College football landscape filled with comeback stories

Aug 8th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

A few times a week Michigan players would notice the wheelchair around the weight room. That, and what a heartless bastard Mike Barwis had become.

The Wolverines strength coach would be yelling at the poor handicapped guy. Urging him to do things a paralyzed person simply couldn’t do. It wasn’t encouragement, it was cruelty.

“Get your [bleep] up,” Barwis growled on more than one occasion.

Extreme cruelty. Part of Brock Mealer’s body was dead to him, paralyzed from the waist down in a 2007 Christmas Eve car accident that killed his father and his brother’s girlfriend. Anyone who knew Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer knew his brother Brock. Twenty-five-year-old Brock doesn’t play for the Wolverines. In fact, he is an Ohio State grad student, but he began hanging around the facility because there was hope there. Barwis, his assistant Parker Whiteman and head coach Rich Rodriguez challenged him.

They hammered home the same message: Do you want to walk, or sit in a wheelchair the rest of your life? You decide.

It wasn’t that simple, but in that weight room everything applied to football mentality. If you work hard enough, you succeed whether it be getting a first down or somehow getting delicate nerve endings in the spinal cord to fire again. Doctors told Brock Mealer there was a one percent chance he’d ever walk again. When the family heard that they were devastated. When Mealer heard it, he decided to take a shot at that one percent.

Barwis made sure his project was serious. If he wanted to go for it, Barwis and Whiteman were going to torture him.

This comeback attempt wasn’t going to be half-assed. This was going to be unprecedented stuff. The doctors were going to look like fools if Brock Mealer walked again, the docs outdone by strength coaches’ regimen and will. Barwis prides himself on building the perfect beast. Never mind that West Virginia went to a couple of BCS bowls under his relentless direction — the dude once owned two pet wolves.

Rodriguez threw in a carrot. Make it upright and walking by the Sept. 4 opener, he told Mealer, and you can lead the team onto the field before the Connecticut game. That was 10 months ago.

“He hadn’t even made it out of the wheelchair yet,” Rodriguez said.

First there were, literally, baby steps as Brock inched his way across the turf at the indoor facility.

You decide.

While Barwis and Whiteman inspired Brock, Mealer could inspire the program further next month. Aided by canes, Mealer is on schedule to lead the Wolverines the 180 feet or so out of the tunnel, onto the field, under the “M Go Blue” banner to midfield for their 2010 season opener.

What started as a quest for Mealer is now a metaphor for the entire season. It is the year of the comeback in college football. Multiple teams, programs, leagues and careers are attempting to rise from the shadows this season. Some have been irrelevant. Some have been hurt. All of them can take inspiration from Maryland over Miami in 1984 or Texas Tech over Minnesota in 2006, two fabled comebacks in the sport’s history.

“For anybody to be down, especially in football, anything is possible,” said current Maryland receiver Torrey Smith, who gets inspiration from former Terps All-American Kevin Glover. The team’s director of character education played for that 1984 Maryland team.

“When we’re down by a touchdown or anything, he brings it up,” Smith said. “Or even if we’re up, he says, ‘Anything can happen.’”

Maryland, 2-10 a year ago, just wishes something would happen. Powers such as Florida State, Miami or Michigan are chasing the thrill of glorious pasts. The Big 12 is just glad to still be in business.

If we’re not rooting, we’re watching these comebacks with some combination interest, jealousy or disdain. Part of it has to do with the underdog ethic our country loves. Boston College has a linebacker back on the field (Mark Herzlich) who has recovered from a rare form of cancer. Not exactly an underdog, Notre Dame has certainly been an underachiever lately. New coach Brian Kelly is the latest coach attempting to lead the program back to glory. Kelly at least has the bloodlines and political leanings. You can’t get more Notre Dame than hiring an Irish-Catholic Democrat from Boston.

The man can stump — Kelly worked for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign — but can he win at this level? This isn’t Grand Valley State, Central Michigan or even Cincinnati. The last time Notre Dame won a national championship, one of Kelly’s most experienced players, senior linebacker Brian Smith (24 career starts), was six days from being born.

“We’re all better off if they win …,” Texas coach Mack Brown said of the Irish. “It sends a message you can win with nice, smart kids.”

Nebraska figures it was smart getting out of the Big 12 at the right time. It got a new home — the Big Ten in 2011 — before it has turned the corner in the Big 12. Call it comeback interruptus. After coming within a second of upsetting Texas in the conference title game, there is unfinished business as a Big 12 lame duck.

