The Wolverine

May 2021 Issue

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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MAY 2021 THE WOLVERINE 61 BY JOHN BORTON F ormer Michigan defensive back Brian Smalls insists he'll never re- gret his decision to become a Wolver- ine. It led him to other judgments that will affect untold lives going forward. Smalls touched down in late Feb- ruary as the first full-time African- American judge in the history of Williamsburg, Va., and James City County. His appointment to the bench for the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court culminates more than a decade in the legal pro- fession, as both a prosecutor and de- fense attorney. He played defense even earlier, lin- ing up at cornerback for Lloyd Carr's strong 1999-2000 squads. Smalls be- came entrenched in maize and blue long before that. His father and mother arrived in Ann Arbor in 1976, his dad attend- ing dental school. He earned his de- gree in 1981, and Brian arrived on the planet that same year. The Morgan State grads soaked up the Ann Arbor athletic atmosphere, and it rubbed off. "He just became infatuated with Michigan sports," Smalls said of his father. "Growing up, that was what I knew. Blue just kind of ran through my veins. A lot of people's dreams are to play in the NFL or NBA. Mine was to play at the University of Michigan." Smalls recalled that in 1991, his mother converted old costume NFL jerseys and helmets for suitable Hal- loween use. "She painted them with the Michi- gan colors," Smalls said. "That Hal- loween, both me and my brother went as Desmond Howard." Smalls eventually stood out on a Lafayette (Va.) High football squad that made it to the state champion- ship game. He received next-level interest from Navy, William & Mary, the University of Richmond and some smaller schools, but his heart remained in Ann Arbor. A family friend, Detroit Police De- partment detective Tom Moss, de- livered a game-changing heads up. Moss noted the Wolverines were seeking walk-on special teams play- ers, and Smalls sent in a tape. "One day I came home from school, and the phone rings," he recalled. "I pick up the phone and on the other end is Bobby Morrison. Bobby was coaching special teams and was the recruiting coordinator. "He said, 'Hey, we saw your film, we like you, and we'd like to offer you a spot as a walk-on.' Of course, I'm super excited at this point." The offer came with a catch. NCAA rules allowed only 105 players in the mix when fall camp opened. Michi- gan had already filled 105 spots, so Smalls could come for several days of freshman two-a-days, before the vet- erans arrived. Then he'd have to re- turn to Virginia and rejoin the squad when school began. Smalls convinced his dad to send him north, and he spent those fresh- man two-a-days under the watch- ful eye of Michigan defensive backs coach Teryl Austin. "I had a flight scheduled to leave and come back to Virginia on Thurs- day," Smalls recalled. "Well, by Tues- day afternoon, Coach Austin pulled me to the side and said, 'Hey, we want you to stick around for two-a- days.' I'm head over heels. Of course, I'm just happy to be there." Michigan coveted Smalls' speed and quickness for running demon- stration team quarterback, giving looks for upcoming games against Notre Dame, Rice and Syracuse. "I had never played quarterback in my life," he noted. "I went from catching a flight on Thursday to call- ing my parents and saying, 'Hey, I'm not coming home. You guys are go- ing to have to pack up my stuff and move it to Ann Arbor for me.'" Austin cautioned Smalls up front to not expect an on-field role come game day, with James Whitley, Todd Howard and capable backups al- ready on hand. Late in the season, when the Wol- verines were swamping Northwest- ern, 37-3, Smalls made his debut. "Coach Carr grabbed me and told me to go in," Smalls recalled. "You talk about a phenomenal experience, to step on the field there at Michigan Stadium. That was a dream come true for me, to get that opportunity and do it as a true freshman. "I will always remember and cher- ish that moment. I made a tackle. I also remember thinking I was much closer to my man in coverage than I was. But when I went back and looked, I was probably playing 15 yards off the guy. The last thing you want to do is get beat on a play like that." The 1999 season, of course, left U-M two touchdowns away from a perfect season. Sophomore whiz Drew Henson and the yet-to-be- announced greatest signal-caller in football history, Tom Brady, com- peted at quarterback. "That was a quarterback battle, if there ever was one," Smalls said. "They duked it out all of camp. You're expecting at some point that somebody's going to pull ahead, but it never happened." Eventually, it did, and Brady — after gut-wrenching close losses to Michigan State and Illinois — led the Wolverines to wins over Penn State, Ohio State and Alabama to close the season in stunning fashion. "Michigan State's still upset about it, but we got the nod to go to the Or- ange Bowl that year," Smalls pointed out. "We had that epic game against Alabama — that was a really fun experience." Smalls came to Michigan as a walk-on, and he saw game action in 1999 and 2000 as a defensive back and on special teams. PHOTO COURTESY MICHIGAN ATHLETICS   WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Brian Smalls Stands Ready For Weightier Decisions

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