The minister’s son ate breakfast that morning like it was any other morning. He went back, turned on church music, read The Bible and “asked God to show him favor.”
Like any other morning.
Later — when Michigan needed a game-changing play in the worst way, with Western Michigan preparing to take a 14-7 lead — linebacker Jake Ryan would launch himself through the air, toppling Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder. And Carder’s pass would float, aimlessly, until it found Brandon Herron’s hands.
“I was just looking up and my legs just carried me,” Herron said.
All the minister’s son saw was the left tackle, and once he evaded him there was nothing but green ahead. Aubrey Pleasant, a graduate assistant, always told him, “Whenever you get an interception, run it back to your sideline.”
Herron tiptoed that sideline, refusing to end his magic there.
He was listed as the second-string weakside linebacker. Starter Cam Gordon had a back injury he couldn’t play through, so Brady Hoke wanted to play an experienced player, a guy who knew Greg Mattison’s defense, a guy he could trust. So the fifth-year senior made his first career start.
Had Mattison called a different formation, he wouldn’t have been on the field. Herron was lined up at his new position — weakside linebacker — the one he had played all fall camp.
He had a mindset entering his final season in an otherwise uneventful career: He was going to pull out all of the stops, but he was also going to have faith.
It made sense — the minister took him to church a lot growing up. It was all he knew, he says now. As sons do, he followed his father’s footsteps, picked up his tendencies.
“I didn’t have any doubt because of my faith,” he said of his role on the team. “I just knew I had to work and work hard. … But I knew, in my heart, this was my last year and God was going to work some things out for me.”
So Herron ran. And pretty soon he ran out of gas, he said, but he didn’t slow down. His legs carried him for a 94-yard interception return for a touchdown — the longest in Michigan football history.
This wouldn’t be just any other day.
Later, in front of a throng of media, the first words he said were: “Well, for one I want to thank God.”
This isn’t the point in Herron’s story where you take the easy way out, follow his lead, and admit by some act of a higher power he was in the right place at the right time. No, Herron’s once-in-a-lifetime Saturday afternoon was due to one man — Greg Mattison — and how everything he does is for a greater purpose.
There’s a reason Herron was where he was. And there’s a reason why Ryan’s blitz worked perfectly. Of course, Herron had to take care of the rest. Maybe then faith intervened.
In the third quarter, it was no accident Jordan Kovacs broke free around the right side of the Broncos’ offensive line and had two clean, free, olly-olly-oxen-free hits on Carder.
Herron and Kovacs saw something in the offense pre-snap. They made an adjustment, and Herron came off the edge, freeing up Kovacs for the hit. Carder fumbled, and guess who was there to scoop it up in stride, only to see that beautiful green grass again.
“I don’t want to thank only Kovacs,” Herron said. “I want to thank all 11 guys who are on the field. Because we all work as one.
“If I’m doing my job right, somebody else is going to come free to make that play. I just thanked all my teammates because we did it together.”
That’s the beauty of a well-oiled Greg Mattison defense. That could’ve been anyone who made that play. If you’re in the spot you’re supposed to be, and the other team makes a mistake, then it’s all up to you. And your faith, if that’s your cup of tea.
That’s what Mattison means when he says he wants to give his guys enough “bullets.” He wants to put them in the best position to succeed. But it’s a pre-determined position, one that is determined by everyone else on the field. Herron and Craig Roh had to distract the tackles and the Broncos had to double-team defensive tackle Nathan Brink, not seeing Kovacs, for him to break through. The secondary had to cover their men just long enough.
The right tackle had to block either Kovacs or Herron. Kovacs went inside, Herron went outside and each would have had Carder dead-to-rights.
It just so happened it was Herron who became the first defensive player in Michigan football history to have two touchdown returns in the same game. Awards followed. He was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week —Michigan’s first since Brandon Graham won it in 2008. At one point, he was the No. 1 trending topic in the world on Twitter.
“I’ve been getting a lot of friend requests,” he said. “It’s just been ecstatic. I’ve just been happy that something like this has happened. I felt like when I was out there after the game, I felt like this wasn’t supposed to happen to me.
“I just didn’t — I never knew. You know, like, coming into a game — you just — I prayed: God show me favor. Show me the way. And to come out with the performance I had, I was really shocked.”
His teammates told him it was his bald head that brought the two touchdowns — the result of a botched haircut in an attempt to grow a mohawk.
“It’s not my bald head. It’s just God, showing me favor,” he told them.
God, and Greg Mattison too.
—Rohan wants to know who’ll be the defensive hero next week. You can follow him on Twitter @TimRohan or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.