The township of Umlazi, South Africa will not soon forget the words and actions of one Michigan quarterback.
It was day one with members of the Zulu tribe, and for Spencer Brinton it would prove to be his strongest memory of his Mormon mission to South Africa.
Brinton noticed one family that was particularly in need of help. Without another word, without another thought, he began working on their yard.
Soon a crowd of people gathered on the adjoining hillside. People stood and stared from windows and doorways at the 6-5, 220-pound giant as he toiled away at the land.
For many residents of Umlazi accustomed to racial inequality, this was the first time they had seen a white man helping a black man in their community.
“It was a very powerful message,” Brinton said. “That is one story that will always stick with me.”
Even in the post-Apartheid era, huge segregated townships still exist throughout South Africa. In Umlazi, five million blacks are crammed into a space the size of Central Campus here in Ann Arbor.
The selfless spirit of Brinton”s actions struck a chord with the impoverished masses around him. His sacrifice opened doors of communication between people of different cultures, enabling him to share his knowledge of the Book of Mormon.
“It”s the simple act of service,” Brinton said. “You go out and you help people. You serve them rather than serving yourself. And at the same time, you learn a lot of things not only about the other people, but about yourself.”
The sacrifices began before Brinton even left the United States. When he filled out the papers with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the California native had no idea where his missionary work would take him.
“It could have been any country, any city in the whole world,” Brinton said. “At the very start you sacrifice your desires of where to go.”
South Africa proved to be a perfect fit for Brinton. It provided both the exposure to a new culture that he had hoped for and an English-speaking population to make the transition easier.
“It was the best of both worlds,” Brinton said. “I was real lucky.”
Upon arriving in Africa in 1999, Brinton began a very structured campaign of service that would last for two years.
Every morning, Brinton hopped out of bed at 6:30. The next two hours were reserved for studying. After eating breakfast, Brinton would leave his apartment at 9:30 a.m. His service activities would keep him busy until 9:30 at night, when he could return to the apartment.
Exercise was not a part of the daily routine, so Brinton had to sacrifice sleep to stay in shape. He would often rise at 5:30 a.m. to give himself time for running, sit-ups and push-ups.
Each day, he would work to set up appointments and schedule where and when he would be working. But some days the to-do list didn”t fill the mandatory 12-hour service time. As a result, searching for new ways to serve became one of the biggest challenges for Michigan”s newest quarterback.
“We just tried to use our time wisely,” Brinton said. “It became really hard. You use your faith and go out and find something, helping others.”
Brinton also had to search for creative ways to keep himself sharp for football. He was allowed one day per week as a “preparation day.” On those days, Brinton would do his shopping, wash his clothes and write letters home. But he would also throw a football around with “slow missionaries.”
Brinton said that he was just hoping to “keep the arm loose and not be totally out of sync and rusty.”
The recruiting trail
As Brinton”s missionary work in Africa neared its conclusion, the former San Diego State mega-recruit needed to decide on a new school.
Communication with the United States was at a premium in rural South Africa, but fortunately the Mission President allowed Brinton to speak with head coaches from each of the schools he was considering: Michigan, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and Arizona.
But those conversations could only take place once a week, so each school only got 30 minutes of the quarterback”s ear.
A simple phone call “was my recruiting trip, my letters, everything,” Brinton said with a laugh.
So what was it about that half-hour speaking to Ann Arbor that was so special? According to Brinton, it was the candor of Michigan”s coaching staff.
“(Offensive coordinator Stan) Parrish and (head coach Lloyd) Carr were up-front with everything,” Brinton said. “A lot of coaches will force-feed or try to butter-up the situation. I knew the situation here. And they just said that the best person would play on the field.”
But his real reason for choosing the Wolverines last Aug. 12 was simple.
“Why not come to Michigan? That is the question you should ask,” Brinton quipped. “There is so much to offer here. When you talk about tradition, when you talk about college football, the first thing that pops up in your mind is Michigan.”
His experience in South Africa also changed his perspective on academics, which boosted Michigan”s stock further.
“Before, academics was something that I didn”t take too seriously at all,” Brinton said. “But I realized that there is a lot more to life than football. I can see that you get a degree from the University of Michigan and that means a lot, it opens a lot of doors.”
True, but then another question arises: Why didn”t Brinton just return to San Diego State where he could have been a starter from Day One? The answer can be found on any fall Saturday in Ann Arbor the unparalleled college football atmosphere.
Coming from Southern California, Brinton was looking to go to a place where football is king.
