Pure Michigan: Maize, blue tradition finally catches up to Denard Robinson

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  • Denard Robinson
    Denard Robinson
  • Rich Rodriguez
    Rich Rodriguez
    American college football player and coach

There was a time in his childhood when Denard Robinson didn't have a chance. He was ruled ineligible as a freshman in high school because of poor grades. His older brother and hero, Timothy, died suddenly at age 11, leaving Denard devastated. Robinson had amazing speed but he was undersized, and wasn't being recruited as a quarterback by the big schools. Michigan was interested, but it had been more than a generation since a mobile quarterback started in Michigan, and even longer since a mobile quarterback starred there.

But Robinson would start at Michigan.

There was a time in his first game in Ann Arbor when Denard Robinson didn't have a chance. On his first play as a quarterback in a Wolverine uniform, Robinson took the snap, spun the wrong way, and fumbled. He did not fall on the ball, which is what he should have done. Instead, he grabbed it and ran toward a swarm of defenders.

Denard Robinson’s stellar play and charisma has made him a big fan favorite in Michigan. (Getty)
Denard Robinson’s stellar play and charisma has made him a big fan favorite in Michigan. (Getty)


But Robinson would score on that play.

There was a time in his Michigan career when Denard Robinson didn't have a chance. The coaching staff, headed by offensive guru Rich Rodriguez, was sent packing. Brady Hoke was hired in what was sure to be a return to the days of statue quarterbacks and pro-set offenses. Even if he stayed on campus – and he seriously considered transferring – Shoelace was going to be Shoehorned into a role that didn't fit him.

But Robinson would stay.

These days, Robinson is literally the face of Michigan. There he is on magazine covers in maize and blue. There he is being spotted by President Obama at a campus speech. There he is at basketball games, hopping and screaming like the frat boys all around him. But the close relationship between Robinson and his school is actually something approaching miraculous. There were many times it didn't seem like it would work out for Robinson. He gives all the credit for his success to his faith, his family, his coaches and his teammates. When asked to name the teammate that's had the most positive influence on him, he offers Nick Sheridan, a walk-on quarterback who flailed his way through a three-win Michigan season in 2008. But Robinson's gratitude belies a deeper truth: Michigan owes Robinson a lot more than Robinson owes the school.

On many occasions over the past three years, it was Michigan that didn't have a chance. And it was Robinson who saved the team, and the program, from itself.

The first time a Michigan coach met Denard Robinson, he reported back to Ann Arbor by phone with an ironic conclusion. It was then-assistant Calvin Magee who visited Robinson in Deerfield Beach, Fla., and he called head coach Rich Rodriguez with his impression: "He's even better than we thought," Magee told Rodriguez. "A great kid, a great leader. Everything we want. This guy is gonna be a perfect fit."

A perfect fit … for Rodriguez's offense. But a perfect fit for Michigan? The school is among the best in America, with a reputation for churning out stars both on and off the field. Tom Brady has been a guest at the State of the Union. Desmond Howard is a national TV personality. Dhani Jones has hosted his own travel show. While Robinson and Rodriguez clicked right away – the two made snow angels on the Michigan field during a recruiting visit – the quarterback was painfully shy and had to be told to take out his mouthpiece in the huddle because nobody could understand a word he was saying. It would be years before the public would know Robinson's tragic back story, about how he lost his brother, who he always thought was faster and stronger and better at sports than he was.

[Related: Dan Wetzel's podcast: Is Michigan overrated?]

Robinson's smile lit up an entire stadium, but it masked his personal difficulties. To this day, Denard doesn't ask much about the circumstances of his brother's death. He was reportedly told Timothy died after suffering a stomach ache and internal bleeding. "I never bring it up to my parents," Robinson says now. "It's something I never try to ask. I try to stay away from it." A lot of Michigan freshman quarterbacks arrive on campus cocky and brash and fully expecting stardom. That was not Denard Robinson.

And he was not the fans' top choice. Nor Rodriguez's. There's an infamous photo of Rodriguez taking in a basketball game with the mobile quarterback he wanted to run his cutting edge offense: Terrelle Pryor. Michigan fans wince at the memory, but many in Ann Arbor were just like Rodriguez in coveting the kid who would end up being part of the worst football scandal in Ohio State history. Robinson wasn't even the fans' second choice. That would be Tate Forcier, another mobile quarterback with more typical bravado. There would come a time when Robinson got hurt during a game and the home crowd roared for Forcier. The only start Robinson made during his entire freshman season was at running back.

Then there were the headwinds off the field. While some Michigan fans wanted to give Rodriguez and his spread offense their blessing, far more longed for the days of slow legs and big arms: Todd Collins, Elvis Grbac, Brian Griese, Tom Brady, John Navarre, Chad Henne, Ryan Mallett. The old way delivered Michigan a grand total of one national championship in the modern era, but it was the Michigan way. Any undersized quarterback, the thinking went, would get mauled in the Big Ten.

