One week before the biggest game of his life, Rick Kelly broke his leg. The senior defensive end’s Yorktown Tiger football career was cut short before he had the chance to finally beat crosstown rival Delta, who had dominated the series in recent years.
The year was 1983 and Brady Hoke was just starting his coaching career at the small Indiana high school as the Tigers’ linebackers’ coach.
That year, in what could be considered a minor miracle, the farm boys from Yorktown beat the city slickers from Delta, 13-12. After the game, Hoke was charged with handing out the game ball, which could’ve gone to the star running back or Hoke’s star pupil linebacker — and both deservedly so.
“I know we’re happy,” Hoke began as he stood in front of the whole team. “But we’ve got one person in the hospital who didn’t get to enjoy this. He’s going to enjoy it.
“This is his!” Hoke shouted, holding the game ball high.
The Tigers erupted. They thought Kelly would eventually get the ball, but once they all boarded the team bus Hoke directed it immediately toward the hospital, the players still sporting their jerseys and pads.
Hoke and a few players marched up the hospital stairs and handed the ball to Kelly.
Nearly 30 years later, Michigan coach Brady Hoke still coaches for his seniors.
His unwavering message: “We’re always going to play and coach for our seniors.”
You heard it after Michigan lost against Michigan State. And after the Wolverines disappointed and tripped against Iowa. And after each game, as the season culminates. Each time the message is strong because it plays on the heartstrings — time is precious.
It’s all about the seniors. And it makes sense.
Hoke’s belief is a program is only as strong as the seniors who lead it. Your best players should be the upperclassmen who are older, stronger and more mature. They know how to handle themselves and prepare off the field. They know the traditions.
Then, when the time comes, they can share their knowledge of work ethic and tradition with the freshmen. The cycle continues. A winning tradition breeds more winning.
But what do you do when you inherit a senior class that has known nothing but late-season disappointment since it stepped on campus? With this Michigan team, Hoke had to win them over first, which wasn’t too hard. With their clock ticking, the seniors didn’t waste time buying into a coach who wanted to help them change their legacy.
So he let them take charge.
Some are leaders in the traditional sense. Ryan Van Bergen gets vocal during practice. David Molk rallied the offense before the fourth quarter Saturday.
Then there’s the quiet type, who’d rather show you how to act. Like Martavious Odoms, whose once-promising career became littered with injuries, and who rebounded from a broken arm this year to catch the game-icing touchdown pass against the Fighting Illini.
Hoke meets with his seniors twice a week to gauge the pulse of the team. Since the Michigan State loss, their talks have focused on staying strong as leaders.
“It’s just about not being a flash in the pan,” Van Bergen said. “As far as, the seniors have given so much of themselves, everyone included, through January all the way to now. And it’s draining, it really is. It’s hard to do because you have to go outside your expectations and do extra things. So you kind of hit a wall during the season a little bit.
“I think (Hoke) sensed that. He kind of said, ‘You guys could be the best senior class to play at Michigan. Not because you guys inherited a great bunch of guys, but because you made them great.’ ”
To avoid the second-half slide after a 6-0 start — to make sure their senior year was special — the leaders of each position group took charge to do that little “extra” Van Bergen was talking about. All season long. That means extra film, extra lifts, extra workouts — extra everything.
(Don’t worry. It’s not breaking compliance rules. It’s all player-led.)
Mike Martin and Van Bergen had the defensive linemen come in three extra days a week to work on their hands. Junior quarterback and offensive leader Denard Robinson called in the wide receivers. Defensive backs worked on seven-on-seven drills.
Through the sweat, a bond was built.
“I like how they like each other,” Hoke said two weeks ago, after his team beat Purdue. “Maybe that’s corny or whatever, but from where I sit, I’ve liked that they respect each other and they want to play for each other, in my opinion. It shows.”
The system is set up for success — the underclassmen want to prove themselves; the upperclassmen want to leave a mark. Accountability matters.
These seniors decided to go the extra mile to change the status quo of recent years, and they were rewarded Saturday with their eighth win this season — the most for a Michigan team since 2007.
Maybe they’ll finish with eight wins. Maybe nine. Maybe 10. Maybe they’ll get a chance at 11, if they’re lucky. But what should make Hoke smile is how Martin and Van Bergen took over the Illinois game on defense. His seniors led and everyone else followed.
“It shows that what you’ve been doing, this is how it pays off,” Van Bergen said. “This is how things will happen for you if this is how hard you work.
“I think that’s a great message to the younger guys too. I’m gone next year but the legacy — if you do this in the offseason and you work this hard, this will be how successful you are.”
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TimRohan.