NEW ORLEANS — David Molk only had one leg, but that couldn’t stop him.
Michigan’s fifth-year senior captain, All-American center and Rimington Awad winner was held out of the starting lineup after sustaining a foot injury during pregame warm-ups before the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“Something popped,” said Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon.
“Freak little thing, it just slipped out,” Molk said.
Slip, pull, pop or twist, the outcome was the same — the Wolverines were forced to start little-used redshirt junior backup Rocko Khoury under center in the biggest game in recent memory.
“I thought, ‘Where’s the Rimington award winner guy?’ ” said redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. “Then I found out he was hurt.”
Molk’s final bill of health from the team trainers prior to the game cast a sobering shadow over the All-American’s final game at Michigan: “I wasn’t a go.”
“It was something where I had to get the feeling back — I couldn’t move on it,” Molk said.
Molk tried to get loose on the sideline during Khoury’s first series, watching his replacement send a pair of errant snaps back to junior quarterback Denard Robinson. The offense went nowhere.
The coaches and trainers had left the decision up to Molk. After watching the first series, he made his decision. He was back under center for the second drive. He didn’t miss another snap.
“David is a warrior,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “He’s a captain on this football team. He has a lot of pride in Michigan, he has a lot of pride in this offense. It means a lot to see him come out there and perform like he did.”
The offense struggled from start to finish. The dynamic rushing attack of Robinson and redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint combined for just 43 yards, by far their lowest total of the season.
But the players couldn’t deny the effect Molk’s return had on stabilizing the offense early in the game. Robinson found the ball in his hands on every snap and had more time in the pocket for his throws.
“I don’t know if the offense needed me, but obviously I wanted to be out there and help my team,” Molk said. “I knew I could be a positive force no matter if I was 50 percent, 40 percent or 100 percent.
“It’s something that’s within me — I can’t stay off the field, I muscle through injuries.”
It isn’t the first time Molk has battled injury. As a redshirt sophomore, Molk started four games before being knocked out of a matchup against Eastern Michigan with a foot injury. He returned for the Penn State game and suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first series.
This time, in the Sugar Bowl, it was bearable. And the team drew a clear line between hurt and injured.
“We said unless we see bone, we’re not coming out,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Ryan Van Bergen.
The trainers thought Molk was injured. He decided he was just hurt.
“Dave Molk has more heart than I expected,” Lewan said.
“At the end of the day, the kid had a heart. Molk knew. He loves this team, he loves this university, and he’s going to play for them no matter what.”
As Molk stepped away from the crowd of teammates celebrating the overtime victory, he gazed around the massive Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It was worth it. It was worth everything.
His career began inauspiciously, with a historic upset loss to Appalachian State at Michigan Stadium. It ended gloriously, with an overtime epic in New Orleans.
“How we came in and how my first four seasons went, I thought we were the stain on Michigan tradition,” Molk said, walking slowly toward the winner’s podium on the turf. “But the reality is that we came back from everything and we’re back to where Michigan is.”
The stoic Molk couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. Michigan strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman swept his arms around the fifth-year senior.
Molk only had one leg, but that’s all he needed.
His Michigan career came to an end on Tuesday. His football career is moving to the next chapter — Molk will now begin training for the NFL. The scope of Molk’s journey couldn’t be captured better than his final words after the Wolverines topped Ohio State on Nov. 26.
“It’s been a lot and it’s been a rollercoaster that for some reason has seemed like it would never get good,” Molk said, his voice rising. “But we kept fighting.
“It’s just like the old saying goes: Those who stay will be champions.”