January 10, 2013

Borton's Blog: His own man

Taylor Lewan had to take the money and run. He absolutely had to bolt for the NFL. Only in the end, he didn't.

He didn't have to, like so many insisted he did. He didn't have to, just because many urged it would be crazy to figuratively shove millions back across the table and say, "No thanks … see you next year."

Lewan didn't have to do anything, except precisely what he wanted to do - experience one more year in college. Try to win a Big Ten championship for the program that has won more Big Ten championships than anyone.

Pull on the winged helmet. Touch the banner. Laugh with friends. Play ball without a contract hanging over his head, remaining a year removed from the lucrative meat market known as the National Football League.

Once Lewan revealed his little secret, he couldn't keep the grin off his face. Those thinking he's insane, that he had to go once told he'd be a high first-round draft pick, just don't get it, he assured.

They've never played for Michigan. They've never experienced a program that makes delayed millionaire status not only a possibility, but the most desirable option.

Bo Schembechler said it best, during one of the most legendary locker room speeches of all time: "Because you can go into professional football, you can go anywhere you want to play after you leave here. You will never play for a Team again. You'll play for a contract. You'll play for this. You'll play for that. You'll play for everything except the team, and think what a great thing it is to be a part of something that is, The Team."

Lewan thought about it. He talked about it to former U-M All-American Jake Long, another Michigan left tackle who stayed for a fifth year before becoming a $60-million man with his first NFL contract. Long didn't tell him he should stay, but offered, when asked, a long list of reasons why he stayed.

Lewan thought about Jon Jansen, the two-time offensive line captain that followed the same course to fifth-year senior status. He considered Steve Hutchinson, the All-American and four-time All-Big Ten lineman who understood that riches could wait.

Brady Hoke said Lewan wanted to be in the same conversation with those players someday. Now, he will be.

Somebody mentioned Lewan "holding his own" against South Carolina monster Jadeveon Clowney in the moments following the Outback Bowl. It was intended as a compliment, or at least a nod to a solid effort.

Lewan looked like he'd been slapped. Any satisfaction over that description, he countered, is "crap."

"I didn't come to Michigan to 'hold my own,'" Lewan said. "You come to Michigan to dominate. You come to Michigan as an offensive lineman to dominate."

He didn't come to Michigan to leave without a Big Ten championship ring. Lewan knows that could certainly still happen, but he's planning to do everything in his power to end the Wolverines' eight-year title drought.

He'll make a difference in so many ways. Featuring an All-American at left tackle rather than a rookie represents in itself a massive leap forward. Plus, the offensive line talent Michigan is stockpiling is now fighting for three open spots, rather than four. Competition (and therefore performance) just ramped up.

Lewan has been through enough wars to guide the next group of offensive linemen in what's to come, from offseason workouts right into the fall. Mark it down - he'll be a captain, and a highly motivated one.

Maybe he heard the rest of Schembechler's words ringing in his ears: "We're gonna win it. We're gonna win the championship again because we're gonna play as team, better than anybody else in this conference, we're gonna play together as a team. We're gonna believe in each other, we're not gonna criticize each other, we're not gonna talk about each other, we're gonna encourage each other. And when we play as a team, when the old season is over, you and I know, it's gonna be Michigan again … Michigan."

Maybe Lewan will be rewarded with that ring, maybe not. But either way, he's leaving a mark. He's telling everyone he doesn't have to merely chase dollars at the first opportunity. He doesn't have to fall in lockstep with everyone else's plan.

Some don't understand that. They think he's nuts. And Lewan is okay with that.

"If I do what I need to do, I will be able to play in the NFL for however long," he assured. "But you only get one more year of college."

He plans to thoroughly enjoy that year. And he'll make it known, he's not coming back to finish second.

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