On one of those miserable days, Mike Hart decided he didn’t want to carry the football anymore.
After his rookie year, the thought started creeping into his mind. Then, the Indianapolis Colts made the Super Bowl and he stuck around. But the doubt was always there, wallowing.
“Part of it was I wasn’t playing that much,” Hart said. “It wasn’t as fun. Real business-like. I mean, I enjoyed it when I played, but at the same time, I didn’t look forward to going to work every day. I never wanted to look at football like that.”
He even started to doubt whether he wanted to become a coach — which had always been the plan.
“That’s when I knew it was time for me to get away from this,” he said.
The decision, ultimately, was made for him. After he rushed for 264 yards in three seasons, the Colts declined to offer him a contract as a restricted free agent this offseason.
He spent his down time working out as if he’d get another shot. Hart thought he’d be picked up before training camp, once the NFL’s lockout was over. But did he want to keep playing?
When no one signed him, he had already decided he wasn’t going to wait.
“I knew that I always wanted to be a coach,” he said.
So Ron English’s newest quality control assistant looked on, high above the field where he ran for most of his 5,040 yards, from his spot in the press box, helping his new team try and topple Goliath, his alma mater.
Michigan won, 31-3, and Hart didn’t sing “The Victors.”
His team didn’t win.
“I’m committed to this team,” Hart said during the week leading up to the Michigan-Eastern Michigan game. “This is who I am. I am Eastern Michigan. I’m a coach at Eastern Michigan. I want Eastern Michigan to win every game.
“I don’t cheer for Michigan to win anymore. I watch the game as a coach.”
At least he sounds like a coach.
And like Hart’s doubt lingered about his own playing career, some have started a countdown for a return to Michigan.
Just four months ago he was standing on the sidelines at the spring game, singing Brady Hoke’s praises.
Michigan’s all-time leading rusher will eventually coach Michigan running backs to break his own record at a place he loves.
For now, he’s an Eagle, starting at the same school Lloyd Carr and Tyrone Wheatley began their coaching careers — seven miles away from the Big House at Eastern Michigan, a school that fell to 4-23 on Saturday in three years under English.
What a humble beginning.
His days begin at 7:15 in the morning. And he doesn’t leave until after 10 p.m. As a player, he hated practice. Now he loves it, because all of his time spent watching film and preparing gets put to use.
After those long days, he returns to the new home his wife and child have made in Michigan, one he says he’ll have for “a while.”
That begs the question: It makes sense to us, but is Hart’s ultimate goal to coach at Michigan?
“It’s to just become a great coach, no matter where it is,” Hart said. “Whether it’s at Eastern Michigan, no matter where it is, I want to be a great coach. It’s one of those things I’m going to find out the next couple of years what I want to do. I think being a head coach comes with a lot of responsibilities, and I really wouldn’t want to be a head coach.
“It’s just one of those things, in the next couple of years, I’ll figure out what I want to do. I might just want to be a running backs coach.”
Here are the facts: Michigan’s current running backs coach Fred Jackson is 61 years old. He’s coaching with two good friends — Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison — that respect him and let him do his job. He’s in no hurry to leave, but he won’t coach forever.
It’s not that hard to imagine Jackson coaching another five years or so — maybe fewer — before deciding to hang it up, let one of the backs he coached take his seat atop the Michigan running back throne. But he’s coached a lot of legendary running backs in the past 20 years.
Hart could be the one.
He just has one Tyrone Wheatley standing in his way.
“(Wheatley) was a player who always wanted to know the whys of how things worked. ‘How do we attack this defense? Why is that defense doing this?’ ” Jackson told MLive.com in 2009, when Wheatley started coaching running backs at Eastern Michigan under English.
“In all my years, (Wheatley) and Michael Hart are the two guys I spent the most time with on the field and off the field, and that made the difference in what they did as players. Those are the types of players who become coaches.”
Since the 2010 season, Wheatley (who is from Michigan) has coached Syracuse’s running backs. He immediately inherited a senior running back named Delone Carter, who rushed for 1,233 yards and who was a fourth round pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
Carter’s backup that season, Antwon Bailey, is now the lead back. Now Wheatley has his first big test — turning a career backup into a star, on a big stage. Stay tuned.
But keep in mind, Wheatley hasn’t said outright he wants Jackson’s job either. And he has said he has goals of becoming a head coach some day. So if Wheatley is Jackson’s successor, it may not be for long.
Hart’s still only 25. He still has time, and he’s lucky he’s out of the league with good health.
And when he does come back, the Michigan community will welcome him with open arms — damn what he did in the NFL or at any other coaching stop before then — because the 5-foot-9 running back-that-could is one of those beloved Michigan figures, like Carr has become.
“I have a lot of respect for Mike and what he did for Michigan,” Hoke said. “He’s a good man. I like the heck out of him.”
Like him enough to give him a job someday?
“I think all of those guys are always welcome back,” Hoke said.
Hart may just have to wait his turn.
—Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.