By RICKY LINDSAY, Sports Editor
On a cold, January night, Taylor Lewan stood inside Michigan’s Junge Family Champions Center, his hulking, six-foot-eight frame towering over a podium. Nearly a week after the Wolverines 2012 season had ended, business was ready to be attend to.
With the deadline to declare for the NFL Draft quickly approaching, the then-redshirt junior left tackle had to make a decision. Widely considered to be a top pick come April, all signs pointed to him foregoing his senior season at Michigan.
Throughout his collegiate career, Lewan had battled maturity issues. He was a selfish player, drawing many drive-killing penalties and being involved in scrums. More times than not, Lewan’s fiery attitude and playing style was a factor in his and Michigan’s tribulations.
But on this night, Lewan delivered his most mature announcement yet.
“When you really go into detail about it and think and take the time to sit down, turn your phone off and think to yourself about all the things that are best for you, there’s no doubt in my mind that I have to return to the University of Michigan, Team 134, and help lead this team as a senior,” he said of his plans to deviate from the NFL with hopes of winning a Big Ten championship.
The other side
Lewan has been known for his eccentric behavior throughout his collegiate career. He craves attention, admitting so as a redshirt freshman in 2010. On the inside of his right index finger, a tattoo of a mustache can be found, which he dubbed as “the best icebreaker in the world.”
In the spring of 2013, Lewan and his fellow linemen roommates, Graham Glasgow, Erik Gunderson, Jack Miller and Michael Schofield, decided to go hog wild when searching for a new pet. The group purchased a pet pig off of Craigslist, which they named Dr. Hamlet III. Lewan believed the swine needed a Ph.D.
But not long ago, there was a point in Lewan’s life where none of these memories in Ann Arbor could have ever cultivated.
Lewan, a captain on this year’s Wolverines team, was the final senior to give his M Ring speech at the annual Michigan Football Bust December 9 at Laurel Manor.
Rather than delivering several shout-outs, Lewan recalled the days his football career began. And how it nearly never happened.
It was the summer of 2005. Lewan, an incoming freshman at Cave Creek Cactus Shadows High School, decided to give football a try. Summer conditioning was in full-swing in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb.
“I was fat, out of shape,” Lewan said. “I was kind of the awkward skinny fat with the skinny arms and the belly, like Mike from Monsters Inc.”
Lewan was struggling with the drills, specifically, the ladder drill. “The basic stuff,” he said. “I was just getting destroyed.”
In Lewan’s young mind, a change was necessary. He talked over a decision with his dad, a former offensive lineman at the University of Minnesota.
“I looked to my dad and said, ‘Dad, I want to quit. I’m done. I don’t want to play football. I just don’t want to do it,’” Lewan said. “He said, ‘Alright you can quit. Just go to the guy in the visor right there,’ who was the head football coach.”
His dad returned to the car. Lewan left, but didn’t return.
“He went and sat in the car, two hours later, I come back even more tired,” Lewan recalled. “He said, ‘Taylor, I’m not raising you to be a quitter. I just want you to see what it’s like on the other side.’
“I could not imagine this [Michigan] could be the other side.”
When Lewan arrived in Ann Arbor in 2009, Michigan was coming off a disastrous 3-9 season, the team’s first year without a winning record since 1967. The nine losses were the most Michigan had ever suffered in the program’s storied history.
His first two years on the team, one in which he redshirted, were filled with anguish and defeat, far from the famed Wolverines teams of the past.
Then in January 2011, current head coach Brady Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez at the helm. A newfound and matured Lewan started every game that season. Harmful penalties were no longer the problem with the left tackle. He became smarter, more polished.
Suddenly, Michigan was on the rise. Lewan was, too.
The Wolverines finished the 2011 season with a promising 11-2 record, capped off with a Sugar Bowl win. The Louisiana triumph marked the program’s first win in a BCS bowl since 2000.
“My 2009 class was possibly responsible for helping bring Michigan back to national relevance, going to the Sugar Bowl and being in January 1 bowls,” Lewan said after making his announcement to return for his senior year.
“But that’s never the goal here — the goal is the Big Ten championship, always and forever. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m going to help lead this team.”
Turmoil returns, regrets don’t
Michigan began this season ranked No. 17. With Lewan returning to Ann Arbor for his senior season, hopes of a Big Ten championship were alive and well.
Only that wasn’t the case.
The Wolverines underwent a surprising rebuilding year. After starting the season 6-0, struggles set in. In the midst of negative rushing yard performances, inconsistencies, and a 1-4 stretch in November, the team limped to 7-5 record.
Jobs were suddenly in question, far from preseason expectations.
But with all the turmoil surrounding Michigan, Lewan managed to play the best football of his five-year collegiate career. He allowed no sacks all season while protecting quarterback Devin Gardner’s blind-side.
“Taylor has obviously had a tremendous career at Michigan,” Hoke said at the Michigan Football Bust. “This past year, I thought he played his best football with a lot of growing pains, trying to help some young guys go about their business of learning how to play at the Division-I level and leading a group of guys.”
Lewan’s goal of bringing a Big Ten championship to Michigan never happened. Rather than compete, the Wolverines regressed. But even while not meeting the elusive objective, Lewan doesn’t regret returning to Ann Arbor to lead the Wolverines during his senior senior season.
“It’s an awesome experience. There’s not many other people in the country having the experience I’m having right now,” Lewan said a week prior to Michigan’s 2013 matchup against Ohio State. “I’m super lucky and super blessed to have it, even though it hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to.
“We’re not going to the Big Ten championship, and that’s the goal. But I’m taking away things that are going to help me the rest of my life. These leadership skills I’m learning right now won’t end after whatever bowl we go to.”
A final bow
On November 30, following the Wolverines’ battle with Ohio State in “The Game”, Lewan made the usual trip up Michigan Stadium’s tunnel. Thousands before him have made the hallowed walk up the long tunnel with white soaked walls.
But on this day, Lewan was making the final journey from the field as a Michigan player. The Wolverines 42-41 loss to the Buckeyes marked his final collegiate game played at Michigan Stadium.
The two-time All-American won’t be leaving the University of Michigan with that elusive Big Ten championship ring he so craved. He won’t be leaving with a plethora of awards, nor a winning record against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. His legacy donning the iconic No. 77 jersey won’t be remembered as a winning one unlike the many linemen that have worn it before him.
But Lewan will leave Ann Arbor a better man and football player. And more importantly, a Michigan Man.
“Obviously it’s disappointing that we lost, but I can honestly say in confidence that I would never take it back, coming back. I love every single one of these guys,” Lewan said. “Just to be a part of these guy’s lives for one more year and teach them things they didn’t know, a little tricks of the trade of the game.
“Without a doubt, Michigan has a special place in my heart. And I love this place so much, regardless of records. I’ll always consider myself a Michigan man.”