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I wasn’t sure what to expect as I was waiting to interview Mark Messner in Brighton, Michigan coffee shop earlier this summer. Often when you meet former players you’re a bit surprised that they are no longer the beast you remember from their playing days. Rest assured the two-time All-American who led Bo Schembechler’s defense from 1985-1987 is still an imposing guy. When I offered him the customary writer’s limp handshake I nearly lost my arm.
Messner cemented his legacy at U-M by dominating opposing offenses and setting records that stand over two decades later. And like many former Michigan athletes, Messner is clearly getting it done off the field. As market director for Canon, Messner leads a team of over sixty employees in the Midwest. He and wife Jennifer live in Hartland, MI with their four kids and two dogs that hint at a softer side to the former captain: a Bichon and a Yorkie.
We discussed a variety of topics but started with a look back the days just before he committed to wear the winged helmet:
GoBlueWolverine Magazine (GBW): How intense was the recruiting for you during your high school days?
Mark Messner (MM): It started as a junior and I was honored that I had schools like Indiana and Purdue sending me literature and saying they were interested. When it got to my senior year, I was leaning toward Indiana and then-coach Sam Wyche. Then in camp, I broke my collarbone. It put me out for the first four weeks of my senior year and at the time I was thinking, “I’m going to end up at Indiana…hopefully’.” But I did really well my senior year and ended up with an intense decision to make.
You were allowed only five recruiting visits and I got to choose from virtually every school, because they were all courting. It was a difficult choice. Michigan was certainly in that mix along with UCLA, Notre Dame, Indiana and Miami, Florida.
GBW: What about Michigan State? Being from Hartland, you were kind of on the dividing line between Spartan and Wolverine country.
MM: At first I didn’t really have Michigan State in the picture, but then it got interesting. I remember on a Wednesday Sam Wyche was in my living room. That Saturday I was up north with a high school buddy and it came out that Wyche was leaving to coach the Cincinnati Bengals. He was just in my house on Wednesday telling me how he’s in it for the long haul! So out goes Indiana and in goes Michigan State because I figured, why not take a look at a school in my own backyard?
GBW: Had Wyche stayed at Indiana would you have been a Hoosier?
MM: No. I kept them in there because the came after me initially and I was doing that out of loyalty. But when I was comparing schools I probably would have preferred Notre Dame, but I just could not deal with [head coach Gerry] Faust. Oh that guy was irritating [laughs].
Coming out Detroit Catholic Central I felt like Notre Dame was like a great big version of Catholic Central. Same type of songs, same type of environment and I just thought that was the cat’s meow.
I was never a big Michigan guy. I could have gone to Michigan State. But after meeting Faust I came back from Notre Dame saying, “I could not go to work for that person.”
GBW: So you weren’t a big U-M guy, how did Michigan get into the picture?
MM: I came back from my visit to UCLA, it was late December 1984. My folks picked me up at the airport and I told them on the way home that I was going to be a Bruin. I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t go there. My parents were both happy and sad. UCLA had the most beautiful campus I had ever seen. People on campus are lying around in bathing suits on manicured lawns studying. I couldn’t imagine why I wouldn’t go there.
But Coach Moeller and Coach Bo knew UCLA was my last visit. So when my parents and I pulled up the house on the way back from the airport, there was this Delta 88 by the side of the driveway. It was like 9 o’clock at night and getting dark. The doors of the car opened up and out stepped Moeller and Bo.
Bo walks over, hands me a tape and says [Messner in perfect Bo voice]: “You’re a Michigan man and you belong at Michigan.” That was it. He didn’t come in the house, they just took off. I couldn’t believe he came back up there.
I was in bed that night and I was thinking about the big picture, because now the recruiting was over. I told [Coach Terry] Donahue before I left UCLA that I was a Bruin. I didn’t sign anything, but I did tell him that I couldn’t see how I’m not a Bruin.
My dad was fighting cancer at the time. I was thinking, “Wow, I’ve got Michigan in my backyard. How many games might my dad be able to see at UCLA?” So I did the very manly thing as a young adult: I called in the middle of the night and told UCLA I wasn’t coming knowing there’d be no way they’d answer the phone [laughs]. In the morning I told my mom and dad that I formalized everything and told them I’d be a Wolverine. My mom, being a mom, said, “I thought they were called Bruins.” I told her, “Mom, I’m going to Michigan.”
GBW: You mentioned your dad’s cancer during the recruiting process, was he able to see you play at Michigan?
