The Game

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Ask me what the most important game on our schedule is. Go ahead. We get that question all the time, and it’s always the same answer.

The next one.

I know it’s cliché, but that’s our mindset at Michigan. You can’t sleep on anybody. You can’t get caught looking ahead to next week or the week after. That’s how you lose football games. The only opponent we’re ever focused on is the one that’s going to line up on the other side of the ball on Saturday. Nobody else.

So go ahead. Ask me. What’s the most important game on our schedule?

The next one.

The Ohio State game.

There it is. The answer everyone’s been waiting for all year.

And for me, it’s a game I’ve been waiting for my whole life.


The Voice of the Game.

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Charles Woodson was my hero growing up. He was the guy I tried to model my game after.

I remember watching the rivalry game against Ohio State in 1997. He took a punt return back for a touchdown, caught a pass on offense and intercepted a ball in the end zone on defense.

I was really young at the time — probably too young to even fully remember — but once I grew up a little bit and started to really understand football, I understood how crazy that performance was. It made me want to be that kind of player, the kind who contributes in all three phases of the game. The kind who makes big plays in clutch moments to win games.

My first “clutch” moment was back in Pop Warner, when I took a toss play to the right for a game-winning touchdown as time expired, and I literally ran out of one of my cleats. The whole way down the field I was thinking, Charles Woodson … to the 15 … to the 10 … to the five …

I can still picture the image of him after that Ohio State game with the rose in his mouth. That’s what made me want to wear the Winged Helmet.

That’s what made me — a kid from North Jersey — want to play football at Michigan.

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My father was arrested when I was seven years old. In that split second when he was taken away, I went from having a father who I could work out with and who was on the sideline for all my football games, to being a kid searching for a male role model in his life. And I didn’t know how long he was going to be gone.

He was just … gone.

I never visited him in prison — he and my mom wouldn’t let me. They didn’t want me seeing him like that. I talked to him on the phone almost every week for 15 minutes at a time. That was really the only relationship I was able to have with him growing up. So all the lessons that fathers normally teach their sons, I had to learn on my own.

A lot of kids in my neighborhood were so caught up in the street life that they couldn’t dream past the city limits.

So I turned to my older brother Don.

Don was the guy I looked up to. And even though he was out in the streets like most of the other guys in our neighborhood, doing things he wasn’t supposed to be doing, he would never let me get involved. He kept me on the right path from a young age. And he was one of the first people who told me I had the potential to be something great — that I needed to chase my football dream.

“You have a God-given gift,” he’d say. “It would be disrespectful to God to not make the most of that gift.”

Like a lot of kids in urban neighborhoods, we dreamed a lot about the future, of better times. Many kids were so caught up in the street life that they couldn’t dream past the city limits. But Don and I talked differently, mostly because of my potential on the football field. That was going to be my way out — our way out.

He always used to tell me, “Little bro, you’re gonna get mom that house in the hills. I’m sure of it. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

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I took his advice and stayed on the right path, but Don was on a very different path.

The streets don’t care about your dreams. They don’t care if you have good intentions or if your little brother has potential. The path Don was on almost always leads to the same place.

On a cold January day in 2010, the streets caught up with Don, and he paid the price. He was shot and killed.

I was just 14 years old, and for the second time in my life, the most dominant male figure in my life was gone.

Some neighborhoods have a way of swallowing kids up. After Don was killed, I promised myself that I wouldn’t go down like that. I was going to make sure that my mom and everybody else in my family would never have to feel that kind of pain again.

Before Don was killed, I was usually pretty smart about what I did and the guys I hung around with. That was a little bit harder after he was gone. There were plenty of times when I was caught up in the wrong things, but I still managed to stay true to my path, thanks to some unexpected help.

When I was a freshman in high school, everybody in the neighborhood started to realize what Don had already seen in me: Football was going to be my way out. On the high school stage, I was getting a lot of notoriety and national attention, and the guys in the neighborhood who used to run with Don took it upon themselves to make sure that I didn’t waste my potential. Don was very well respected on the streets of our neighborhood, so when we lost him, I basically became everybody’s little brother. They made sure I stayed on the right track.

To honor my brother.

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I think a lot about how strong my mom was through everything — watching me lose my father and then losing a son of her own, left to raise me by herself. She never showed weakness. She never complained. She always just did what she had to do.

She always used to tell me, “Jabrill, I can teach you a lot. But I can’t teach you to be a man.” But it was her who taught this young boy things like how to tie a tie. She taught me the importance of hard work and discipline and that football was a privilege, not a right, and the classroom was just as important as the football field. If I got anything less that a B+ on my report card, I wasn’t allowed to play football. She led by example with her work ethic and her drive, working long hours as a social worker and a Baptist minister, and she almost never missed a football game.

She may have thought she couldn’t teach me what it meant to be a man, but I think she did a damn good job.

