Former Michigan All-American safety/punt return man Tripp Welborne and Heisman Trophy winning receiver Desmond Howard weren't in the same class at U-M, but they were good friends. They were among the elite at their positions in the country, and they bonded off the field, seeing eye-to-eye on just about every issue but one - the rightful bearer of late King of Pop Michael Jackson's hat.
Once in a while you come across a story that seems to good to be true. This is one of them - the story of two elite athletes at one of Jackson's sold out concerts in the late 1980s who happened to be in the right place at the right time. They were only there at the Palace of Auburn Hills because good friend and team manager Mark Jacobson was sick, Welborne recalled, and had two floor seats six or eight rows from the King of Pop he couldn't use.
At some point in the concert Jackson flung his trademark black fedora hat into the crowd. When it went up, Welborne's punt return instincts kicked in.
"It did a boomerang," Welborne, a former captain of industry and recently hired athletic director at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, N.J., recalled with a laugh. "My punt techniques kicked in. He threw the hat, and it actually came back … he threw it up and it went back past us, seemingly, then started coming back like a Frisbee. I was looking at it while everyone else was screaming, 'aaaah - we love Michael Jackson!' and I'm saying, 'there's the hat!'
"It was like slow motion, every revolution. I saw it and just went after it. Des saw me diving and I called out, 'Desmond - the hat!' I dove; he saw me diving and dove right by me. It was crazy - the craziest thing I've ever been a part of.'"
This coming from a guy who once hung out with NBA legend Michael Jordan, even spending the night on his airness' doorstep after deciding to stay a bit later at a party than the former Chicago Bulls star and his entourage he'd been hanging with.
And the details make it even crazier.
"I laid out," Welborne recalled, now laughing harder at the recollection. "Just natural instincts. I just saw it coming, said, 'oh my goodness, there's the hat!' I mean, I just laid out. I landed right on top of this lady. I'm 200 pounds, and I landed right on her head.
"But I caught it originally. I caught it first. Desmond dove in behind me and after I caught it, we were on the ground, then Desmond dove in and so we had the hat together. Then all these people dove on it like recovering a fumble. It was alike a big pile. It was amazing.
"So I'm underneath the pile with Desmond, and we can't see each other because it's dark. I'm yelling, 'Desmond! I've got the hat! I've got the hat! He was yelling, 'I've got it, too! I've got it, too!' But there were five hands on it - two were mine, two were his, then there was somebody else's. I don't know whose it was. What I told him was, 'all right, Desmond - I'm letting go so I can start getting people off us.' I had a cast on one of my hands because I had messed up my thumb. I only had fingers on one hand, so I used that cast and started hitting people's knuckles."
When he started doing that, Welborne recalled, he made sure Howard had two hands on the hat before letting go completely.
"I said, 'Desmond, do you have a good hold of it 'cause I am letting go so I can knock hands off,'" he continued. "He was like, 'I got it! I got it!' He was hollering and all excited, just a young freshman. I let it go and started throwing people off, then eventually security comes and helps to get everybody off. When everyone is off it's just me and him standing there holding the hat up in the air, and they put the spotlight on us.
"The crazy thing was the only reason we went is because our friend Mark Jacobson was sick and had tickets to the concert and couldn't go. We looked around and said, 'we'll go.' And I had a car. We came back to the dorm and all we were doing was dancing like Michael Jackson. Mark didn't know what was going on. We were laughing and dancing and said, 'you won't believe this, but look.' He still had no concept that it was Michael Jackson's hat, because who does that? Who catches Michael Jackson's hat?"
Two guys among the best to ever wear the winged helmet - that's who.
As Welborne recalls it, the two friends made a pact to take turns with the treasure for the rest of their days - and Welborne is still waiting for his.
"He is a crook. He is a hoarder," Welborne quipped, now roaring. "We made a pact. Desmond actually still has it in a case, a glass case sitting in his house as you come into his house in Florida. The pact that we made - because we partnered in capturing the hat - was that we would share it. Early on it was that it would spend a little time, like a couple months or so, at your mom's house, then a couple months at my mom's house, but because he was closer - he was in Cleveland - he got it to his mom's house first. It never made it to my mom's house.
"Every time we talk, and we talk quite often because he'd actually come to my basketball practices with kids I coached multiple times - he even practiced with the kids when he was doing his ESPN stuff - we'd get together, and every single time I say, 'um … can I get my turn? It's only been 25 years!' Or I'll say, 'see you soon - bring the hat.' He's like, 'it's good. It's safe.'"
When the time is right, Welborne added, it might just pay for both of their retirements - that's if Howard ever lets it out of his sight.
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