September 11, 2013

Borton's Blog: Trust, verified

The 115,000-plus that packed into Michigan Stadium aren't the only ones still grinning over the Wolverines' hard-fought win over Notre Dame. One of the greatest linebackers ever to pull on a winged helmet continues basking therein.

Of course, Jarrett Irons has extra reason to hail any Michigan victory over Notre Dame. It allows him to give his little brother the business.

The Wolverines' No. 37, a two-time captain who racked up 453 tackles from 1993-96, resides in Chicago these days, an independent contractor in the medical equipment field. He's no fan of the Irish, who lured kid brother Grant Irons away from the Wolverines and over to South Bend.

So when the final, ill-fated, Tommy Rees' toss of the evening thudded off Raymon Taylor's thigh pad and tumbled upward, then back down into the hands of Blake Countess in the Michigan end zone, Jarrett Irons allowed himself a fist pump or two. And, of course, a phone call.

"I enjoyed it wholeheartedly," Irons admitted. "I gave my brother hell, obviously."

Now, Irons insisted, he has to climb back into a superior smack-talk position with older brother Gerald, Jr., who spent his college career playing for what was then a Big 12 squad.

"We owe something to Nebraska, and I'll give something to my older brother about that," Irons said. "We go at it all the time."

As much as he enjoys the wins, the brotherly jousting, and every aspect of the on-field success of Michigan football these days, Irons has a bigger reason to smile. In his eyes, all is right in the world of the Wolverines.

It's no secret he appreciates the U-M coaching staff. He came out among a vocal horde at the time Athletics Director Dave Brandon hired Brady Hoke, insisting Brandon couldn't have done better in his choice.

For Irons, the reasons go far beyond knowing what Hoke, Greg Mattison, Fred Jackson, etc., helped cook up in the 1990s, when he played in Ann Arbor. It's not about the high-level of recruiting taking place, recruiting that is pumping talent levels back towards what Irons experienced around him in the build-up to a national championship in 1997.

For Irons, it's about people - the kind of people who helped shape him, helped him grow up, and are now doing the same for others. For instance, Jackson urged him to remain a Wolverine long before he ever entertained a thought of being a captain.

Irons instead considered leaving his chosen school, like many young, out-of-state players in any program during any given year. Jackson invested time into the young Texan, way back in 1992.

"Great guy -- one of the best recruiters in the game," Irons observed. "He's been there all this time, since I was there. He used to talk to me when I was in the dorm, when I as wanting to transfer. I've known Freddy J. for a long time. I never played for him, but I know him."

When Irons visits Schembechler Hall, he needs to pack a lunch. There's no popping in for a quick hello. Busy as he is, Hoke makes time, and urges the former U-M All-American to stick around for a bit.

That makes it feel like home, even after 17 years away.

"Brady Hoke is one of the guys who has always been in my corner," Irons said. "He coached D-line at Michigan when I was there, but he always coached hard. He'd tell you straight up.

"When I see him today, he's the same guy he was when I was playing back in '96. I have the utmost respect for him, and his wife, Laura, is so good. They've been so good to my family, my wife, my mom and dad. Any time they see my wife, they're like, 'Jazelle, how are you doing?' They keep up with us, so I love that side of it."

Mattison, meanwhile, put his imprint on a couple of Irons boys, and the football family thinks the world of him.

"Greg Mattison is like my other father," Irons said. "He coached me at Michigan, and I was with him when he was first the defensive coordinator. He was the defensive coordinator for my younger brother all those years at Notre Dame.

"Greg is family. My parents always followed him, and want to know what he's doing. Obviously, my younger brother does."

There are a lot of unsavory stories out in the college football world … players getting injured and quickly cast aside for the next greatest recruit ever, coaches who operate only through fear and intimidation, and those so bent on winning at all costs their players become mere cogs in the machine.

Make no mistake. Hoke, Mattison, etc., aren't hand-patters. They can, and will, coach as vigorously as anyone. But it doesn't end there, and that's what people like Jarrett Irons respect, 20 years later.

He still remembers that difficult first fall. He remembers who was there to get him through, and so do his parents.

"That was the first time I was ever away from home," he said. "It was the first time they had to trust somebody else with their kid. They took care of me. To this day, they still do take care of me. I love coming back."

In fact, when he gets on the subject, Irons launches into an unsolicited recruiting pitch for the Wolverines.

"If you're any kid that wants a great education, great program, and want to have great tradition, why wouldn't you want to come to Michigan?" he asked, rhetorically. "I bought a summer home in Michigan, just because I want my kids to go to Michigan.

"I love that program and I know I'm biased, but I just think that program is moving in the right direction."

Bear in mind, the 39-year-old Irons just got married for the first time last October, and his kids haven't even been born. But he eventually wants them to be guided by the sort of people he encountered in Ann Arbor.

That sense still has a way of coming across. From Jabrill Peppers to Drake Harris to George Campbell to Damien Harris and even to the children of Irons' teammates, like Jon Runyan, Jr., Hoke's message - build championship teams on the field, fashion high-level lives off it - still resonates.

Nobody has to sell Jarrett Irons. He's been there.

"It's about developing these kids, and getting them right," Irons said. "The one thing I do love and respect about these guys. It's not about the wins and losses. It's about developing these young men, helping them be good citizens, good fathers, good husbands.

"You hear people talk about it, and they might BS about it. But these guys, they live it. That's what they believe in. That's what they want to do. I support that, and I appreciate it. They did it for me.

"I had great parents, and they helped me throughout my career and throughout my life, but they weren't the only ones. I look at Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison and their families - they all contributed to my development, to me being the man I am today. I'm indebted."

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