“On the west coast people would ask, “What are you going to do: the game or the beach?” and a lot of people took the second offer there,” Brinton said.
In addition, San Diego State wasn”t exactly pleading for his return.
“We weren”t going to take him back after his mission,” San Diego State head coach Ted Tollner said. “We were going in a different direction after that.”
Ironically, Brinton was hoping to attend Ohio State University when he came out of high school.
He was one of four quarterbacks out of California that the Buckeyes were recruiting.
Head coach John Cooper offered all four scholarships, and said that the first two return callers would be chosen.
Brinton was not home and he was the last to call back.
Welcome to the big house
After the long trek back to California, Brinton spent just three days at home before flying to Ann Arbor.
On the last day of April, Brinton and his parents arrived at Metro Airport in Detroit. But it was late, and Brinton was in bed before the city of Ann Arbor could make an impression.
Classes began at 9 a.m. for Brinton, who is taking Psychology 305 this term. The class allows Brinton to help, befriend and advise youths in Detroit. It enables him to continue the life of service he led on the mission.
But the football itch woke Brinton early, and he ran to Schembechler Hall to meet the coaches at 8 a.m. He didn”t have time for a grand tour. But no sooner was his class over than the Brinton family found itself standing on the field at Michigan Stadium.
This was the encounter with tradition that Brinton had been waiting for.
“This is the dream,” Brinton said. “I just looked up at all the rows and rows going up. I got chills.”
But can he play?
As the first true freshman to start at San Diego State, Brinton was 72-of-162 for 1,097 yards and six touchdowns, with 10 interceptions. The numbers aren”t jaw-dropping, but the Aztecs went 4-2 with him at quarterback after losing their first five games.
An injury to senior Kevin McKechnie vaulted Brinton into his first collegiate action against UNLV, a game the Aztecs eventually won. That first win has been the highlight of Brinton”s athletic career.
“I was surprised with how calm I was,” Brinton said. “I felt like I had done it before. I was really focused on the game. It was a big win for us.”
While at San Diego State, the tall left-hander had the opportunity to face quality opponents such as Wisconsin and Southern California before strained ligaments in his throwing hand sidelined him in the second game of his sophomore season.
“I have been in situations,” Brinton said. “I have faced zone defenses. I have played at this level before. You can”t replace experience.”
Although the injury was a setback to his football career, it gave Brinton the chance he needed to leave his team and go on the mission to Africa.
“I know that those things happen for a reason,” Brinton said. “I am thankful that I had the opportunity to play football and go on the mission because coming out of high school, I wasn”t going to go.”
He gives his mission credit for his newfound perspective and peace of mind on the field.
“When I look at defenses, before they were kind of a blur,” Brinton said. “But now they sink in and my mind is clear.”
Brinton, who turns 23 on July 30, still has three years of eligibility remaining, and he doesn”t feel as though he has lost much while living on the other side of the world.
“I am the same,” Brinton said. “Just wiser.”
Brinton is currently watching film and throwing three days a week to help him readjust to the speed of the college game. He will also be spending more than his share of time with strength coach Mike Gittleson. How much has he picked up?
“I”ve thrown every pass no problem,” Brinton said.
At least he isn”t suffering from a lack of confidence.
Brinton will try to make Michigan fans forget about departed quarterback Drew Henson by wearing the No. 7 jersey this fall.
Starter, backup or clipboard boy?
ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told the Michigan Daily in January that Brinton “has developed into a better QB now. Michigan believes that he will be Henson”s successor.”
When Henson decided to jump ship early for pinstripes and big bags of money, it brought Brinton a step closer to the starting position.
But unless the Wolverines suffer another freak summer ankle injury, John Navarre will be the starting quarterback when Michigan opens its season at home against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 1.
Did Henson”s departure create a rift between Navarre and Brinton?
“No. Not at all,” Brinton answered quickly. “I experienced that selfish tic before with the other quarterback at San Diego State. It was ” Brinton took a long pause searching for the right word, “unenjoyable.”
“Maybe you look for ways to cheat each other or get around the system to make yourself better than that person. When you do that, I don”t think that it positively helps anyone.”
Actually, the two Michigan signal callers seem to have become fast friends.
Brinton got a call from Navarre on his second day in Ann Arbor, inviting him over for a small gathering and barbeque.
The two are watching a lot of film together and are working to pool their collective experience to make the Wolverines better in 2001.
“This team is the same talent, just new people,” Brinton said. “There is enough talent here to win a national championship.”