The Michigan football team had just defeated Western Michigan in the season opener, but Craig Roh couldn’t help but cry.
The junior defensive end was used to being one of the Wolverines’ main weapons — he’d started every game of his collegiate career and had been a rock for the Michigan defense. But after this game, the only rock he felt was rock bottom.
He recorded zero tackles and seemed invisible on the field.
“I didn’t perform that great (against Western Michigan),” Roh said on Tuesday. “I just had a breakdown after that game.”
But it was more than just his poor performance against the Broncos that triggered the “emotional release.” It was the culmination of a difficult few weeks.
Roh had been taking a lot of heat from defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who is making it his priority to shape Roh into a great player. Mattison knows Roh’s potential and is not afraid to let him know when things need to improve.
“I’ve been pretty hard on him,” Mattison said. “I think at one point he said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that everything I did wasn’t good before.’
“And I just said, ‘Well, it isn’t. Not for the level that I want you at.’ ”
Not exactly what Roh had been used to hearing.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Roh said. “I would like to think that everything I do is perfect, and football is one area where I could be perfect. And once Mattison came in, I wasn’t perfect anymore. I was just completely un-perfect in every way, shape or form.”
It was during camp when Roh first realized how different this season would be than years past. He was still adjusting to playing defensive end — he played linebacker all of freshman year and in eight games his sophomore year.
Roh had only five games at defensive end under his belt entering this season. The position change, along with a new coaching staff, challenged Roh to his breaking point.
“(I was) breaking down, like with my parents probably,” Roh said. “After games, or just during camp. Camp was tough. We went almost every day in full pads. People would be lying if they told you (camp) was fun. But it’s necessary, and it’s made this whole team mentally tough. But sometimes it’s not always fun.”
Following the Western Michigan game, Roh once again didn’t post any statistics in a 35-31 win over Notre Dame. But during that game, he felt something change.
“The Western game I felt like I didn’t play well,” he said. “The Notre Dame game, I felt energetic, had fun.
“That was like the epiphany.”
“I just kind of had an epiphany about football and life,” Roh said. “That’s kind of what I detected. It was just a change, and I thank Mattison, I thank God for it. It entailed something that just really relates to Christian belief that I’m not perfect, that it’s OK to be not perfect because God has a plan for me.
“It’s like God has put football into my life because He wants me to play. He wants me to enjoy it, and after that, it was like any criticism I get from Mattison doesn’t tear down my entire world. (Mattison) is just trying to make me a better player, and because of that I came in with a much more positive attitude, even when he does get down on me.”
But the game against the Fighting Irish was just the beginning. Roh saw the game, and life, in a different light. He started having fun playing football again.
And he wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“All of the sudden, he just kept working and kept working, and you could see it happen I think a week ago in practice,” Mattison said. “I saw a different guy. A guy that said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna buy into everything.’ “
Roh said his epiphany helped him to maintain a more positive attitude in practice and has helped him become a better football player.
And never was that more evident than midway through the third quarter against Eastern Michigan last Saturday. Roh was positioned on the left side of the line as Eagles quarterback Alex Gillett faked a handoff and rolled out to the right, looking to pass.
Gillett never had a chance. Roh read the play perfectly and busted through the line. He grabbed hold of Gillett’s shoulder and ripped him to the ground for his first sack of the year.
Finally, a sense of relief. Roh raised both fists in the air as teammates ran over to congratulate him.
“That was a release for sure,” he said. “I’m just having so much fun playing football right now.”
Despite the epiphany, Roh remains focused on what lies ahead.
“It’s a journey,” he said.