10 - The Michigan Daily - Kickoff '99 - Thursday, September 9, 1999
Thursday, September 9, 1999 - K
One tailback has battled nagging injuries during his first two seasons.
The other is sidelined for the year after having complicated leg surgery.
Anthony Thomas and Justin Fargas have certainly endured their share of...
First he was the kicking-game savior Then he was the kicking-game cripple. Now
By Andy Latack U Daily Sports Editor
e two men exit through the auto-
matic doors and step out onto the
sidewalk, their eyes squinting
against the persistent August sun. One of
them adjusts a duffel bag on his broad
shoulders, and they set out into the street.
As they cross, Anthony Thomas and
Justin Fargas walk close to one another,
but they couldn't be farther apart.
Thomas leads the way, one of Fargas'
cumbersome bags doing little to slow his
easy, gliding steps. Behind him, Fargas
walks gingerly, his jeans swelling around
his lower right leg, where a cast still
remains nine months after he shattered
the bone in two places.
T homas is clad in a Michigan foot-
ball shirt, mesh shorts and athletic shoes,
never far away from a workout. lie looks
fit and athletic.
A few steps behind him, Fargas'
smaller frame is draped with a long-
sleeve shirt and jeans, as if bracing for
some unseasonable cold. The cast makes
him walk with an uneven, staggering
It is less than a week before
Michigan's first practice. Thomas is
meeting Fargas' flight as it arrives in Ann
Arbor. Now, trudging single-file across
an oil-stained crosswalk at Detroit's
Metro Airport, is the present and future
of Michigan's running game.
But those roles are mutually exclusive.
Thomas is the present.
And Fargas is the future because,
well, there is no present for Fargas.
This study in contrast eventually dis-
appears from sight. And while they both
play the same position, Thomas and
Fargas are at very different points in their
A year ago, the tandem was looked
upon as the arrival of Michigan's next
great offensive backfield. Thomas was
coming off 1997's national champi-
onship season in which he was named
Big Ten freshman of the year, and was a.
talented blend of speed and power.
Fargas was considered by some the top
running back prospect in the nation, and
would counter Thomas' bruising style
with lightning quickness and finesse.
But Thomas struggled for most of the
regular season, rushing for less than 40
yards in five of Michigan's first 10
games. The injuries that Thomas could
ignore during his freshman season final-
ly caught up with him. An offseason
appendectomy, coupled with groin,
shoulder and ankle problems, limited
Thomas' effectiveness for much of the
"The past two years, there was
always something wrong with me,"
Thomas said. "If it wasn't one thing, it
It was one of Thomas' numerous
injuries that allowed Fargas to break out
during his freshman season, starting the
Northwestern game when Thomas was
forced to sit out with an ankle injury.
To say Fargas answered the call
would be an understatement. In what
looked more like an old black-and-white
game film from the '30s, Fargas trashed
his flashy, West-Coast style in favor of
blue-collar Big Ten football.
Playing in a torrential downpour that
made any type of air attack fruitless,
Fargas took control of the ground game,
carrying a workmanlike 31 times for 120
yards. It would be the most carries by
any back last season, and earned Fargas
a start the following game against
But then, during garbage time three
weeks later in a win over Wisconsin,
Fargas got twisted around in a pile-up.
He snapped the bone in his right leg in
two places, ending his season. He was
forced to watch Michigan's final three
games - including its Citrus Bowl vic-
tory - from the sidelines. He figured it
would be the last game he'd see from that
The way Thomas is listing body
parts, you'd think he was studying for a
"Appendix, hand, ankle, shoulder,"
he rattles off, naming only some of the
places he's been injured since arriving
here as a freshman. "I've had so much
stuff, I'd be here listing all day."
Which is something Thomas can't
afford to do. As the leading member on a
depleted cast of running backs, Thomas'
time is most certainly now. And he has
prepared himself to be the featured -
and only - back for the Wolverines this
He has been doing so since the off-
season, engaging in a strenuous program
that not only got him in the best shape he
has been in since he arrived here, but
also has him completely injury-free for
the first time.
Think Thomas is ready to carry the
load this year? In the season opener
against Notre Dame, he rushed a career-
high 32 times for 138 yards. Thomas car-
ried the ball on every Michigan rushing
play but one, and earned Big Ten offen-
sive player of the week honors in the
Thomas' previous best mark for car-
ries was 21 in last year's Citrus Bowl, a
testament to how durable the new-and-
improved Thomas is this season.
