It’s almost dusk at Hollway Field, the site of Pioneer High School’s football games every Thursday and Friday. Russ Furrha is checking his reflection in the car window before walking to the field, the site of many of Russ’s own athletic exploits now nearly four years past. He needs to make sure his faux-hawk is perfectly quaffed. He’s at a photo shoot, after all, and must be ready for his close-up.
“I don’t think I’ve been here in four years,” Russ remarks to no one in particular.
Pat Collins and Will Heininger, two of Russ’s former teammates at Pioneer and current teammates on the Michigan football team, meet us at the field. They find a small opening in the right wing of the gate surrounding the stands, and the three walk through the tunnel under the bleachers that leads to the field. There’s a new sign above the tunnel’s exit. It’s a quote from John Wooden:
Success travels in the company of very hard work. There is no trick, no easy way.
“That quote’s stupid,” Pat says.
Will looks at him, slightly surprised. “Come on, that’s a great quote. You just don’t like it because it’s new.”
The trio shuffles under the sign and onto the field. Alex Linkner, a student manager for the football team and a fellow Pioneer grad, throws Pat a football he swiped from Schembechler Hall after practice. The guys toss it around against the backdrop of the setting sun.
You can see the skyline of downtown Ann Arbor quite clearly from the top row of the stands of the Holloway Field. But the most dominant form on the landscape is Michigan Stadium, just across Stadium Boulevard. The Big House. The colossal stadium functions as a physical manifestation of the omnipresent entity that is Michigan football in Ann Arbor. Without a doubt it is the city’s most recognizable landmark — at times it seems almost too big for Ann Arbor, whose entire population amounts to less than the Stadium’s capacity.
The three Michigan football players tossing the football around at Holloway field were once small boys who idolized Tom Brady, Anthony Thomas and Charles Woodson. They went to every home game. They were fans, just like so many young boy growing up in Ann Arbor.
The trio offers a unique glimpse into the connection between Ann Arbor the town and the University Michigan football team. Looking across the street from Holloway Field to Michigan Stadium, as these three have countless times, makes the distance between the two seem small. But in reality, there is still a vast gap.
Will, Pat and Russ bridged the gap.
With South Park on in the background, the conversation at Linkner’s Ann Arbor apartment turns to high school. Specifically, to Will in high school.
“Will, his nickname in our group of friends has always been ‘Giant,’ ” Linker says, sitting beside me on his couch. Will is sitting in a chair to the right of us. “He’s always been a very large human being. In high school, you never imagined he’d be able to get that much bigger…”
Will interrupts absent-mindedly. He’s engrossed in peeling a banana. “Come on, it’s because of my personality, too.”
Linkner continues without a pause. “…But he gets here and you look at pictures from back then, and he looks like a small giant,” Linkner says. “Now, he’s just a huge, huge giant.”
It’s true. At 6-foot-6 and almost 270 pounds, Will is a behemoth. He’s the only one out of the three who actually looks like he plays football. But Will is right—his personality is bigger than life. Had he not injured himself in the spring, he would be getting significant playing time at defensive end, where he spelled Brandon Graham last year and played all 12 games. And he’d be a media darling. Will is smart, thoughtful and likes to talk about almost anything, especially Michigan football.
“I watched every game growing up,” Will says. “I can still remember a lot of games — well, almost every game, probably.”
Will, of the three subjects of this story, was the pioneer. A prodigious baseball talent in high school, Will played football for fun and to spend time with his teammates, who included Pat and Russ. Growing up, baseball was his focus. But his passion was Michigan football.
“Michigan football was everything to me growing up,” Will says. “We’d play there (Holloway Field) Friday nights and couldn’t wait for Saturday morning when you’d get up and watch the game or go down to the Stadium. You’d look across the street sometimes during warm-ups and just dream, but actually playing there wasn’t realistic.”
After Will’s senior football season, Noah Hurwitz, the guardian of one of Will’s teammates at Pioneer, Cameron Joplin (who now plays tight end for Northwestern), told Will he could play football in college and that he’d make him a highlight video. Will was doubtful, but Hurwitz persisted.
“He said, ‘You’re big, you’re fast, you could walk on — a lot of schools would love to have you.’ So he made a highlight tape and sent it to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan.”
Will went to Schembechler Hall to drop his tape off — “The coolest thing I had ever done.” — and the director of football operations told him he’d hear back in a week.
“So I was like, ‘Well, that’s the last time I’ll see them.’ ”
But of course it wasn’t. Will called the team after not hearing anything for a week and they were surprised no one had contacted him before. They told him they would love to have him on the team, and to report for camp in August.
Will dropped the phone. He had a decision to make: play baseball for Michigan, the sport he’d committed the better half of his life to and clearly his better sport, or take his chances playing for a team he had worshipped as a kid, and still did.
In the end, his love for Michigan football and the chance to play in the Big House, practice with Chad Henne and Mike Hart and Mario Manningham and go up against Jake Long on the line, won out.
“It turned out to be probably the best choice I ever made,” Will says.
And so the fan, the kid who couldn’t wait to get to Michigan Stadium on Saturday afternoons, became the player. He wasn’t alone.
