August 30, 2013

Borton's Blog: Into the sunshine

Skydivers, ski jumpers, jet fighter pilots … they all feel it. The almost indescribable rush of throwing oneself into the void, careening into the unknown carried on waves of adrenaline.

Bursting out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel on opening day doesn't involve that level of velocity, height or danger. Yet rarely do 112,000 enthusiasts, all awaiting the ultimate modern-day gladiator clash, greet skydivers with a reverberating roar.

That's what Day One at the stadium is all about. It's about the rush, fueled by the unknown, wrapped in the rabid rejoicing over endless possibilities. No passes have been dropped, no tackles missed. Not a single loss has been forced down the esophagus like a dill and vinegar milkshake.

National championship? Why not? It requires only a supreme effort, and a few bounces along the way. No matter how delusional those racing thoughts might appear in any given year, they're allowed to run free on opening day.

And the Wolverines, marching down the ramp in the shadowy darkness of Michigan's tunnel entrance, know that nothing - nothing - has been taken from them yet. They can't lose anything they don't surrender.

Then charging into the brilliant sunshine, they don't just hear the roar. They absorb it like banks of stadium lights taking on electricity. They leap to touch Michigan's iconic banner, heightening the cacophonous emotion of the moment.

And it's on. Again.

Devin Gardner has known opening days before. They've all been special. This one, for Michigan's starting quarterback, will feel so very different.

If the Wolverines are going anywhere this year, Gardner has to be at the center of it all. Instead of shying from the moment, he's thrown his arms open to it.

"Just coming out of the tunnel … that's going to be a big deal for me," he said. "Oh yeah, definitely. I'm the quarterback at Michigan. There is no doubt about it. When the game starts, it's going to be pretty surreal for me. I just can't wait to get a chance to perform."

That's what they all get - a chance. How they perform, individually and collectively, will be scrutinized, debated, and rehashed for years, and in many cases, lifetimes.

No one will ever forget opening day at Michigan Stadium, circa 1997. The program that had dropped four games in each of the previous four seasons and hadn't shared a Big Ten title in that span absorbed all sorts of off-season jabs, including the "mediocre" tag.

Those players knew something the poison pen crew didn't, according to Marcus Ray, a safety on that team and newest member of the Big Ten Network broadcast crew. Ray insists the Wolverines felt something coming that opening-day opponent Colorado - and the nation - couldn't possibly have anticipated.

"We knew, from spring ball, throughout summer conditioning and training camp, that we were going to win the national title," Ray assured. "We just didn't tell anyone. That's why we said we're going to do all of our talking on the field.

"Opening day, '97, we really demolished Colorado. We made a statement, nationwide, that we were for real and it's not the same four-loss Michigan. There's a new day. We just built the momentum from there."

Michigan's 27-3 slaughter of the Buffaloes that day set the tone for the season. The best defense in the land crushed the life out of any Colorado hopes on offense, and the Wolverines behind quarterback Brian Griese scored efficiently and never looked back.

And, throughout the season everyone dreams about, never lost. Not once. Those players gathered in the tunnel and dreamed, then woke up and made it happen.

They unleashed a fist, after eight months of grueling preparation and the shrugging off of all who said it was just going to be another so-so season.

The ever-gregarious Ray talks about fall camp maturation. As a freshman, he proved the antithesis of someone embracing the grind, a sentiment more common than some would like to believe.

"I dreaded training camp. I really just enjoyed training table," he quipped.

As he got older, and matured, and worked himself into position to play, everything took on more meaning. The more years that went by without a Big Ten championship, the more he embraced the challenge.

"The older you get, your maturation level has to set in and that helps you decide how, mentally, you're going to approach training camp," he said. "Is it something you're going to dread, or something you're going to utilize to get better?

"Later on, I never got tired of playing against my own teammates. We had the best of the best. If I could cover Jerame Tuman, I could cover anybody in the country at his position."

Camp ends, and it's time. Finally.

"You see the light at the end of the tunnel," Ray stressed. "It's like getting your paycheck after two weeks of work. From January through winter conditioning, spring ball, summer conditioning, it's a buildup. One thing leads to the next. Then it's training camp, and it's going to be the season.

"In your mind, you're excited and you're ready to go. It's time to play football. All of the preparation is over and you want to see just how good you can be, and how well the team is going to perform based on all that preparation.

"We looked at it as an opportunity to silence all the critics. Once the whistle blows, there's nothing left to talk about. It's time to play football, and that's the only thing that matters."

When the '97 team played, Ray lined up alongside an impending Heisman Trophy winner. Griese beat out a future three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback. Michigan saturated the field with talent - talent tired of also-ran finishes.

"I remember watching Michigan in Columbus, growing up," Ray said. "From 1988-1992, Michigan either won or shared the Big Ten title five straight years. I came to Michigan to win a Big Ten championship and play in the Rose Bowl. That, and playing Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame, is why you come to Michigan.

"We felt like we were running out of time. Now that Michigan hasn't gotten a piece of the championship in nine years, it's a state of emergency. That's why you see the urgency in recruiting. Great players are starting to come. Michigan is selling that they're going to be at the top of the conference. They're going to claim conference supremacy here in the near future."

The present-day Wolverines ooze with the desire to make the future now.

"Those young players don't know what it's like to win a Big Ten championship," Ray said. "They know what it's like to win a BCS game, but it's not the equivalent of winning the conference or playing in the Rose Bowl or playing for a national title.

"These kids are going to keep trying to live out their dreams. That keeps them hungry, and that keeps them getting better and better."

That's what his team did, noted the man whose mid-air hit on Ohio State's David Boston sent the Buckeye helicoptering into the void and landed them both on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ray understands, in part, why the non-title gap has grown to a disturbing length. The program culture changed after Lloyd Carr stepped down, and Brady Hoke is growing it back, creating multiple upheavals and adjustments.

It's getting there, Ray insisted. Soon, the Wolverines might feel like he did on that balmy September day in Michigan Stadium.

"In '97, when we came out of the tunnel, it was a beautiful day," Ray recalled. "It was the closest thing I could compare to heaven on earth. The stars were lined up, the crowd was right, our game plan was in, I was starting, surrounded by future NFL players and great college players across the board. We had that sense of togetherness.

"It felt like heaven on earth. It was serene, it was peaceful, and this was why I came to Michigan - for 112,000 to be rooting for you, to play on national TV, to play against Colorado, touch the banner, wear the winged helmet, and have the honor and privilege of being held accountable for my performance each and every play.

"When I ran out of that tunnel, knowing this was the beginning of a national championship run, it was heaven on earth."

Flash it back to the present day. Fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan isn't interested in any heavenly sensation as much as he is providing a hellish experience for whoever lines up against him. His time is running out, and he knows it.

The stretch of non-title seasons, to him, is galling. Any talk of a Michigan offensive line not dominating infuriates him. He didn't come back after shunning the NFL's millions to lose, and he'll let everyone around him know it.

Lewan isn't interested in whether he's greeted by sunshine or sleet coming out of the tunnel. He's surely not interested in getting misty eyed about the thoughts of his final opener at The Big House. He just wants to blast somebody.

"I'll worry about the emotional stuff after the season is over," Lewan cautioned. "I'm not here to watch 'P.S., I Love You' and cry myself to sleep. I'm here to play football.

"When Saturday rolls around, I'm here to play a football game. It's not about me. It will never be about me. It's about the team."

The team hasn't lost a game yet. And anything is possible.

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