NEW ORLEANS — Lost amongst a sea of teammates and a flurry of maize and blue confetti, Michigan’s Sugar Bowl hero described how he felt.

“It shows our fight. It shows our determination. It shows everything we’ve been through,” said Junior Hemingway, as tears streamed down his face.

His voice, rising in desperation, tried to convince the world.

“We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through soooo much. Nobody understands that. But to come out here and win this bowl game, today, with these people I worked hard with from day one, it feels so good. There’s nothing like it.

“It’s too hard, man. Just shows all our hard work. All the long days, long nights, it feels too good, man, too good.”

When asked how he felt, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer buried his face in his hands.

“I’m about half-sick right now,” he said.

What more could Beamer have asked? His quarterback out-ran Denard Robinson and carved up Michigan’s secondary. Logan Thomas said there was nothing Michigan did that surprised him, and it showed, as he converted 6-of-7 third down attempts of 8 yards or longer.

Virginia Tech out-gained Michigan by nearly 200 yards, but caught no breaks. The Wolverines’ long snapper caught a pass that saved a botched fake field goal. A failed Hokie fake punt set up Michigan’s late go-ahead kick.

Robinson threw what might’ve been three interceptions. A questionable interference call and a Jayron Hosley bobble cost the Hokies two turnovers that were within reach.

Is this what Michigan football is supposed to look like?

***

In 10 years, Team 132 will gather and recall how they played Michigan football.

Two college drinking buddies, Ryan Van Bergen and Dave Molk, will exchange war stories and battle scars. Van Bergen will proudly tell the story about how his ankle felt like rubber after it bent horizontal to his shin — twice, in opposite directions.

“Unless I saw bone, I was going to try and stay in,” he said after the game.

This Michigan defense looked like Van Bergen, limping into the post-game press conference on crutches.

Cut from the same cloth, Molk will try and one-up him, telling how he heard a pop in warm-ups and how the coaches thought he’d be out for the game. After seeing his replacement, Rocko Khoury, botch the first three snaps, he put himself in.

Mike Martin won’t be far away. He, too, was the lifeline of a team that led with both its lines, just as Brady Hoke said they would. Defensive teammates will wonder where they would’ve been without Martin and Van Bergen. They anchored perhaps the defense’s only strengths — short-yardage and red-zone defense.

Perhaps Martin will remember silently staring up at the Superdome’s bright lights, as the confetti fell and Hemingway spoke.

“That’s going (to) forever be ingrained in my head, that vision and being with those guys,” Martin said. “This is something I’m never going to forget.”

The celebration, they’ll remember fondly. But the win? That was dirty.

Kevin Koger and Mike Shaw will remember looking up together at the scoreboard halfway through the third quarter, as Michigan built a 17-6 lead. They saw the stats roll across the screen: the Hokies had more first downs, more total yards and a longer time of possession.

“We were still up,” Koger said after the game. “And we had no idea why. It wasn’t pretty. It was definitely ugly.”

Then, Koger and Shaw will find J.B. Fitzgerald and thank him for forcing a fumble on a kickoff. They’ll thank the entire defense for bending, but not breaking.

Sometimes Michigan football looks beautiful, but as Al Borges says, “They’re not all masterpieces.”

Borges will wrap his arm around Robinson and harass him for personifying the team’s beautifully erratic play. He’ll remind Robinson that he prayed every time the quarterback threw off his back foot in the Sugar Bowl.

Robinson will smile, and the two will talk of how rocky that transition year was. Both had regrets. Both had triumphs. The odd couple — a pro-style expert and a dynamic dual-threat quarterback — somehow made it look all part of the plan.

Robinson, the face of Michigan football, jogged down Bourbon Street later that night after the Sugar Bowl, a stream of fans following him. He wasn’t the best quarterback, but he had won.

Greg Mattison never cared about style, either. “If we have a place to stand,” he’d tell his players, then they had a chance. He’ll find four freshmen who played crucial roles in that Sugar Bowl.

Blake Countess, Desmond Morgan, Frank Clark and Jake Ryan will remember what Van Bergen told them the week before the game. He said they could either cry in the locker room, or celebrate on the field with confetti falling — it was their choice.

Clark will describe the biggest play of his Michigan career, a key interception that set up a touchdown. Mattison will tease Ryan about how long his hair used to be, then smile, remembering how Ryan rewarded his trust after Will Heininger went down.

The others make jokes, but Blake Countess, back then an unflappable freshman, won’t remember being burned by nearly every Hokie receiver.

Michigan football looks like Countess did after the game. Smiling and upbeat, he chose to remember how he helped hold Virginia Tech to a field goal when it mattered most.

They all find it funny how soon people forgot the dark years, what Molk called “The Mess.”

After the Sugar Bowl — after they had broke the streak, beating Ohio State — after they won 11 games for just the fifth time in modern Michigan football history, everyone declared Michigan football “back.”

Ten years after the game, Hoke will remind them what he said at the time: “Michigan never left.”

He’ll remember they played Michigan football with an erratically spectacular quarterback, relentlessly powerful line play, and a cast of characters who filled roles: like Fitz Toussaint, the sidekick, or Hemingway, the big-play savior.

How fitting, he’ll say, it was for the seniors to go out that way — overcoming and winning when all logic said they should’ve been lying and dying.

The players make Michigan football what it is. And Team 132 never left.

***

After the Sugar Bowl, when the ride stopped and everyone looked for someone to hug, Van Bergen turned to Molk and joked, “I don’t know when the movie is coming out.”

“It’s a fairytale,” Van Bergen said. “It doesn’t happen like that in real life all the time.”

There’s time to sort out the future, to see if Hoke caught magic in a bottle or if this is just the beginning. Is this what Michigan football is supposed to look like? Dirty and determined. Lucky and skilled. We’ll find out, but it’s how Team 132 played Michigan football.

Athletic Director Dave Brandon has three Big Ten Championship rings from the time he played at Michigan. But he never won 11 games at Michigan. He doesn’t have a Sugar Bowl ring.

“I know how important (that feeling) is,” Brandon said. “It’s even more important years from now than it is tonight.”
Knowing all too well, Brandon imparted a piece of wisdom to the seniors.

“You’re going to wear that ring for the rest of your life,” he told them. “You’re going to remember this night and you’re going to remember this team.”

Some will remember how they tested what you thought it meant to play Michigan football. Others will remember how they played, but only because of what Team 132 accomplished. Sugar Bowl champs, they’ll call them.

This unforgettable group stands immortalized, knowing no one can ever take that away.

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu or on Twitter @TimRohan.

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