Analysts wonder if Nebraska would still be in the Big 12, and if the league would still be intact, if the Huskers had won that game. The rancor started rolling downhill from that point on during this summer of conference realignment.

In the end, the Big 12 already has made the mother of all comebacks before the season kicks off. On June 11, the league was all but dead, about to be raided by the Pac-10. Saved by TV money and Texas’ willingness to make more of the same, the Big 12 stayed together — with 10 teams beginning in 2011. It enters its final year with 12 teams, having won the conference realignment version of Survivor.

Elvis did it in 1968 with his comeback special on NBC that remains so legendary it inspired the band: 68 Comeback Special. Frank Sinatra made so many comebacks that he was belting My Way his way as a live performer into his 80th year in 1995. This year, a 68-year-old Brit is blowing the roof off North American venues using a 45-year-old guitar he used to record Paperback Writer.

You say goodbye, we say hello, Paul McCartney.

They all could have taken inspiration from one of the biggest comebacks in an alternate college history. How far down was the future Senator Blutarsky when he uttered the immortal words: “Nothing is over until we decide it is?”

That’s why Brock Mealer’s feat next month is bigger than himself or Michigan. His brave physical effort should be an inspiration around the world. For a mere sport it is a signpost, a reminder of why we love this game.

“They gave him a 99 percent chance against ever walking again,” Rodriguez said. “I told the team, ‘You can be that one percent. Coming out that door on opening day is one percent.’”

Rodriguez himself has to make one of the biggest comebacks of 2010. If he doesn’t, then this is likely to be his last year at Michigan. His name is now attached to allegations of multiple major violations that the NCAA says occurred under his watch at both West Virginia and Michigan.

The coach and Michigan officials will go in front of the NCAA infractions committee next week. The school already has punished itself in hopes of impressing the NCAA. However, if the association decides on additional penalties, they could hit in the middle of this season, Rodriguez’s third in Ann Arbor. His 8-16 record to date is one of the worst in school history. How those penalties could impact the fragile psyche of the Wolverines, say, before the Ohio State game in late November is anyone’s guess.

“We just have to play,” Rodriguez said.

Make that play well. Football, winning football, would be a welcome distraction from what has been one of the most depressing times in the program’s history. In addition to the losing, the gathering NCAA clouds and Mealer’s misfortune, fullback/linebacker Mark Moundros is thankfully still around to recount his involvement in a horrific accident in June.

The pickup he was riding in with his brother Kirk and cousin/teammate Jon Bills skidded on a wet road and collided with a mini-van. Bills suffered a broken neck and pelvis and was half an inch away, he said, from being paralyzed. Bills is expected to be in a stabilizing halo for four more weeks.

“I’ve always been pretty religious,” said Moundros who came out of the accident with only minor injuries. “I thank God every day. I’m just trying to bring glory to his name. You never know when your day will come.”

It’s a much different kind of comeback that Texas needs to make this season. Even as the minutes were winding down on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, coach Mack Brown knew his team would rally to beat Alabama.

Knew it. It always seemed they did. Texas has averaged two second-half comeback wins per season in Brown’s 12 years at the school. He learned his lesson 26 years ago as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator. In 1984, the No. 2 Sooners were down to a third-string quarterback named Troy Aikman and were trailing at halftime to Kansas.

“It’s raining, it’s awful and we stink,” Brown said. “We’ve got about five plays in for Troy because he knows none of them. I cussed the offense like a dog, I threw chairs.”

Oklahoma lost 28-11 in what is still one of the biggest upsets suffered by the Sooners. On the plane ride home, Barry Switzer had some sage advice for Brown:

“You lost the game at halftime when you convinced those kids they could lose. Don’t ever convince those kids there’s a chance to lose.”

How then to handle a halftime locker room at the Rose Bowl after Texas had lost its quarterback, Colt McCoy, and perhaps its will? Brown channeled Army Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, who had lost both legs in 2007 in Iraq.

“You don’t get to choose your circumstances,” said Gadson, who had spoken to the Longhorns before the game, “you make something good out of them.”

McCoy’s throwing shoulder was so damaged he couldn’t even play catch in the locker room with his dad at halftime. In his place, freshman Garrett Gilbert had gone 1 for 10 with two interceptions in the first half. Texas was down 24-6.

“We’re going to play our tails off,” Brown told his players. “You’ve got to have confidence, you’ve got to have a swagger, but you can’t ever give up. The older coaches told me, ‘If you ever show defeat in your eyes on the sidelines [or] with your body language, those kids will quit on you.”

