Mike Hart’s mother says that things
happen for a reason. That became as apparent as ever shortly after
her son committed to play for Michigan. Sifting through things
around the house, she discovered a Martin Luther King Day poem that
Mike wrote when he was 7 years old. In the piece he laid out his
dream — to play for the University of Michigan and break
Barry Sanders’s rushing record.

Michigan Football
Michigan Football
Hart runs in a playoff game during his senior year of high school. Each year, the seniors at Onondaga choose their helmet design before the season. In 2003, they chose the winged helmet design. That July, Hart verbally committed to Michigan. (AP Photo)
Michigan Football
(TONY DING/Daily)

Whether Hart will ever break Sanders’ Single-season
rushing record — an NCAA-record 2,628 yards for Oklahoma
State in 1988 — remains to be seen. But Hart has transformed
from high school legend to collegiate star in a span of months. In
his first seven games as Michigan’s feature running back, he
has run for 1,145 yards. The true freshman has averaged nearly 35
yards more per game in that span than his predecessor, Heisman
Trophy finalist Chris Perry, did throughout last season.

The kid who friends recall growing up in Michigan gear is
donning the Maize and Blue on Saturdays — and now he has
110,000 friends who will remember him.

Rising from obscurity

Hart has always had his doubters. They said that the only reason
he broke nearly every national high school rushing record was
because he played against schools like his own, which had just 89
kids in his graduating class. They questioned the chances of his
5-foot-9 frame taking the pounding in major college football.

So far, he’s proved them all wrong.

Hart’s dream appeared improbable when his mother, Rory
Rushlow, decided to move her daughter and three sons from the
Syracuse, N.Y. suburb of Liverpool before Mike’s eighth-grade
year. Rushlow felt her daughter, a year older than Mike,
wouldn’t be best suited in a high school of more than 2,700
students; and that Mike, had already professed his love for
football and had been tagged as a gifted athlete, shouldn’t
be treated as just another black athlete but as a person who can
get good grades. She chose to move to the small town of Nedrow,
located south of Syracuse with a population of just over 2,000. Her
kids would go to Onondaga Central, a combined junior-senior high
school that she had attended.

Onondaga wasn’t exactly known for its football program.
The Class D (the lowest in New York) program was actually abandoned
in the early 1990s because of a lack of participation. The program
returned in 1998 and had been improving under the direction of
coach Bill Spicer, but it was far from a state power. Rushlow spoke
about her decision with a friend. The friend said of Mike,
“If he’s as good as I think he is, he’s going to
be noticed wherever you take him. Don’t let football be your
deterrent for moving.”

There was another issue, as well. Rushlow, who is white, was
worried over how her biracial children would be accepted in a
school that was full of prejudice when she had attended it.

Despite Rushlow’s concerns, the family moved to Nedrow and
Mike went to Onondaga. But when he went out for football in ninth
grade — the school has just one team due to its enrollment
— he originally was placed on the second-string defense and
was left off the offense altogether despite all the praise he
received in Pop Warner football. Then in the team’s first
scrimmage the starting running back took a big hit, and Hart
happened to be standing right next to Spicer on the sidelines.
Spicer asked him to fill in for one play.

Hart ran for a touchdown.

He would go onto rush for 204 touchdowns in his four years at
Onondaga — a national record. Among his other
accomplishments:

• 47 consecutive 100-yard games — a national
record;

• 1,246 points — a national record;

• 11,045 yards — just 188 shy of the half century-old
national record.

Hart also led the school to a 39-0 record and three consecutive
Class D state championships in his final three years. Yet Onondaga
opponents never seemed to believe that Hart deserved his stature,
gaining respect for him after they had been beaten.

“There’s still going to be people that doubt
him,” said Carl Runge, Hart’s former teammate and one
of his best friends. “I don’t know why.”

The school district, which covers vast geographical and
socioeconomic boundaries, became unified over the Onondaga Tigers.
Elderly residents who were disconnected from the community came out
to see Mike play. One older man, who started coming with his dog to
every game and practice, wrote Mike a letter saying that watching
him play changed his life.

“The joke was that if anyone wanted to rob anywhere, it
was there, because everyone was at the football game on Friday
night,” Rushlow said.

During Hart’s freshman and sophomore years, he started to
attract people from all over Syracuse. Then, as Hart’s legend
grew, people were coming from all over the state. Rushlow once met
a guy who drove four hours each week to catch the sensation.

“There were people traveling hundreds and hundreds of
miles just to come watch him play,” Spicer said.

Taking it to the next level

Despite his exploits running the football, people were skeptical
as to whether his legend would ever extend beyond Onondaga. He had
made tremendous strides working with former Syracuse University
strength coach Cory Parker. Yet people wondered if he could excel
at the next level because of his small stature and the quality of
competition he would face in college ball. But Michigan was still
impressed by his accomplishments.

“He did everything that he was capable of doing,”
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “He dominated the
competition. When you turned on the film, you saw him get the
football and run for a touchdown. What you like to see in a
football player at this level is a player that dominates, because
if he doesn’t dominate, then you’re trying to find guys
that do.”

Hart would find out that he would get a shot at his Wolverine
dream while visiting schools informally during the spring break of
his junior year with Spicer, his brother Chris and a teammate.
Spicer got a call on his cell from someone in the Michigan
recruiting office soon after the contingent left Michigan State.
The caller had seen Hart’s game tape, wanted to meet him and
was curious as to when he could visit.