“I remember working at Russ’s tryout,” Linkner says. “I was literally the person shooting jugs to him and seeing him work out. It’s just funny to see your high school and middle school classmate show up and make the team.”
In Ann Arbor, the name Furrha is synonymous with football. It seems like every year, there’s a new batch of Furrha football standouts ready to step in. In fact, there used to be two Furrhas on Michigan’s roster — Russ’s younger cousin Nader was a quarterback on the team until he transferred this year to a junior college. Russ has three cousins currently playing college football: Fadi plays for Toledo, Odeh plays for Indiana State and Esham plays for Saginaw Valley State.
Making Michigan’s team as a walk-on was the end of a long road for Russ. But he stresses that for him, playing football at Michigan is only one of two major life goals. Being a student at Michigan was at least as important. But make no mistake: Russ’s goal is to see the field, maybe on special teams.
“Some, like my uncle and stuff, are like, ‘Great, you’re on the team. So, what’s next?’ ” Russ says. “You should always be progressing and not be nostalgic. You’ve got to create more goals for yourself.”
But his family, however football-intensive it may be, always stresses that school comes first.
“Their expectations are school first,” Russ says. “But they’d definitely love to see me on the field and I’d love to see myself on the field.”
“Besides going to Michigan State my freshman year, I went to Allen Elementary, which is off Stadium (Boulevard), I went to middle school at Tappan, which is off Stadium and then Pioneer which is off Stadium,” Pat says. “So outside of that one year at State, I not only lived in Ann Arbor but lived right in the shadow of Michigan Stadium.”
As Pat explains it, the two choices for him out of high school were to either play at one of the numerous smaller schools that were giving him attention or go to Michigan State, where some of his best friends were going and where he would have a realistic shot at studying business. So Pat went to State. But he didn’t ever, he wants to stress, go green.
“At no point was I ever a Michigan State fan for anything,” Pat says. “My dorm room, I had two big Michigan flags. The thing that sucks is we went around our dorm freshman year and introduced ourselves, and when I said I was from Ann Arbor, people wanted to know if I was a State fan now, and I said, ‘No, I’m a Michigan fan and I always will be.’ ”
Although the truth, it wasn’t the smartest thing to say. A major upset in the Big House that first weekend of Pat’s freshman year made that Saturday… challenging.
“I just heard a stampede coming down the hallway so I closed my door and locked it.”
While Pat was stranded in the land of the Spartans, he kept in touch with Will, who was back in Ann Arbor redshirting for the Wolverines. Will told him about some of the other players walking on at Michigan, how a lot of them were guys the two had played against in high school, guys Pat thought he measured up well against. Pat had stayed in great shape while at Michigan State, and he felt like he was the strongest he’d ever been. Finally, Will suggested to Pat that he should transfer and try out for the team.
“I talked to the director of football operations and said my friend is a really good athlete and will do what’s right for the team and he’s a smart kid,” Will says. “And he said, ‘Well, let’s bring him down for a tryout.’”
“Will was like, ‘You should try to come, you should try to come,’” Pat says. “And I was like, dude, I would give anything to do that but it’s not realistic.”
Pat spent the first semester of his sophomore year in East Lansing, with Will in his ear the whole time. Finally, in October of his sophomore year, Pat handed in his application to go to Michigan. He was so sure he wouldn’t get in, let alone play on the football team, that he didn’t tell a soul he applied.
Over winter break of his sophomore year, Pat got an e-mail that said he’d been accepted to Michigan. He ordered a U-Haul truck to retrieve all of his belongings from Michigan State and dropped all of his classes.
“It literally happened, like, overnight,” Pat says.
He tried out that winter for the team, at the same tryout as redshirt sophomore safety Jordan Kovacs, and made it in time for spring ball that same year.
“I feel like I haven’t realized what’s happened yet,” Pat says. I feel like I don’t have time to sit down and think about it. But I’m afraid if I do that I’ll get complacent, which is what I’m most afraid of.”
With Pat back where he belongs, the three kids who grew up going to the Big House every Saturday still do—except now, instead of watching the winged helmets, they wear them.
Back at Linkner’s apartment, Will describes the Michigan football team’s connection to Ann Arbor like this:
“People definitely live through the team. Regardless of what kind of people they are, religiously, demographically, almost everyone cares about the football team. And Ann Arbor’s a different city; there are a lot of different people living here. But everyone seems to tune in and at least care about how the team is doing. It’s kind of this connection that brings everyone together. Growing up, I was in the shadow of it, it was more important than almost anything. It really instills a love for the team in you, and I think that’s helped me a lot where I’m at now.”
It’s nearly impossible to grow up in Ann Arbor and ignore Michigan football. It’s an atmosphere. It worms its way into nearly every facet of autumn life — conversations, traffic, local news, everything. It hovers over everything just as the Big House hovers over Holloway Field.
There’s something desperate about the hold young Ann Arborites have on the football team. For them, there is something so thrilling about rooting for a team that is all theirs, for a team so important, for a team so delightfully national that remains all their own.
Russ Furrha, Pat Collins and Will Heininger were all once those boys. Now, they’re Wolverines.