MM: That was the amazing thing, he held out all the way through college. When I was a rookie with the Rams my sister called and said, “You better get home, it’s not looking good.” I was like, “Really? Let me talk to him.” My sister told me he couldn’t talk anymore.
So I went to talk to coach [John] Robinson and said I need to head home and take a leave of absence. They said they understood and let me go. I actually came off the roster and off the payroll for three weeks. He died the first week I was back and a week after that I helped take care of the arrangements. Meanwhile the Rams were about to hit the playoffs and the team was like, “Mark, we’re sorry but get your tail back here.” I flew back, finished the season and made it all the way to the NFC championship game.
GBW: Obviously you had a lot of success at Michigan, but how do you look back at that decision today? Any regrets about missing out on the bathing suits in LA?
MM: I couldn’t have been happier, other than for my freshman year. My redshirt year they had me at outside linebacker behind Rodney Lyles and Jim Scarcelli and that crew. I got my tail kicked.
I was a noseguard in high school and all of a sudden I’m a stand up guy, and I hadn’t done that before. I’m going against guys like Eric Kattus who went to the Bengals and I was just getting throttled every day. I’m like, “I’m really glad I picked Michigan.” I started thinking about going to summer school so I could graduate in four and get out of there [laughs].
But then Kevin Brooks graduated and was the number one pick by Dallas, and they told me they wanted me as a defensive tackle opposite Mike Hammerstein. For spring ball they moved me to that position and I look up and there’s Jumbo Elliott. Son of a bitch! Every day in practice I’ve got that animal coming right in front of me and he’s thinking, “I’ve got a rookie!”
GBW: You hear all kinds of stories about the recruitment of big time players. Given you could have gone anywhere, did you see any “funny business” while you were recruited?
MM: Man, I wish [laughs]. I hear all the stories. I never got a hundred dollar handshake. I never even got a sock that said Michigan on it. Nothing. I hear about guys saying their grandparents got a house or whatever. Where the heck was that when I was recruited? [laughs]
GBW: We’re starting to see students arrive on campus that might not remember Bo, certainly not during his coaching days. Is there something unique you remember about Bo?
MM: Bo had a very protective media persona. He was standoffish and harsh toward the media, and that’s what a lot of people saw, but inside he was one of the most caring and long-term developers of men that I’ve ever met.
I was privileged to be one of his captains. After practice you’re sitting in his office and he asking about the team chemistry, about problem kids, about which kids need help getting their degrees. As the captain you are rattling off the guys that are struggling, or aren’t feeling confident or not sure if they are going to stay with the squad and so on. Bo wanted special emphasis on these players because he really cared about guys.
GBW: As leaders on the team, did you have to self-police the other players?
MM: We would police guys breaking rules on campus. I remember when Brad Cochran was our captain; one of the kickers was out the night before when we were going to be at Campus Inn. We had a strict internal policy against it. Brad got a phone call to let him know that one of the players was up at Rick’s. He stormed right up there, grabbed him and told him, “Sorry bud, you’re not playing tomorrow.” It was stuff like that and guys skipping class.
I remember one day I took the socks from practice because I need some socks [laughs]. The next day I was getting dressed for practice and I had no socks. I practiced without socks. [Equipment manager] Jon Falk told me, “Listen son, that’s an NCAA violation. I can not let you have them. I can’t replace them. If you bring me an old pair of socks I’ll give you a new pair but you’re not leaving this building with our t-shirts, shorts or socks.”
I had to bring the damn socks back so I could have socks for practice. That’s how strict they were. I’m proud of that.
GBW: Speaking of being captain, Coach Rodriguez had you down last year as an honorary captain. How was that experience?
MM: I came down for the Illinois game and it’s a neat thing. You come in and have breakfast with the team at the Campus Inn, just like for home games when I played. You sit with the coach and the staff for breakfast. You ride the bus over to the stadium and you hang out in the locker room and take the field for warm-ups.
GBW: Did you address the team at all?
MM: You were allowed to if you wanted to, but I did not. For my first exposure to Rod I wanted to see and hear and how he did the pre-game talk, like Bo used to. He’s really not that type of guy. He talked about playing with pride and the privilege of being here and all that, and then he turns and goes. The strength and conditioning coordinator, Barwis, now he’s the rah-rah guy. Woo! [laughs] He had me ready to suit up again and go.
- Greg Dooley is a GoBlueWolverine special writer. Dooley also contributes to MVictors.com, a website covering the culture and history of Michigan athletics. He can be reached at email@example.com.