ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Right hand gripping the Big Ten Championship trophy, tears of joy still trickling out of bloodshot eyes, John Navarre knew he was striking a conflicting pose as a Michigan quarterback.
Trophies you are supposed to hold here. Tears you are supposed to hold back.
"In the Michigan State locker room [after a win earlier this month] I was crying like a baby [also]," Navarre said on Saturday after leading his Wolverines to a 35-21 victory over archrival Ohio State. "And my teammates made fun of me."
Of course they did. Who didn't make fun of Navarre, in some way, these last few years as he alternately starred and stumbled in one of the most high-profile, high-pressure jobs in sports?
Fans grew frustrated with what they perceived as his inability to win the big game. Media repeatedly questioned his legacy and ability. Opponents confidently expected him to fold in the end.
Well this was the end. Senior year. Ohio State. League title on the line. And there was Navarre, standing strong and tall, hailed as a valiant victor at last.
He is tied for throwing the most touchdown passes (71) in Michigan history. He is second in total wins (31). He is a good student and a better person, the leader and the best. But until Saturday, he was never The Man here.
Navarre had done everything but enough. Going 21 of 32 for 278 yards and two touchdowns against the vaunted Buckeye defense finally did it.
"He was unbelievable," U of M coach Lloyd Carr said. "And he had a 95-yard touchdown called back. Add that to his numbers. Unbelievable. Against that defense? ..."
Carr was referring to a menacing group of Buckeyes who had taken their team to the brink of another national title despite the fact there was no 'O' in Ohio State this season. The Buckeye defense had allowed an average of 11.5 points, 50.5 yards rushing and 225.5 yards passing on the season entering Saturday's game. They had made a habit of scoring on their own.
On Saturday, Ohio State's defense was supposed to stop the run and force Navarre to beat the fourth-ranked Buckeyes in the air.
The plan fell apart on both fronts.
Michigan running back Chris Perry was the true offensive star of game, gaining 154 yards on the ground, 55 as a receiver and scoring twice. But for drama, for redemption, for achieving the sweetest win of them all, this was Navarre's game.
Navarre spent the week hearing about how his career was going to be defined by this game. He got chewed up on talk radio. He was grilled on message boards.
" I thought it was BS," Navarre said of the focus on this one game. "I felt established already. But the reality was, I was going to be defined by this game."
He wound up writing a hell of a definition.
And it wasn't just about skill, but about character. It wasn't just about tight spirals and on-target deep balls, but about performing under pressure.
"I have no problem with criticism," Carr said. "If you come to Michigan and play in this arena [it's expected]. I'm talking about people who went overboard. Who wrote and said things about this kid and tried to embarrass him, humiliate him and degrade him. Some of those things were absolutely despicable.
"He is an unbelievable human being the way he handled all the things that were said about him and written about him. I can't say enough."
From Carr's perspective, there could be no question about legacy or ability.
"Make no mistake about it,"Carr said. "At Michigan it is Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State – and he was the winning quarterback in all three [games]. I've had some incredible quarterbacks here and John Navarre is one of them."
He is, he is. The Wolverines are 10-2 and headed to at least the Rose Bowl. But Navarre's legacy is not just about the games. It will include the class and conviction with which he handled himself during his days here. At programs this big, the line between college kid and public figure blurs quickly.
But Saturday was about Navarre celebrating with the student body on the 20-yard line, and hugging his family outside Michigan Stadium. It was about a player not afraid to hold a trophy in one hand and wipe his tears with the other.
It was about the vindication of The Victor.
- John Navarre
- Ohio State
- Michigan State