When Michigan linebacker Jarrett Irons was five years old, he said to his father with a matter-of-factness beyond his years, "Dad, I want to have a conversation with you."
Young Jarrett wondered why his father, Gerald Irons, then in his second season as a Cleveland Browns captain and his eighth in the NFL, spent so much of the off-season studying. You're happy playing football, Jarrett said, and it's your job, so why are you still going to school? "He was amazingly grown-up," recalls Gerald, who earned an MBA from the University of Chicago in 1976 and then went on to study law. "I explained to him that football was only one part of life, and that I had a responsibility to myself and those around me to grow outside of it. He listened very attentively."
And, clearly, Jarrett absorbed his father's words. The unquestioned leader of the Michigan defense and one of the five top linebackers in the nation, Irons is revered by his teammates as a sideline sage. Having finished his undergraduate studies in four years, Irons is using his fifth year to take master's classes in facility planning. And it is as much for being a savvy leader as it is for his ferocious tackling that Irons will be the eighth player in 120 years to serve two seasons as a Michigan captain. "He's our most important and influential presence," says defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. "He plays smart, and he plays with joy."
The love for football was bequeathed not only by Gerald, but by Jarrett's mother, Myrna, who has often given Jarrett pregame admonitions to "knock somebody's head off." He did that regularly as a football captain at McCullogh High in The Woodlands, Texas, and so captivated hometown fans that after he left for Michigan, locals talked his parents into issuing a bimonthly Jarrett Irons Newsletter. Some 150 Irons supporters attended Michigan's 22-20 loss to Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl at San Antonio last December, hanging a banner that read: #37 IRONS: FLATTENS AND FOLDS. Though flu-ridden, Irons was named defensive player of the game. "I liked that pressure," says the 6'1", 231-pounder. "And I love the responsibility of being a Michigan captain. I came back [for a fifth season] because I want to help take us to the Rose Bowl."
If the Wolverines get to the Grand-daddy, it will be due to a dominating defense. Physically intimidating inside linebackers Rob Swett and Sam Sword round out one of the best line-backing corps in the country. Although senior defensive back Clarence Thompson is academically ineligible, cornerback Charles Woodson (last year's co-Big Ten freshman of the year) is an All-America candidate.
Offensively, the departure of tailback Tim Biakabutuka and most of last year's other offensive stars leaves an unproven cast of backs and receivers that will rely heavily upon cocksure sophomore quarterback Scott Dreisbach. It was Dreisbach who, in his first college game, orchestrated Michigan's best-ever comeback (an 18-17 last-play win over Virginia). And though he missed the final eight games of '95 with torn ligaments in his right thumb (Michigan was 4-0 behind Dreisbach, 4-4 the rest of the way), he returned to have a superb spring practice. "There's been a lot of changes on offense," says second-year coach Lloyd Carr. "But I'm not worried if there's pressure on Scott. He's the type of player who leads by meeting challenges."
Which gives Michigan two of that type.