***

It’s my official visit to Michigan and I’m walking through the tunnel at The Big House, pretending it’s game day. My shoes hit the grass, I walk out to midfield, square up and squat down like I’m ready for the snap. The imaginary quarterback snaps the ball, drops back, gets off a pass, and I step right in front and take it the other way — all the way.

When I reach the end zone, I turn around, look at the sky and see an imaginary punt spiraling my way. I catch it, shake one imaginary tackler, plant my foot in the grass and take off down the sideline — the same sideline Charles Woodson ran down on that punt return in ‘97 against Ohio State.

Touchdown.

The stadium is empty and silent, but the 110,000 fans in my mind go absolutely crazy. It’s a dream beyond the scope of what most kids from my neighborhood could ever imagine.

There’s a lot I love about the University of Michigan. The tradition is at the top of that list.

I look up at the Michigan sky and think, I’m here, Don. I’m really here. I’m so close to putting that Winged Helmet on …

Two weeks before that visit, I was back in New Jersey at a friend’s house watching the Wolverines take on the Buckeyes on that same field. It was a back-and-forth game — the kind you knew was going to come down to the last minute. And with 0:32 left in the fourth quarter, Devin Gardner hit Devin Funchess for a touchdown to make it 42-41. We were an extra point away from tying the game and sending it into overtime. But we went for two, and the win.

I liked the decision to go for two, but in the end, we didn’t get it, and the Buckeyes ran the clock out and took the win.

I was physically sick. I was 600 miles away in New Jersey, still a senior in high school, and it hurt me like I was already on the team and standing on that sideline in Ann Arbor. It’s a feeling that’s stuck with me ever since that game.

I couldn’t wait for my chance to step on the field against the Buckeyes.

***

I was at the Michigan spring game before my freshman year and I was standing on the sideline next to Charles Woodson thinking, This is surreal … I’m having a conversation with my idol.

I was just trying not to talk too much or ask too many questions … I was shocked that he knew who I was and that he knew all my high school accolades.

We talked a lot that day and have built a great rapport since. Every now and then, he’ll text me something simple like, “Work hard and make plays.” He wants to keep me motivated and keep my mind focused, and he also wants remind me that he’s always watching.

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During our game against Northwestern earlier this season, I dropped an interception that I should have caught. When I got back to the locker room after the game, he texted me. I was excited after a 38-0 win over a ranked opponent, and and all he said to me was, “When we get our hands on the football, we gotta catch it.”

All business.

And he was right. I had to get better. I gotta catch that ball.

There’s a lot I love about the University of Michigan. The tradition is at the top of that list. Michigan greats like Charles Woodson are always around, and they want us to be great. They want us to carry on that Michigan tradition.

That’s what I’m trying to do. For Charles. For my teammates.

For my family.

For Don.

***

My father was released from prison in 2014. We have a good relationship, but we’re still getting to know each other again. I mean, he went away when I was seven years old and he got out when I was 18. That’s a lot of crucial years in a young man’s life that he missed. But we’re not trying to make up for lost time. We’re just trying to get to know each other and move forward. He’s made mistakes, but he’s still my pops and he’s still a wise soul. He’s been on this earth longer than I have, so I listen to him and respect his advice and opinions.

These life experiences are what drive me and motivate me. I know I’m not the only person who’s experienced hardships and been through tough times, but I carry all those hardships with me. They remind me of how far I’ve come, and how far I have to go.

They help me stay true to the path.

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I’m on a mission. And that mission won’t be complete until … I don’t even know when. I guess I have a lot of missions. It’s always changing. That’s how you continue to grow and get better. You set goals that seem impossible, and when you reach them, you set more impossible goals and do whatever humanly possible to reach those, too.

I want to win a national championship at Michigan. I want to graduate. I want to go to the NFL and have a long, successful career.

I want to get my mom that house in the hills.

But just like we never look ahead to the next week’s game and stay focused on the task at hand, I don’t look ahead to the next mission. There may be a national championship, the NFL and that house in the hills in my future. But to get there, I have to take it step by step and handle the obstacles right in front of me first.

And the next obstacle on my path is Ohio State.

I didn’t play in last year’s Ohio State game because of a leg injury. Now, nearly six years after losing my brother, 12 years after my father’s arrest and 18 years after Charles Woodson clinched that rose in his mouth and made me want to be a Wolverine, it’s game week. It’s Ohio State week. And whenever you get two rivals on the same field, you’re gonna get each team’s best.

When the Wolverines take on the Buckeyes, it’s something for the ages. This one won’t be any different — except I’ll finally be on the field for it.

Go Blue.

Rivalry

Michigan and Michigan State have been squaring off on the gridiron since 1898. On Saturday, The Players’ Tribune was granted exclusive access to photograph the 108th meeting between the two schools.

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