They come from quite different places, Denard Robinson and Zack Novak. The former hails from Deerfield Beach, Florida - a place where many young kids don't make it out alive - including Denard's own brother - a place where football is not just a game but a safe haven from gang-life, drugs, and a route to prison or the cemetery. In stark contrast, the latter hails from Chesterton, Indiana, one of those quiet Midwestern towns secluded from all those devilries corollary to a life in Denard's hometown.
Quite different places. But they share a special place adjacent to each other in my heart. Because despite their widely contrasting backgrounds, the two have a lot in common.
Neither Novak nor Robinson was recruited heavily out of high school. Most schools told Denard he could play defensive back for them, and few believed he could hack it as a quarterback at the next level. The same holds true for Novak. Undersized and self-admittedly lacking in great skill, Zack possessed but one college scholarship offer - from a small mid-major from his home in the Hoosier state, Valpraiso - when John Beilein came calling. Both were underdogs, long shots by all accounts.
And both Zack and Denard received more than their fare share of criticism while donning the Maize and Blue. Novak was constantly labeled a stepping stone in the grand scheme of Michigan basketball, merely a clog in the system until the real cavalry - the four and five star recruits - arrived to play basketball at Michigan. I constantly had to listen to my own college roommates poke fun at Novak, always insinuating that he wasn't any good. The critique was even more pointed for Denard. His ability to throw was perpetually under question, from both the national media and from his own supposed fans, despite statistically accounting for 90% of Michigan's offense at times. Most notably amongst his critics, Michigan State players took to the Twittersphere to mock and ridicule Robinson after an embarassing loss to Alabama.
Admirably, neither one ever fired back at their critics. Instead they chose to do their talking on the court or on the field. A la the infamous Mike Hart route, Denard could have easily hushed the Spartans who mocked him via tweet after beating them this year; he took the high road and never spoke a word about the incident. Novak never complained either. Not once did he comment on how he was always paired against oversized power forwards, he simply went out and played his heart out.
Perhaps the similarity between the two closest to my heart is their roles in the respective resurgences of Michigan football and basketball. But I think my fondness for these two Michigan athletes stems from more than athletics.
I've been a Michigan fan for a long time. Players with more talent than either Zack or Denard have come and gone time and again. I've watched the Charles Woodson's and Tom Brady's and Manny Harris' and Braylon Edwards' of the Michigan world come and go, yet none of their departures affected me quite like the exits of Zack Novak and Denard Robinson.
I attribute that to the fact that these guys were my peers. (At least at one time) They walked the same diag on campus as I did, occupied the same lecture halls, went to the same pizza parlor's on weekends, and attended the same parties I did. I read about them in my student newspaper. I watched them with the college friends in my college house. I associated them with college, which was the best time of my life.
And maybe that's why I'm so sentimental about seeing them go. Because I associate them with college, their departures mean whatever lingering bonds I may have left to my alma mater will be permanently extinguished. More players will come to replace them, but those guys will be years younger than me, part of a different generation of Michigan student life. When I tell my grandkids about Zack and Denard, I won't just be looking back on athletics, I'll be remembering my own experiences in college.
Thanks for everything #0 and #16.