With the college football season finally behind us, I wanted to write a sweet little story about a very good guy who plays football for Michigan. But every time I tried, some bad news got in the way.
The first obstacle was Lance Armstrong. In case you missed it – perhaps you live on Mars – it turns out the man who came back from cancer to win a record seven Tours de France and write two bestselling books about his inspirational story is a complete fraud. He was taking performance-enhancing drugs during his entire reign, and whenever someone tried to tell the truth about his drug use – even if they had been forced to – he went out of his way to ruin their careers, their finances, and occasionally their lives.
It appears Lance Armstrong is a genuinely bad person. So, that’s all the time I want to give him.
Now, back to college football. On Monday, January 7th – six days after New Year’s, when the college football season always ended in the old days – I stayed up until midnight to watch the national championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. I don’t know why I stayed up that late. It was over after Alabama ran up an insurmountable 28-0 lead in the first half. But I did learn Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who already makes more than $5 million a year, earned an additional $400,000 that night. His players – who, as you might recall, actually played the game – received $500 of souvenirs. Think anything’s wrong with this?
I was heartened, at least, to see the head coaches at Penn State, Notre Dame and Oregon all turn down bigger salaries from the NFL to stay with their schools. Until, that is, Chip Kelly, the head coach at Nike University – er, the University of Oregon – changed his mind, took the money, and ran. But that’s barely news.
Okay, now can I get to my favorite story, about Michigan’s Taylor Lewan? No? There’s some bizarre story coming out of Notre Dame I’ve got to talk about first?
Ah, jeez. All right. Here goes.
In case you live not on Mars but Pluto, it seems their All-American linebacker, Manti Te’o, told reporters at the outset of the season that he lost his grandmother, and his girlfriend, in the same week.
True enough, Te’o lost his grandmother. But this week, we learned, he didn’t lose his girlfriend, because she does not exist – which doctors I consulted tell me is one of the pre-conditions for dying. So, did Te’o engineer the hoax, or was he a sucker for one? When politicians and corporate executives have to choose between confessing corruption or incompetence, they choose incompetence, every time. And so did Te’o, and so did Notre Dame, which stood behind him in a decidedly bizarre press conference Tuesday night. Victims, all.
And that goes double for the reporters who apparently never bothered to verify any of it, which can take a minute or more, in many cases. Notable exception: the people at Deadspin, who singlehandedly uncovered the story that people at much bigger publications swallowed whole.
This story is, sadly, far from over. As the legendary Don Canham told me, and I have repeated countless times since (though no one seems to listen): “Never turn a one-day story into a two-day story” – yet everyone involved seems to be doing exactly that.
Notre Dame probably had the easiest out. The athletic director there could have simply said, in a press release: We do not involve ourselves in the love lives of our student-athletes. End of their story, anyway. But they gave a convoluted defense of Te’o – and, you watch, they will pay for it.
Okay, now can I tell my happy little tale? Yes? Good!
The story I want to tell is about the University of Michigan’s Taylor Lewan. Only a junior, he rose to become the Big Ten’s offensive lineman of the year, a first team All-American, and a likely first-round NFL draft pick, which would be worth many millions of dollars to the young man.
Leading up to his press conference last week, just about all of his side comments sounded like he was long gone. But, at his press conference, he told us he had decided to turn down the NFL, stay at Michigan, stick with his teammates, finish his degree, and graduate on time. For this, the experts said he was stupid and crazy – the same sort of experts who said Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o were heroes.
Lewan wisely didn’t seem to care. A few minutes after his announcement, he made a cameo appearance at Michigan’s basketball game, and served as the conductor of the pep band, to great applause. As a conductor, I’d have to say he is an excellent left tackle. The guy didn’t hit the beat by accident.
But as a person, Taylor Lewan has been the best news in sports this year. Slow race, perhaps, but he’s winning it.
So Lance Armstrong, Chip Kelly and Manti Te’o, please step back, and give the stage to Mr. Lewan. Just not the baton.
About the writer: John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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