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Sally Jenkins
December 09, 1991
The sure-handed acrobatics of Michigan's Desmond Howard should make next week's announcement of the Heisman winner a mere formality
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December 09, 1991

In His Grasp

The sure-handed acrobatics of Michigan's Desmond Howard should make next week's announcement of the Heisman winner a mere formality

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So J.D. sent him. One afternoon when Desmond was in the 10th grade, as father and son drove home from football practice along Lakeshore Boulevard, J.D. said, "Desmond, I'd appreciate it if you'd show me how much you love your daddy." Desmond asked if J.D. wanted him to drive. "No," J.D. said, "I want you to give me the next year. Don't go out. No girls. Just do your homework, play football and run track, and I give you my word, I'll give you anything you like for your senior year."

They struck that deal and then another while watching the 1988 Summer Olympics. J.D. told Desmond to pay attention to some of the athletes from smaller countries. He pointed out the ones he thought would win medals someday. "They aren't in the gold yet, but they will be," he said, "because you can tell that when they go home, they will keep practicing. Most athletes go home from practice and sit down to dinner while their mamas pat them on the head. You do a little bit more." A couple of afternoons later, Desmond came home from practice and went for a run. "Now, Desmond, you are working on that edge," J.D. said.

Desmond didn't go to his senior prom, because he had a track meet the next day. He rarely went to the local clubs where most of the neighborhood kids hung out. His social circle was restricted to two best friends, Marcus Greene and Morgan, studious and athletic kids from families not unlike his. Both are now seniors at the University of Cincinnati, Morgan majoring in criminal justice, Greene in psychology. "The only dance he ever went to I conned him into," Greene says. "He wanted to separate himself, just keep out of trouble. He knew there were shootings sometimes. He told me, 'Accidents will happen.' "

By his senior year Desmond, who played tailback and safety at St. Joe's, had 20 major schools recruiting him and a used Plymouth to drive. J.D. gave him the car and whatever else he wanted and didn't mind driving a beat-up Oldsmobile himself. Michigan came after Desmond the hardest. Gary Moeller, now the Wolverine coach, recruited Desmond, whose 4.3 speed overrode any concerns about his 5'9", 167-pound size (he is now 176). Moeller fell hard for him in his final high school game when he returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. "The one thing I liked about him early was he wanted the ball," Moeller says. "He got mad when he didn't have the ball. He loved his hands on the ball."

J.D. sent Desmond off to Michigan with one last cautionary lecture. He told Desmond that no matter how hard things got under then head coach Bo Schembechler, he didn't want to hear about it. "Don't bring Bo home," he said.

Ann Arbor turned out to be colder than expected that first year. Howard was so taken aback by the array of talent at Michigan that during orientation, when the coaches grouped the recruits by position, he went with the defensive backs, thinking he might have a better chance of playing at that position. Moeller found Howard sitting with the safeties and tried him at receiver to see if he could catch at all. "We stood there and said, 'Yeah, he can catch the ball,' " Moeller recalls. "It was just a quick pass, and then, first thing. he made a [tackler] miss." Schembechler didn't know the full extent of what he had, but he had an idea. Asked what he intended to do the next year, after his leading receiver, John Kolesar, graduated, Schembechler said, "I've got this crafty little devil, Desmond Howard."

Howard's success has come partly by the hand of another Wolverine from St. Joe's, junior quarterback Elvis Grbac, the strapping son of Croatian immigrants. Grbac and Howard had no idea that they would become the most decorated and prolific passing tandem in Michigan history, since all Grbac did at St. Joe's was hand off to Howard 30 times a game. Grbac completed exactly one pass to Howard during their high school days. But at Michigan they began developing a relationship that Howard now says is "almost telepathic—I can practically read his mind." The more laconic Grbac says, "It's a mutual friendship that's been growing for several years. There's something about him that just makes you play better. He understands your attitudes and quirks at crunch time. He's got a habit of being there at the right time."

The telepathy between them is, on the surface, unlikely. Grbac's family is from the village of Istra in the northwest part of Yugoslavia, where everything is farmed by hand. Grbac is the type who studies film alone late at night in the players' auditorium. He is reserved and old world. Howard is a bright flame of a personality. Yet their fathers are like-minded men who sit next to each other at Michigan games. When Grbac and Howard combined for what may have been the most memorable college football play in many seasons, both men sensed it coming and dropped their heads in fear. It was a 25-yard desperation pass to the corner of the end zone with 9:02 left and Michigan holding on to a three-point lead against Notre Dame on Sept. 14. With the crowd on its feet, Grbac called an audible, and when he pumped his arm and signaled Howard deep, both fathers sat down at the same time and hid their eyes. "We knew it was going to be a problem," J.D. says. Desmond caught the ball on his fingertips with his body parallel to the ground. The catch secured a 24-14 Michigan win and elevated Howard to the top of the list of Heisman candidates.

Howard finished the regular season with 23 touchdowns, including a Big Ten-record 19 TD receptions. He has made catches of all descriptions, and punt and kickoff returns so picturesque they should hang in art galleries. Even if Howard did not have staggering numbers, he ought to be awarded the Heisman simply for making plays look so pretty.

Howard's style is one part studied nonchalance, one part meticulous technique and one part haughty arrogance. He runs fastidious routes, but sometimes he runs them at less than full speed, reserving a step for the instant he sees the ball leaving Grbac's hand, when he "hits another gear." That was how he managed to outstrip Notre Dame's double coverage to make his scoring catch. "That would be graded out as poor technique but great ability," he says bluntly.

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