney, said. “But I think that story
really demonstrates the kind of person he is — how he could
develop a relationship with the people despite the initial
problems.”

Soon afterwards, fear from both sides subsided.

“The Zulu tribe was once thought of as one of the fiercest
tribes,” Brinton said. “But the Zulu people were the
happiest people I’ve ever seen. They had nothing more than
the bare necessities, and they were completely happy. They were
just amazing people.”

During his time in Durbin, Brinton did his best to stay in
football shape and also went through the recruiting process for a
second time. Because mission activities occupied much of his day,
Brinton would wake up as early as 5 a.m. to work out. He had a
football with him, but throwing to other missionaries isn’t
nearly the same as throwing to Division I receivers.

Meanwhile, Merrill was sending San Diego State tapes to schools
across the country. Brinton spoke to coaches briefly over the
phone, but that was the only communication. Big-time football
school like Oklahoma and Mississippi came calling, but Brinton
chose Michigan for its combination of football tradition and strong
academic reputation.

 

Though Brinton was frustrated at times during his first three
years at Michigan, his family has noticed that he’s much
calmer this year.

“Just before school started up this year, we had a long
talk,” Merrill said. “He realized that — as far
as football is concerned — he ought to let things go and see
what happens.”

They say that, while he’ll never be happy with his role on
the team, he realizes how valuable his current role is.

“People always ask if he’s upset with how things
have turned out,” Brinton’s mother, Kalle, said.
“But he always says no, and he has never wavered from that.
He knows that everything has happened for a reason, and that
Michigan is where he was supposed to be.”

When Matt Gutierrez, who was slated to start at quarterback for
Michigan, had to sit out with a shoulder injury, Brinton was able
to tell him what he learned from his own ordeal: don’t rush
back, and don’t change mechanics to compensate. He has helped
accelerate true freshman Chad Henne’s adjustment to college
football and has helped Clayton Richard deal with any
disappointment he may have had when he didn’t win the
quarterback battle this summer.

Merrill believes that Brinton is a gifted communicator and could
be a good football coach, but his son is not sure what he wants to
do after he completes his masters degree in sports management.

“I’ve had to change my role on the team and help the
younger guys out,” Brinton said. “To go out on my own
terms, I’ve had to change my goals, and I have different
priorities now. Those goals have helped me go through this, and,
when I finish here, I’ll be really proud of what I’ve
done.”

 

Because his age makes him an easy target, Brinton often times is
the brunt of teammates’ jokes. Over the last four years,
Brinton says he’s heard them all.

He says teammates often ask him what it was like to play with
Marshall Faulk, who left San Diego St. in 1993, four years before
Brinton arrived.

They also like to point out to him that when he was a freshman
in college, this year’s freshman were in sixth grade.

“That’s pretty amazing when I think about it,”
Brinton said. “That’s such a wide gap.”

People often ask Brinton why he would keep going through the
daily grind of workouts and film sessions when he’s never
gotten a chance to start and teammates are three to eight years
younger than him.

“I’d like to think that by being around these
younger guys has kept me young,” Brinton said. “People
would think that I don’t enjoy this, but I really do.

“I’ve really loved being a part of this team.
There’s no way I’d be here if I
didn’t.”

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