Denard Robinson and Brady Hoke have quickly developed a strong relationship. (Getty)
Denard Robinson and Brady Hoke have quickly developed a strong relationship. (Getty)

But Robinson would surprise. He came back for his sophomore year with a much better grasp of Rodriguez's offense, and he won the starting job. In South Bend, where Michigan had been cursed for years, Robinson willed the team to victory with a last-minute drive and possibly the most breathtaking touchdown run in the school's history – an 87-yard first-half gallop through the famed tall grass. "In his second year he was still learning what we were doing," Rodriguez says now. "He was that good, and he was still learning." 

Robinson went on to rack up points like a pinball machine that season, kneeling and praying to his late brother after every touchdown. But the defense was abysmal and Rodriguez was fired. Suddenly Robinson was both futuristic in his game and a lost relic of a discarded era in Michigan history. The "perfect fit" was a misfit.

Once again Robinson was at a crossroads while fans went from impatient with Rodriguez to having to wait for Brady Hoke to get "his players." But the program had huge short-term plans, in the form of the school's first home night game against Notre Dame last fall. Athletic director Dave Brandon introduced new lights, a refurbished stadium and new uniforms. It was a strange moment when Michigan was both trying to return to its traditions and move forward into a modern era. Robinson, who didn't really sync with either the tradition or the moving forward, was asked to do both.

The first half of that game was horrendous, as Robinson was handcuffed by a new pass-first system he didn't grasp. It was clear that without Denard being Denard, Michigan didn't have much. But in the second half, Robinson seemed to wrest control of his game and emotions back, and led another last-minute drive. His game-winning touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with two seconds left – a pinpoint throw many were unsure he could make – is the one he now names as the favorite play of his career. What started as a year of transition turned into an 11-win season. Robinson became the first Michigan quarterback to beat Ohio State since 2003, and then he led a Sugar Bowl victory. He now owns eight of the top nine single-game performances in Michigan history, and he is the only player in program history to gain more than 400 yards in a single game – something he's done four times in two seasons.

[Slideshow: Heisman hopeful Denard Robinson through the years]

Yet if you asked most Michigan fans to name the best quarterback ever to wear the uniform, "Denard" is probably not the answer you'd get.

Even now, even on the eve of his senior season, Robinson is still dogged by perception – by the idea that a truly great quarterback can make all the throws. Robinson is the only player in NCAA history to run and throw for 1,500 yards in a single season, but he's known much more for the running than the throwing. The next Denard Robinson, if such a player exists, will probably be starting not at Michigan, but at someplace like LSU or (gasp) Ohio State.

But this Denard Robinson, despite everything, is starting for Michigan. He has led the team to two straight January bowl games under two different coaches, and has made them both look good. He has made Brandon look good too, as the "Under the Lights" game is now being repeated in 2013, when it surely would have been an unsightly loss to a hated rival without Robinson on the field. Michigan is now a preseason top 10 team, despite the loss of its top offensive lineman (David Molk) and its top defensive lineman (Mike Martin). They face the defending national champions in Jerryworld on Saturday, a game in which Alabama is favored by more than two touchdowns. If it wasn't for Robinson, the game would be unbearable for Michigan fans.

Robinson's legacy goes beyond statistics and come-from-behind wins. He has reminded Michigan what it really wants itself to be: a place for "leaders and best." Star quarterbacks didn't show up regularly at hoops and hockey games before Robinson did. And he doesn't just show up; he cheers like fans cheer for him. "It's a great opportunity," he says of his attendance at games. "You're in college. Show some school spirit." Students still marvel at the time last basketball season when an Indiana fan wormed his way into the "Maize Rage" section and started clapping loudly every time a Michigan player went to the free-throw line. Michigan fans were beside themselves until a dreadlocked blur moved up the aisle, stopped next to the Hoosiers fan, and stared at him. That was the last of the clapping. "He loves being a regular student, hanging out with other students," says junior Kevin Yarows, one of the leaders of the Maize Rage. "Except he's Denard Robinson."

When asked what Robinson means to the campus, Yarows says simply: "He's the symbol of the school."

He can also deal with another symbol of the state: "I love it now. I love the snow. I just didn't understand how long it would last." And then he laughs the laugh that has become almost as much of a Michigan football icon as the block M. Over the last three years, both after big plays and busted plays, Robinson has flashed that smile. It's really been the only consistently positive thing about the program beside the Big House and the fight song. While the entire community was bickering about what makes a "Michigan Man," it turns out the quarterback had the answer all along: "It means you've committed," Robinson says. "In all phases. Not just for the football team. For everybody at the university."

[Related: A love song for Denard Robinson]

Already this fall, Denard Robinson has impressed his coaches again. "From a football perspective, he just knows our offense better," says offensive coordinator Al Borges. "He steadily grasps the timing of our passing game. He's throwing as the receiver comes open instead of when he is open. He understands that so much than he did before."

It's funny how that quote from Borges mirrors what Rodriguez says about Robinson's first play as Michigan quarterback, when he fumbled and still somehow scored. "Holy cow," the now-Arizona coach says, "he did that going the wrong direction. Imagine when we get him going in the right direction."

Turns out he was always going in the right direction. So much about Robinson's career has been about the quarterback trying to catch up with Michigan's new offense. But in reality, the story of the last three years in Ann Arbor is about how Michigan was finding a way to catch up with Denard.

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