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ROSE BOWL: MICHIGAN 22, USC 14 : BRAWNY, BRAINY : Messner, the Leader of Michigan's Grunts, Also Can Talk a Pretty Good Game

January 03, 1989|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

You expect different things from Mark Messner, the leader of a Michigan defensive pack that shut down a vaunted USC offense in the second half of Monday's 75th Rose Bowl.

Messner is, after all, a defensive tackle. As a matter of fact, he is probably the best defensive tackle ever to play at Michigan. Lots of people who are experts in this sort of thing said so on a regular basis this season.

He has started every game for Michigan since his freshman year. He was a first-team All-American this year on most of those teams selected, including the Associated Press team. He had 26 tackles for losses his senior year, including 1 in Monday's game. That's a Michigan record.

He sacked quarterbacks 8 times this season, only a slight fall-off from his team record 11 in 1985. And he hasn't always reserved his aggressiveness for opponents, having put three teammates out of commission over the years with inadvertent exuberance--two with broken legs in practice and one, a knee injury, in pregame warmups.

So, the expectation upon meeting and interviewing Messner is that of some fire-breathing dragon. You're not sure if he will talk to reporters or eat them. You expect him to have more hair coming out of his nose than growing on his head; you expect that he won't take his uniform off like everybody else, but simply inhale and split it down the middle.

But what you get is kind of a combination Dennis the Menace and Henry David Thoreau, a philosopher with a cowlick.

"What a great day this is, a great day, indeed," Messner said afterward, while surrounded by a group of men and women, pens and pads in hand, awaiting some Dees and Dems and Does plus spittle on their shoetops.

"This is a dream come true, to be captain of a championship team like this. When you are recruited at Michigan, they show you the films of the 1981 team that won the Rose Bowl, and you think about how great that would be, to be part of something like that, to share in that sort of thing with teammates whom you are so close to.

"But you never, just never, expect it to be like this."

In a Michigan defense that is designed for the tackles to contain things and the linebackers to make most of the tackles, Messner had 5 tackles against USC, 4 of them unassisted. Which made the philosopher self-effacing, too.

"I didn't have a real great day, individually," he said. "But then, I didn't think I would. That's not the way we design our defense, nor is USC an easy team to play against."

But Michigan's defense clearly had a great day, holding USC to 45 yards rushing and 110 passing in the second half. And Messner clearly is the leader of that group.

"I think he is the best I've ever played against," said John Guerrero, USC's 320-pound offensive tackle. "He's real quick. I rate guys by the number of plays they make, and I've got to take my hat off to him. Yes, he's the best--maybe one of the two best I've gone against, along with Frank Stamms of Notre Dame."

Afterward, Messner's mind was on Notre Dame, too. Michigan lost its opener to the national champion Fighting Irish by 2 points, then lost to then No. 1 Miami the next week by 1.

"I think we were this far (holding up his thumb and forefinger) from being No. 1," He said. "And If we played Michigan football all year like we were capable of, we would have made it.

"But Notre Dame deserves it. They are a great program, an honest program."

Messner said his team's turnaround in the second half, after appearing to be outmanned in the first and trailing, 14-3, had a recent precedent.

"I was thinking how much this reminded me of the 1985 Fiesta Bowl against Nebraska," he said. "We had the same kind of slow first half, and we were behind. Then, we came out in the second half and controlled things and won the game. Same kind of day, same kind of game, actually."

Messner's father, Max, played for three teams in the National Football League. But Messner is closer to another role model, his step-father, Del Pretty. Pretty has been described as a soft-spoken, silver-haired man. He runs a piano store in Livonia, Mich., and was among the reasons Messner decided to stay in his home area, rather than come to the West Coast and play for UCLA, which for a while was his first choice.

Eight years ago, Pretty was diagnosed as having cancer and wasn't expected to live this long. But his cancer has been in remission for quite some time, and the fact that he didn't attend the Rose Bowl had nothing to do with his own illness, but that of his mother.

"I would have liked it if he had been here," Messner said, "but I can tell you this: he is the happiest man in the world right now, next to me. He's back home right now, doing cartwheels.

"You know, there is just no way to describe this feeling. This has just been the greatest time of my life. And to have it end like this, well . . . "

Well, indeed. Hail to Michigan, and to its 235-pound gentle giant, an Aristotle in a jockstrap.

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