PFF’s Josh Lisiewitz shares why his one player, one play was authored by an Average Joe with “the mobility of Terrence Cody on vegan day at Golden Corral.”
By Josh Liskiewitz, NFL and Big Ten Analyst at Pro Football Focus. Twitter: @PFF_Josh
From the end of the Bo Schembechler era in 1989 through the end of the Lloyd Carr era in 2007, Michigan had a remarkable string of quarterbacks.
Elvis Grbac, the last QB recruit of Schembechler before he retired in 1989, went 2-0-1 against Ohio State, led the Wolverines to three Rose Bowls and essentially re-wrote Michigan’s passing records. He enjoyed a nine-year NFL career with the 49ers, Chiefs and Ravens in which he played in 105 games and threw for 16744 yards. His best season was in 2000 with the Chiefs, when he threw for 4169 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Grbac was followed by Todd Collins, who still holds the Michigan record for career completion percentage (64.28, which also ranks second in Big Ten history). He enjoyed a long, 16-year NFL career as a backup with Buffalo, Kansas City, Washington and Chicago, finally retiring with the Bears in 2010.
Next was Scott Dreisbach, whose most impressive game in maize and blue was his first. Down 17-0 in the fourth quarter against the Tiki and Ronde Barber-led Virginia Cavaliers in 1995’s season-opening Pigskin Classic, he rallied the Wolverines to scores on their final three possessions, including the game-winning touchdown pass to Mercury Hayes as time expired. Dreisbach’s professional career lasted through 2007, with stints in the NFL (with the Raiders, Bills and Lions), NFL Europe (the Scottish Claymores) and the Arena League (Los Angeles Avengers, Dallas Desperados, Austin Wranglers, Georgia Force and the Columbus Destroyers).
Brian Griese followed Dreisbach by winning a national championship with Michigan in 1997. He was Denver’s third-round pick in 1998, and his NFL career lasted 11 seasons with the Broncos, Dolphins, Buccaneers and Bears.
Tom Brady was next to lead Michigan, and I don’t need to pen a heart-wrenching soliloquy to describe his greatness.
Next up was Drew Henson, who was one of the highest-ranked recruits ever to commit to Michigan. He was named national player of the year by both USA Today and Gatorade, and split time with Brady in both the 1998 and 1999 seasons. During the 2000 season, he threw 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions in nine games (a broken foot kept him out of action for the first three games of the season), ending his college career by beating Ohio State in Columbus (the last Michigan quarterback to accomplish this feat) and beating Auburn in the Citrus Bowl.
He then chose to sign a contract with the New York Yankees. He retired from baseball in 2003, and despite not having played football since 2000, the Houston Texans selected him in the sixth round of the 2003 draft. His professional career lasted until 2009, with stints with the Cowboys, Rhein Fire (NFL Europe), Vikings and Lions.
And then there’s John Navarre. Navarre got his first taste of action at the start of the 2000 season with Henson out injured, and took over full-time the following season once Henson departed for his baseball career.
All the things his predecessors were, Navarre was not. He was a solid recruit from Cudahy High School in Wisconsin, but Barry Alvarez wanted him to play defense for the Badgers. At 6-feet-6 and 246 lbs. he had a prototypical frame and had solid arm strength, but his woefully-low release resulted in way too many balls batted at the line of scrimmage and he had the mobility of Terrence Cody on vegan day at Golden Corral.
He set Michigan career records in categories like pass attempts in a season, completions in a season, and total offensive plays in a season, statistics more indicative of durability and a changing game than actual on-field prowess. His teams went 1-2 against Ohio State (you have to go back to Steve Smith, who preceded current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh’s college playing days to find the last Michigan QB with multiple losses to the Buckeyes before Navarre).
While drafted in the seventh round by the Arizona Cardinals, he lasted just three season and started just one NFL game, a loss to the Detroit Fighting Millens in which he threw one touchdown and four interceptions. The subject of much criticism from fans and media alike (both fair and unfair), Navarre was the closest thing to an “Average Joe” Michigan had seen at the QB position for close to 20 years.
Growing up in suburban West Michigan, I bled maize and blue starting at about age six. I idolized Michigan greats like 1991 Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, the tough as-nails center Steve Everitt and of course, the first-ever defensive Heisman Trophy winner, Charles Woodson.
I dreamed about what it would be like to strap on the pads, squeeze into that jersey, and secure the legendary winged-helmet to my head. I dreamed about running through tunnel and onto the field, jumping to touch the banner held in the middle of the field. I dreamed about making one play; just one play to help the Wolverines win a big game – just one play to etch my name into Michigan lore.
Average or not, being the starting quarterback for three full seasons, Navarre of course had plenty of those plays at Michigan. However, one stands out above the rest as the quintessential Navarre play – a play able to be made not only by a Heisman Trophy winner from a more glorious time, but by an Average Joe like John Navarre; an Average Joe like me.
The play is listed as a 36-yard touchdown reception, but Navarre actually caught the ball just inside the 40. Around 5.90 seconds later, one of the most improbable (and hilarious) touchdowns in Michigan history was complete. 5.90-second 40-yard dash with a running head start? That’s a time a mascot could nearly beat. That’s a time a 47-year-old journalist in a suit could threaten. That’s a time a cheerleader could smash!
In Navarre’s defense, he was running behind his blockers, all of them offensive linemen. And he did redeem himself (slightly) by blazing a 5.19 40 at his NFL combine workout. But if all it takes to score from roughly 40 yards away is a 5.9 second jaunt behind four 300+ lbs. men, I feel confident I could have accomplished this in my college prime.
Part of the romanticism of college football is that only around 254 out of approximately 19,000 scholarship players (combined between FBS and FCS) are drafted by the NFL each year, and probably less than half of those drafted actually carve out a substantial professional career. The overwhelming majority of college football players are indeed Average Joes, just trying to play a child’s game for as long as they can until forced to make a living in the “real world,” just trying to leave some small imprint on a university and community that was willing to take a chance on them, just trying to make that one Minnesota moment to last a lifetime.
With this in mind, is it really that far-fetched to believe that any of us, for at least one play, could have our own Minnesota moment? Again, Navarre was the starting QB at Michigan for three years, but as explained before, he didn’t possess any super-human skills and it didn’t take a super-human effort for him to help create one of the most memorable plays in Michigan football this century.
To me, his touchdown against the Gophers is a little beacon of hope for the everyday, Average Joe in all of us. Like Navarre, we don’t need special traits to accomplish special things; if the setting is right, and we have the will to take advantage, we can all be John Navarre.
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