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ROSE BOWL / Michigan 21, Washington State 16

Streets Leaves Fingerprints on Victory

Michigan: Receiver blocks out painful injuries to both hands and has two long touchdown receptions that spark Wolverines.

January 02, 1998|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Merely touching his swollen right ring finger made Michigan wide receiver Tai Streets grimace in pain, and he didn't bother trying to flex his left thumb because he knew it was too stiff to move much.

He had dislocated the thumb in October and the ring finger in November, playing much of the season in intense pain that would have driven most players to the sidelines. Streets, who had led the Wolverines in 1996 with 44 catches for 730 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore, started every game this season but his statistics declined and critics hounded him.

Streets didn't catch any passes against Minnesota, Penn State or Ohio State and he lost his status as the favorite target of quarterback Brian Griese, who began looking instead to Jerame Tuman and Chris Howard.

But on Thursday night, all of that was forgotten--all the criticism and the passes that had bounced off his gnarled fingers.

"I still can't bend them," Streets said, staring down at his hands as if they belonged to someone else. "But who cares?"

It didn't matter that his fingers had ballooned to the size of sausages. It mattered only that those fingers had been flexible enough to cradle two touchdown passes from Griese, a 53-yard play in the second quarter and a 58-yard play in the third, and help carry the Wolverines to a 21-16 victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl.

"I really didn't pay attention to what was said about me," said Streets, who silenced his critics Thursday with four catches for 127 yards. "We were undefeated, so I didn't care what anyone said about me. The important thing was that the team was playing well."

His efforts went a long way toward proving his courage--not to mention his versatility. Streets, who played guard on Michigan's basketball team last season, nearly stole the spotlight from another versatile athlete by the name of Charles Woodson.

"Tai made two great plays," Griese said. "He's been criticized all year, with people saying he can't go deep, but he came up with two great plays when we really needed them."

When his bad hands kept him from coming up with those big plays--his 24 catches ranked third on the team behind Howard and Tuman and his 349 yards ranked second to Tuman--Coach Lloyd Carr asked Streets if he wanted to sit out the final three games of the regular season. If he chose to play, he would have to conquer the pain. Streets decided to play; he dropped the only pass thrown to him against Penn State but caught five passes against Wisconsin before being blanked against Ohio State.

"Things didn't go well for him this season, but he blocked well and did the little things," Carr said. "And then he got healthy, and [on Thursday] he made two big, big plays.

"Tai Streets is a great football player. If you saw the fingers he played with, one on each hand, you'd be amazed. A lot of guys would not have played."

Streets downplayed his performance, crediting his teammates in general and Griese in particular. "Brian threw great passes, and our offensive line did a great job," he said. "Washington State gave us all we could handle. They played hard but we came through when it counted."

Streets came through for Michigan's first touchdown with 7:08 left in the second quarter. Racing along the right sideline, he easily outdistanced Cougar cornerback Ray Jackson, setting off a frenzy of maize and blue pompons from the Michigan contingent among the 101,219 fans.

After Washington State had pulled ahead, Streets catapulted Michigan back into the lead when Griese, seeing the Cougar defense looking for the run, found Streets downfield. After defensive back Dee Moronkola fell, Streets dashed into the end zone unchallenged.

"The first one, I just streaked," he said, "And Brian threw a great ball. On the second, it was play-action and Brian threw another great ball. That's why he's a great quarterback."

Streets has decided to skip basketball this season, so his fingers are likely to be healed by next season. Even if his hands are as supple as they used to be, he couldn't imagine having another day like Thursday--or another season like this one.

"I haven't had a bigger thrill than this in sports so far," he said. "I hope it gets better but I don't know how it could top this."

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