"When you go in with a clean bill of
health, that makes you feel a lot better
than when you're going in thinking, 'Aw,
By Josh Kleinbaum U Daily Sports Editor
South Bend, Ind., Sept. 5, 1998
The cars parading to Notre Dame
Stadium are backed up for miles,
some bearing flags with the
Michigan block M, others bearing
bumper stickers talking about the
luck of the Irish, all packed with
football fans primed to see the pre-
mier September rivalry in college
Michigan fans stroll the sidewalks
with T-shirts telling others to "Pooh
on the Irish," complete with a picture
of Winnie. Notre Dame fans are
trash-talking about how Michigan
can't even win its own national title,
but has to share it - with people
who husk corn, no less.
But amidst the thousands of peo-
ple waiting to see defending national
champion Michigan take on perenial
powerhouse Notre Dame, not one is
thinking that the outcome of the
ball. He sends it hurtling through the
air, a low, tumbling line drive. The
kick doesn't look as though it is trav-
elling that far, but sure enough, 45
yards down the field, it splits the
uprights right down the middle.
Sitting in the stands, a fan in a
Michigan jersey stands up and raises
his arms, signaling that the field
goal was good.
But no one else seems to notice.
None of the 111,523 fans filing into
the stadium understand just how
miraculous - or how important to
the Michigan football team - it is
that Epstein is on the field, kicking.
Just over three months earlier,
Epstein tumbled while doing sprints
to keep in shape in his Cardiff, Calif.
hometown. His knee buckled, his
Anterior Cruciate Ligament tore and,
because of the nature of the injury,
the first placekicker ever given a
Anthony Thomas displayed the benefits of his offseason conditioning program with
his blue-collar outing against Notre Dame, carrying the ball a career-high 32 times.
my hip's already hurting,"' Thomas said.
And don't think his teammates
haven't noticed. They can see as well as
Thomas can that the back is poised to do
some big things this year.
"I told him before the (Notre Dame)
game, 'Anthony, this is your show,"' full-
back Evan Coleman said. "'Go do what
you've got to do."'
And when Thomas did what he did,
Michigan running backs coach Fred
Jackson wasn't surprised. Rather than
looking like a man who has a depth
problem on his hands in the weeks lead-
ing up to the season, Jackson more
resembled someone who knew some-
thing everyone else didn't.
But now the cat is out of the bag.
"His muscle tone is unbelievable
right now," Jackson said. "I really think
he paid a price to be ready this fall. What
I see is a kid who's ready to go.
"Now, it's his time to be a leader,"
Jackson said. "He understands that, and
he understands what we expect from a
leader at that position. I really feel that
he's set to have a super season."
As .Jackson is saying this, Justin
Fargas is at the other end of Michigan
Stadium. It is the Wolverines' annual
meet-the-team day, and while the rest of
his teammates are putting on their maize
and blue game uniforms for the first time
this season, Fargas is merely clad in
sweats and his jersey. His cast still juts
out from his lower pant leg, and it draws
cursory glances from well-wishers as
they approach him.
They had heard about Fargas' slow
progress after the injury. About how the
bone wasn't healing correctly, making
another surgery necessary a few months
later that would cause him to miss this
year as well. How his toes had atrophied
because his leg had been in a cast for so
long, requiring even more surgery in
August. How he hasn't run - those
quick, graceful strides that teased fans
last season - for nine months.
"You'll get 'em next year, Justin,"
one of the fans predicts.
"Thanks for the Northwestern
game," another says.
"Sure," Fargas replies with a smile.
Taking a break from the hordes of
fans, Fargas takes a minute to add his
take on this season's version of Thomas.
. "A-Train's going to have a great
year," Fargas said, looking across the
field at Thomas, who is surrounded by
fans in replicas of his jersey. "I can
already see he's worked really hard, and
he's ready to take over."
Unlike his counterpart in the back-
field, Fargas' time is not now. He is just
starting to rehab, lift weights, and try to
locate the dazzling quickness he knows
is still there. So he lingers for a while,
shaking hands and taking pictures. The
flow of autograph-seekers is constant.
After all, they know he's going to be
After the first week of practice,
I was ready to go for it 011every
-Michigan mcach [1oyd Carr
walked on to their college football
team and won themselves a job.
The second school of thought
teaches that kicking is too important
of a position to rely on walk-ons.
Although kickers only touch the ball
a few times a game, the outcome fre-
quently lies on their legs. Coaches
want the security of a strong, accu-
rate leg they can rely on.
