Monday, September 12, 2011

The numbers game

The pre-game ceremony to honor former Wolverine standout Desmond Howard was moving, touching and quite proper for a new policy NOT to retire numbers, but salute those special players in Michigan history. Hopefully, this will be an annual event and each player spotlighted will richly deserve.
In my opinion, Michigan doesn’t do such ceremonies enough. In the school’s long history, only five numbers have actually been retired from the active football varsity roster (11, 47, 48, 87, 98). But a quick examination of Michigan memories finds scores of worthy candidates (I’m sure most people will want to see Heisman Trophy recipient Charles Woodson to be the next honoree).
Here are some other candidates – by position – for fans and the administration to seriously consider:
Anthony Carter (#1), as great a wideout as has ever played in Ann Arbor.
Rick Leach (#7), a four-year starter and one of the greatest athletes ever to attend U-M.
Reggie McKenzie (#65), two-time All-American, College Hall of Famer and a top five lineman of all-time for Michigan.
Dan Dierdorf (#72), All-American, inducted into College and Pro Football Hall of Fame, perhaps the best Wolverine offensive lineman ever.
Tom Mack (#96), same credentials as Dierdorf and a top five lineman for Michigan.
Jim Mandich (#88), other than Ron Kramer, whose number is retired, no tight end in Michigan history did more.
Ron Johnson (#40), often forgotten premier running back whose records stood for years, All-American.
Erick Anderson (#37), perhaps the best linebacker to play at Michigan, All-American, and prototype for the position for 20 years.
Dave Brown (#6), there have been many outstanding secondary players for Michigan, but none was impactful as the late great Dave Brown.
In many cases, it would require some younger fans to properly respect the contributions of some of Michigan’s greatest talent from almost a century ago.
In the turn of the 20th century, Michigan dominated college football, under Coach Fielding H. Yost with his “point-a-minute” offense, led by the likes of Germany Schultz and Willie Heston. But those players did not include numerals on their uniforms; those didn’t appear until the 1920s.
There are three names that need immediate attention in order to give them their proper due for the massive contributions to Michigan football; they, in fact, define the term “legend.”
First, the late Willis Ward (#61) was not the first African-American to play for Michigan (George Jewett played for U-M in 1890), but he was an outstanding player (as well as an amazing track performer). He was the center of an early pro-civil rights protest by his teammates in 1934 when Georgia Tech refused to play its contracted home game if Ward participated.
That protest was led by Ward’s road roommate, the team’s center named Gerald Ford. The game was played (after Ward told the team it HAD to play), he did not suit up and Michigan won anyway 9-2 for the only victory of the 1934 season.
In later life, Ward became a lawyer, a judge and chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, and in all respects, he was the truest personification of a “Michigan man.”
Second, when Tom Harmon was running roughshod over opposing defenses, en route to the Heisman Trophy, his partner in crime was equally as outstanding. In the single-win offense, the “quarterback” had different responsibilities but the tandem of Harmon and Bob Chappius (#49) was as good as it got.
Chappius, who was a World War II hero as a pilot, earned All-American honors in 1947 (finishing second in the Heisman balloting) and was the MVP in the 1948 Rose Bowl. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1988.
His forte was as a passer and until Leach played, Chappy’s records were untouched (13 TD passes in one season, 23 career TD passes and 3,487 yards of total offense).
Finally, it is time that all hail one of the all-time greatest college football players from ANY school – the first GREAT quarterback, Michigan’s Benny Friedman (#27).
In the early 1920s, Illinois’ Red Grange was the greatest runner, but the greatest pass combination was the “Benny-to-Bennie” show. Labeled as the “Babe Ruth of football,” he played in a completely different era where men played all 60 minutes (on offense and defense).
In 1925, in a showdown between the two superstars, Friedman led Michigan to a 3-0 win over Grange, one of many outstanding victories. He earned conference MVP honors in 1926, leading Michigan to two Big Nine (not yet Ten) titles.
Friedman later was an All-Pro quarterback for four teams and has been inducted into the College and Pro Halls of Fame.
In a week or so, I will relate more of Friedman’s story in this blog.
Oddly, the current roster is devoid of several “open” numbers (aside from the retired jerseys). There is no 1, 6, 62, 64, 71, 74, 78, 79 and 99; why no receiver wears that distinctive jersey is not known.
Building a proper legacy often requires history to be recognized and properly honored. That includes those players who wore the uniform before cable TV, YouTube and 24-hour coverage. It was in their cleats that Michigan greatness was born and nurtured.

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