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TWICE DURING HIS TIME IN ANN ARBOR, CRAIG ROH WAS SUFFOCATING. BOTH TIMES HIS father resuscitated him. This past spring the problem was literal. The 6' 5" defensive end had long battled allergies but had never known his body's exact enemies. During Roh's visit home to Scottsdale, Ariz., his father, Fred, owner of a nutritional supplement company, decided to take his son to someone who could come up with real answers. The naturopath's findings: Craig was allergic to wheat and dairy. Now abstaining from such foods, he delights in the effects. "Your body changes—you don't have as much fat, you can move better," Roh says. "Now I can breathe through my nose. It's great."
If not for Fred's intervention last fall, though, Roh might not have been taking in the air at the Big House this autumn. His woes began with a sore throat at the onset of the 2011 summer training camp. Roh visited a doctor, who diagnosed a respiratory infection and prescribed antibiotics. Roh returned to practice but played sluggishly, feeling, he recalls now, "like half the man I could be."
Making matters worse was his rugged adjustment to Michigan's new defensive coordinator, the gruff Greg Mattison, for whom "that's not terrible" counts as a compliment. "I was essentially the golden child up until Coach Mattison," Roh says. "But he wanted to tear me down so he could build me back up to an even higher level than I previously was."
Things bottomed out after the Wolverines' opener last September, a 34--10 win over Western Michigan in which Roh failed to make a tackle and after which Mattison was predictably acerbic while reviewing the game tape. Roh was so overwhelmed, he broke down in tears. "I wasn't really having fun," he says.
Fred could tell. He flew from up from Arizona and spent two days in Craig's apartment, studying Bible verses as the three-year starter pondered walking away from his team and the game. As the discussions wound down, Fred had another thought: Craig should man up and recommit to the program and those he should be playing for, earthly and otherwise.
At that moment Roh had what he calls an epiphany. "I was trying so hard to perform for selfish reasons," he says. "But when it turned into an unselfish reason—[playing] for my teammates and for God—that's when football became really fun." The next Saturday, in a thrilling 35--31 victory over Notre Dame, Roh again failed to register on the stats sheet but played with an enthusiasm previously lacking. The following week, in a 31--3 domination of Eastern Michigan, he was back in form, with five tackles and a sack. "It's history from there," says Roh, who finished the season tied for second on the team with four sacks and was named All--Big Ten honorable mention.
"When most young men buy in and realize that you're coaching them so they can be better, they say, O.K., take me," says Mattison, whose relationship with Roh is now built on mutual understanding. "I think that's when he really started to play to his potential."
To get ready for his switch to strongside end this year, Roh spent the off-season downing steaks, fish and protein shakes—sans wheat and dairy of course—to beef up 11 pounds, to 280. He is enjoying the new position, and as the lone returning starter on the defensive line, he will be central to his unit's success. Given his reborn allegiance to Michigan, it's a responsibility Roh embraces. "Being dedicated to this football program, it's just been this sustaining feeling," he says. A breath, really, of fresh air.