Explosive Howard brings Heisman talk to Michigan

November 03, 1991|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County Register

Desmond Howard sneaked into the Metrodome last weekend before the Scoring Police got there.

On Friday night, he scored 12 points.

On Saturday and Sunday night, the Twins and Braves arm-wrestled through 21 innings and scored but six runs.

Of course, Howard had the help of some Gopher-ball. The Michigan Wonderine walked past the Minnesota Gophers' secondary twice, caught two footballs from Elvis Grbac and helped Michigan win, 52-6.

Howard does this to everybody. In his past 11 games, he has scored 23 touchdowns. With four games left, he is Michigan's season record holder for receiving touchdowns, his 15th dethroning Anthony Carter, who was one of the few witnesses Friday night and anointed Howard as "a hell of a player."

And, as long as you're going after victors valiant, why not aim for Tom Harmon? Howard is 15 points behind Harmon's one-year record of 117, set in 1940.

On Dec. 14, Howard can become the first Michigan player to win the Heisman trophy since Harmon, who went on to become a bomber pilot, a Ram, a broadcaster and a father of bad actors.

Fifty-one years? Can this be true? How has the Heisman dodged Ann Arbor all these years?

Basically, the deflector was Bo Schembechler. For 21 years he won with guards, tackles and linebackers. His only 2,000-yard quarterback -- and Michigan's only current NFL quarterback -- was Jim Harbaugh in 1986.

Rick Leach has the Michigan record with 48 career touchdown passes. David Klingler, of Houston, had 54 last year.

Jon Vaughn, the running back, might have won the '90 Heisman had he (A) stayed healthy and (B) played UCLA every week.

But Michigan has always won on the shoulders of the Dierdorfs and McKenzies, the grunts who never win Heismans.

Bo retired two seasons ago, maybe because he saw Michigan's future was in the sky. Grbac was the resident quarterback. He had almost beaten Notre Dame as a freshman. He brought a friend with him from St. Joseph's High in Cleveland. Little 5-foot-9, 176-pound guy with a reggae name.

Schembechler knew Howard. "He's a crafty little devil who might make you forget John Kolesar," Schembechler used to say. Forget who?

And Gary Moeller, now the head coach, recruited Howard. But not to dive on his chest while grabbing the Notre Dame-beating touchdown, thereby launching a thousand magazine covers. Back when Moeller saw him, Howard was barely all-Cleveland.

"He was a tough kid, he ran hard up the middle," Moeller remembered. "He only caught a few passes in high school. I was impressed because he would get the tough yardage against the Massilons, the tough schools in that area.

"I remember some high school coaches telling me, 'This kid can do a lot of things.' And I remember him running a kickoff back for a touchdown in their semifinal playoff game. But no, he wasn't the greatest recruit of all time. I really think, in the end, it came down to Michigan and Georgia Tech for Desmond."

"Notre Dame came after me late, and by then I wasn't interested," Howard said. "Ohio State? They were going through a coaching change at the time. I didn't want to be with a rebuilding program."

Ouch. But how did Howard know he and Grbac -- 20 touchdown passes this year -- would put wings on the Wolverine?

He didn't. Neither did Moeller. Eager to play, the freshman Howard volunteered to be a defensive back. Quickest way to Saturday, he said.

"So you can imagine," Moeller said, "how much grief I give to our defensive coaches. I say, 'Boy, you guys really know talent. You once had Desmond Howard, best player in the country, right there in your secondary.'"

"A lot of it was the timing that Elvis and I built up -- more so here than in high school -- throwing balls in the winter and spring," Howard said. "I think we showed that so often, Mo [Moeller] got faith in us."

Unlike Rocket Ismail, who almost swiped the Heisman last year for Notre Dame and then fulfilled a lifelong dream by signing with the Toronto Argonauts, Howard is spectacular and substantive.

Ismail scored six touchdowns last year for the Irish. Howard had seven in the Boston College and Indiana games this year.

And Howard, a redshirt junior, will not venture into the chilly NFL winds without a degree. "I have to get with my advisor, to see if I can get this one course next term," Howard said. "If I can, I should graduate in May."

Howard is having fun with all this. He has the forever-young face of his hero, Tony Dorsett, and a solid family behind him. He was anxious Friday night to call his father, James, a supervisor at Osborne Manufacturing in Cleveland. He and his parents agree on the degree.

Amid all the denim and goose down in a typical Michigan classroom, Howard is the one in the coat and tie. Every day, that's what he wears.

"If you dress like that and carry a briefcase, it makes you feel like it's business," Howard said. "And that's what it is -- taking care of business."

Football business boils down to Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois and Ohio State. Four victories assure Moeller of his first Rose Bowl as head coach, and Michigan's 15th.

"The Heisman talk is nice," Howard said, "but it's not part of my goal. That's to keep taking steps in the right direction. Toward Pasadena."

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