Gilbert found a comfort level and Texas trailed only 24-21 with 6:15 left. The Longhorns had made 13 fourth-quarter comebacks under Brown, what was one more? In 2004, they were down by four touchdowns, 35-7, in the first half at home against Oklahoma State.

“Texas fans love comebacks more than anything else in the world,” the coach told his players at halftime. “You can change the world with comebacks.”

Brown wrote “42-35″ on the dry erase board, predicting victory. Texas won 56-35.

“I came in after the game and apologized to the kids for underestimating them,” he said.

Three years later, Texas trailed 35-14 in the fourth quarter at Oklahoma State. It won 38-35. There are other examples, but the point is that Brown was completely confident on the Rose Bowl sideline with six minutes left against ‘Bama.

“People laugh at me sometimes,” the coach said, “The worse it gets, the more I clap. I’m more positive. I really believe kids feed off that.”

The comeback didn’t happen in January. Credit Alabama’s defense for causing a couple of late turnovers to pad the final margin as the Tide won 37-21. Credit Heisman winner Mark Ingram who backed up his trophy with 116 yards and two touchdowns.

Also credit Texas for hanging in there and believing and setting the stage for 2010. Gilbert’s stage fright evaporated in one half that night. The Longhorns are determined to be more physical, something they lacked in the spread option under McCoy. Maybe because of that, preseason predictions somehow suggest that Texas has fallen behind Oklahoma in the Big 12.

Time for another comeback? Drop in on a Texas halftime this season if they’re trailing.

“I learned to quit throwing chairs,” Brown said.

Herzlich could play for Texas. Not just because of the linebacker’s vast talent that made him a 2008 All-American but because of his comeback ability. Check the titanium rod in his left leg. Doctors put it there to strengthen his femur withered by cancer. Ewing’s sarcoma affects one in 600,000. That was the unlucky part.

Herzlich was incredibly lucky he didn’t break the leg before doctors discovering his cancer in May 2009.

“If I had a stress fracture in my leg or broke my leg,” he said, “the cancer would immediately spread from being contained inside my leg to going into my bloodstream and I would die.”

Aggressive radiation and chemo treatments have allowed Herzlich to be ready for the Sept. 4 opener against Weber State. The only test now is physical contact. It is something he has not had since spring practice of 2009. The leg could be injured but, bolstered by the titanium rod, is no more likely to break than any other person’s.

“Hitting is the best part of what I do,” said Herzlich. “We’ll either be great or we’ll be OK, but it can’t be bad because coming back and playing is going to be great in itself.”

Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder has a different definition of comeback. In 2009′s ninth game, he threw his fourth interception of the game to Clemson’s DeAndre McDaniel. Frustrated, Ponder chased down McDaniel, met him at the sideline, lowered his shoulder and, well, that was the end of his season. Ponder separated his shoulder.

After surgery and months of rehab, Ponder is the poster boy for Florida State’s comeback. Really. He’s got his own website cp7forheisman.com) and a fresh outlook.

“I think we definitely needed some structure,” he said.

As hard as it is to criticize what Bobby Bowden has accomplished at FSU, certain things were obvious. The program had slipped, athletically and off the field. No matter where you come down on the NCAA penalties that cost Bowden 12 career victories, you get the feeling none of it would have happened under new coach Jimbo Fisher.

“It’s been kind of the small things,” said Ponder. “Everything academically goes through him. There’s a new strength program. The whole practice tempo has changed. If you miss a class, it’s a point system. He’s kind of taken control of pretty much everything.”

As coach-in-waiting Fisher was going to be in charge at some point. It took the Seminoles’ decline from powerhouse at the beginning of the decade to ACC also-ran to cost Bowden his job in December. It was as messy as it was public, and it was probably destined.

At age 80, Bowden was competing with his own legacy.

Former president T.K. Wetherell, who played for Bowden, had to tell his old coach that he couldn’t come back. And with that, the door was closed on a 44-year head coaching career (34 at FSU) defined an era, a program and a coach. Bowden, it seemed, was the only one who handled it with class.

Ponder is the antithesis of what has been happening at Tallahassee. He graduated with a degree in finance in 2½ years. Ponder completed his MBA last spring while maintaining a 3.7 GPA. His talent could land him in the NFL as an athlete whose career will have straddled both the past and future of Florida State football.

“Coach Bowden was probably the biggest reason I came to Florida State,” Ponder said, looking around the room at ACC media days last month. “My dad played for him. It’s tough to see him go. It’s times like these when you expect to see him.”

“Comeback has taken on a different meaning for me. Now it’s about coming back and overcoming a lot of adversity.”

He’s got a lot of company this season.

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