Michigan had always been a walk-
on school. Every kicker to ever play
on Michigan's team, from Baker to
Mike Gillette to Bob Wood, was
originally a walk-on. They may have
eventually been given a scholarship,
but not at first.
And then came the '90s. Except
for Remy Hamilton, Michigan's only
All-American placekicker, this
decade has been a kicking disaster.
Six times this decade, the
Wolverines have dropped a game, or
at least a shot at winning the game,
because of the kicker.
Here are the lowlights:
Every Michigan fan remembers
Oct. 13, 1990, for the failed, final-
second two-point conversion where
Desmond Howard was pulled to
ground by Michigan State corner-
back Eddie Brown as Howard tried
to grab an Elvis Grbac pass in the
end zone. Every Michigan fan
remembers the stale taste from the
28-27 loss to the Spartans, and the
fall from the top of the Associated
Press poll. But not every Michigan
fan remembers the failed kick in the
final seconds of the first half, the
one that would have made the two-
point conversion moot. After the
game, Michigan coach Gary Moeller
called J.D. Carlson's missed 28-
yarder "ridiculous." And it was.
On October 7, 1995, Remy
Hamilton missed a 37-yard field
goal attempt that would have given
Michigan a commanding 16-6 lead
over Northwestern. Instead, it was
the Wildcats who hit a field goal on
the ensuing possession, cutting the
lead to 13-9. Michigan didn't score
again, and the Wildcats won their
first game in Ann Arbor in 36 years,
After hitting 14 consecutive
field goal attempts, Hamilton missed
the final try of his college
career, a 48 yarder in
the fourth quarter
of the Outback
Bowl on New
1997. H ad
b e e n
coupled with Michigan's final-
minute touchdown, the Wolverines
would have had a shot to win the
game with a two-point conversion.
Instead, they fell, 17-14.
But possibly worse than those
games were the entire 1992 and 1993
seasons. Moeller had such little faith
in his kicking game that during those
two years, he routinely went for the
first down or punted in fourth-down
situations. Against Wisconsin on
Oct. 30, 1993 the Wolverines found
themselves in a fourth-and-eight
from Wisconsin's 28 yard line, trail-
ing by just three points. But Moeller
opted to go for the first down,
Michigan failed to convert, and the
Badgers won, 13-10.
So, before the 1998 season, Lloyd
Carr and his coaching staff made a
philosophical change - they gave
Hayden Epstein a scholarship.
The decision was so abrupt that
Epstein, an All-American place-
kicker in high school, hadn't
received a single recruiting letter
from Michigan before his senior
year. But when he did, he jumped at
So imagine Carr's reaction when
his prize investment, Epstein, went
down with the knee injury.
"After the first week of
practice, I was ready
to go for it on every
fourth down," Carr
said. "But we will
Epstein was the
not the team. And,
to the world's sur-
prise, he did.
"Every day, my
doctor and personal
trainer told me I
could do new
said. We pushed
it a little far-
game might hinge on the leg of
Despite a dominating first half in
which Michigan outplayed the Irish
in pretty much every aspect of the
game, the Wolverines hold just a 13-
6 lead, keeping the door open for the
Irish. Why? Baker missed two field
goals, one from 33 yards and one
from 43 yards.
Still in the game, the Irish come
out of the lockerroom inspired and
score 17 unanswered third-quarter
points. The Irish win the game going
away, 36-20. Baker loses his starting
job and Michigan loses its hopes of
repeating the national title.
Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor,
Sept. 4, 1999, half-hour before game
Hayden Epstein sets a football on
a tee at the 35-yard line. He takes
three steps backward, two steps to
the left and starts his run towards the
Michigan football scholarship
straight out of high school was lost
for his entire sophomore season.
Then how could he be standing
there, kicking field goals, just three
When it comes to recruiting place-
kickers, there are two schools of
thought in Division I football. The
first argues that giving a placekicker
a scholarship out of high school is
simply wasting a scholarship, for
several reason. In high school, field
goals are kicked off of a tee, as
opposed to the college game, where
a teammate has to hold the ball.
Kicking off of a tee is much easier,
and some great tee-kickers are
unsuccessful with a holder. Also,
many of the best college kickers
were soccer players in high school,
d a y s
Justin Fargas, shown during last year's 120-yard performance at Northwestern,
will spend the year rehabilitating his right leg in an effort to get his strength back.