Little did they know he was just 20 minutes outside of Ann
Arbor. Spicer asked if they could come over now, and Michigan ended
up giving him an offer on the spot.

Hart wanted to commit right there. After all, this had always
been his dream. He also wanted his mother to see Ann Arbor for
herself. But there was one small problem.

Before Mike went through the recruiting process, his mother
wanted him to go to school outside the state of Michigan.
Hart’s father’s family is from Detroit — his
father still lives in Syracuse — a reason his best friends
speculated as to why he always loved Michigan. Rushlow was
concerned that her ex-husband’s family would begin popping up
after previously taking a minor role in his life.

When Rushlow visited Ann Arbor, she was most impressed by the
demeanor of the football program. She liked how the players she met
were respectful. She appreciated how Carr mentioned his success in
the classroom in addition to on the field. She also respected the
openness of Carr and running backs coach Fred Jackson.

So Rushlow gave the green light to her son, with the condition
that he wait until after their summer vacation to announce his
commitment. Soon after, in July, Spicer called Rushlow to say that
they had already scheduled a 7 a.m. press conference to announce
that Hart would become a Wolverine.

Hart, though, had still yet to answer the question as to whether
he would handle the rigors of the Big Ten as a starting tailback.
Many outside the program assumed that he would redshirt. There was
even a rumor that he would play cornerback, as recruiting guru Tom
Lemming had Hart rated as the No. 6 cornerback in the nation. Even
at the barbershop in Syracuse, they jokingly told him that he was
too small and that he was not going to play. (Hart had long,
braided hair in high school, but decided to cut it since his
girlfriend could no longer be there to braid it for him.)

But Hart never thought he was going to sit out a year. In the
June after his graduation, he went to Ann Arbor for his freshman
orientation and worked out with various Wolverines for about 10
days. Upon his return, he had a few words for one of his best
friends, Felipe Diaz, his teammate at Onondaga.

“Just give me three or four games, and I’ll be
starting.”

It took three.

Going into the season, all the rhetoric coming out of the
program was that senior David Underwood was the clear starter.
Underwood had never established himself as a dependable back for
the Wolverines, but he had lost weight in the offseason and was in
the best shape of his life. Hart received some reps in one of the
first goalline scrimmages of fall practice. He got hit, stayed up
and ran into the corner of the endzone, showing an ability that
Michigan fans would soon become familiar with.

Carr said from the beginning that Hart would receive some
playing time, but Underwood started the season opener against Miami
(Ohio). Underwood looked tentative, picking up 64 yards on 22
carries. He then got hurt the following week against Notre Dame,
and Carr gave Jerome Jackson an opportunity. Jackson finished with
38 yards on 15 carries in the Michigan loss.

Hart was then given his chance the following week against San
Diego State when he fulfilled a role he has yet to relinquish. He
received more reps in practice in the week leading up to the game,
then ran for 121 yards on Saturday. All of a sudden, Michigan had
found its running back, and a kid had realized his boyhood
dream.

Hart has already shattered the school freshman running record of
748 set in 1990 by Ricky Powers.

The 18-year-old has been successful because of his ability to
find the hole and plow through it, breaking tackles with ease while
having the stamina to carry the ball almost exclusively.

Even though Hart has taken the position from older running
backs, he says they have been nothing but supportive.

“They’re great,” Hart said. “They
don’t try to put you down or anything. They tell me
they’re behind me 100 percent, and they are.”

Support from home

Hart is also receiving nothing but support from back home. Diaz
and Runge talk to him almost every other day about how he’s
doing on and off the field. On gameday, many of the Onondaga Tigers
will meet at a restaurant or at someone’s house to watch the
Wolverines play. Everyone in Syracuse seems to be watching along
with them. The crowd at Onondaga games dons as much Michigan
clothing as anything else.

“It’s made a lot of Michigan fans out of people that
maybe weren’t around here,” Spicer said.

Rushlow works two jobs, one for an oral surgeon and another at a
rehab facility on weekends. She meets people every day who find out
she’s Mike’s mother.

“They’ll tell me, ‘I wasn’t a believer.
I have to tell you that I was a naysayer, but now I am a
believer,’ ” Rushlow said.

The Onondaga Tigers found a way to support Hart on the field,
too. With all of the questions surrounding what the team will do
playing without Hart, Spicer adopted as his theme for this year
“Playing with Heart.” The Tigers’ 43-game winning
streak ended on homecoming against Weedsport, but they went 8-1
before Weedsport beat them again in the sectional finals last
weekend.

The Tigers do, however, feature Mike’s brother Chris (who
is 15) who served as the starting tailback. Chris, who’s
6-foot-1, has drawn numerous comparisons to his older brother to
the dismay of his mother, who is worried it will put too much
pressure on him.

She had always been protective of her children as a single
parent. Mike matured into being the man of the house since he was 8
and his 2-year-old sister Kaitlin drowned in the family pool.
Today, Mike has a tattoo of her face on his left shoulder.

According to his mother, Mike is still the disciplinarian for
his two younger brothers. He calls each week to make sure that they
are still in line.

“He’s more like a dad to them than a brother,”
Rushlow said.

But all eyes are on Mike as he and the Wolverines go for the Big
Ten championship in the final two games of the season. Last
Saturday, Hart and senior captain David Baas were in the training
room, and Baas had his Big Ten championship ring on. Bass took off
the ring and put it on Hart’s finger, and said, “Two
more games.” Hart stared at the ring and replied, “I
feel you.”

Sometimes things do happen for a reason.

 

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