Michigan's Devin Gardner beaten, but not broken

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Devin Gardner reacts to a fourth-quarter interception in last year's game against Michigan State.

Ann Arbor — Devin Gardner has had his ego bruised, but his body has endured worse.

Gardner, Michigan's fifth-year senior quarterback, has, through the course of his long career here, learned about leadership and faith. He has learned about playing with pain and exhibiting toughness. And he has learned that while he might be the subject of wide-ranging criticism, he can look beyond that with a clear vision of what's important and whose opinion matters.

As the Wolverines prepare to play Saturday at No. 8 Michigan State, Gardner, who took a physical pounding in the loss to the Spartans last season as evidenced by the seven sacks they delivered, has a renewed sense of self and understanding.

"You can only control what you control," Gardner said recently. "You can't control anything else. I can't control if a coach wants to bench me. I can't control tipped passes. I try to control the things I can control."

Gardner has been able to control pain to a certain degree.

He played almost the entire second half against archrival Ohio State last November on a broken sesamoid bone in his left foot. Although small, it is a weight-bearing bone under the big toe. And in Michigan's last game Oct. 11 against Penn State, he sprained his left ankle and after sitting out two series, demanded to get back in the game. He returned to lead the Wolverines to a much-needed victory that snapped a three-game losing streak.

He said Monday he practiced full-go on Sunday and the ankle feels as good as it was before the injury.

"You can't not feel the pain," Gardner said. "The thing is, it's mind over matter. You have to ignore it. Try to ignore it. You can't compare a sprain to a broken bone, but high-ankle sprains are pretty bad. They hurt pretty bad. The Ohio game was different. This game, too, if I had to run, I would have been able to do it. If I had to, if it was third and seven and they gave me a lane to run, I was going to do it."

He believes he's a tough kid because his older siblings made him that way, picking on him, making him cry, picking on him some more, making him cry, until he learned not to cry. He also has read a lot. Former NFL coach Tony Dungy has written about not complaining, because that accomplishes nothing.

So Gardner won't complain.

He didn't complain when coach Brady Hoke uttered those five words, "I'm going to start Shane." When Gardner was told Morris would start the Big Ten opener against Minnesota, it certainly wasn't what he wanted to hear, but he pressed on, smiling, and encouraging. And not complaining.

"It was probably the hardest thing in my life," Gardner said of being benched. "That was pretty hard just putting in so much work and earning everybody's trust and my teammates believing that at any point I could break one, make a play. Not being able to play was awful for me. I know that."

He took all the practice reps with the second string that week.

But Gardner wouldn't complain. After nearly two seasons as the starter, he has learned how to lead by example.

"I just try to help my teammates, and I knew they'd be watching me," he said. "I knew coming in on Sunday, they're going to say, 'What's Devin going to do? How's Devin going to respond?' I felt I responded the best anybody could ever respond. I was helpful in practice, upbeat, just trying to keep the energy in practice. It felt like I was going to start. And then when it came to the game against Minnesota, it's like, I'm not going to start. I took a step back and was like, 'Wow, I'm not playing this game. But I treated it as if I was.

"I feel like it made me a little hungrier, for sure. I was very upset. I did my best not showing that to my teammates. My teammates were kind of confused, like, 'You're a fifth-year senior, you got benched, why are you so OK with it?' I'm not big on sulking and complaining. I don't understand why people complain, so that's why I don't complain."

Gardner, who gets great joy being with his six-month-old nephew, Grady, who lives in Ann Arbor, regularly attends Athletes in Action meetings and Bible study. After the season opener, he attended a prayer session and the scripture that day was James 1:2-4, which focused on handling trials in life and developing perseverance.

"It says to counter with joy any time you face adversity," Gardner said.

Throughout the next few weeks at various meetings or Bible studies, the scripture kept coming up, and he took it as a sign of an approach he needs to embrace.

"I thought, 'All right, there has to be something to it,' " Gardner said. "People are going to be confused why you're happy or why you can withstand scrutiny. I just think it shows your worth is not based on what other people think. Your worth is way bigger than that.

"I feel like that's what's helped me tremendously, you know, being benched, or not playing as well or playing well. I feel like I've been able to handle it. Before I used to think I'm going to be unshaken because I'm going to be a tough guy. When it comes to the spiritual aspect, I was brought up that way, and that's actually how you're supposed to be."

To be sure, his faith has been tested.

Last season, his first as the full-time starter, Gardner spoke about the hate email and Twitter posts he received. This year has been just as bad, if not worse, and he estimated he's received at least 1,000 negative comments via Twitter and Instagram.

"I've been called the N-word so many times this year," Gardner said. "One guy told me I was the N-word, and said I know N-words can't play quarterback. And I was like, are we not past this? Say what you want about my skill, but come on."

Undoubtedly, if Michigan was winning, this probably wouldn't be an issue. But the Wolverines are 3-4 heading into Michigan State and Gardner has thrown eight interceptions and six touchdowns.

Taking a beating

Michigan lost 29-6 to the Spartans a year ago during their march to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl.

The Wolverines were physically manhandled.

"The thing was, for what it was, I watched the game, and I felt like I played as well as I could possibly play," Gardner said. "I'd make the first guy miss, second guy miss, and the other guys would just come. They play hard. They're a good football team. They play really, really hungry.

"That's the thing about them. I got hit a lot in that game. And (former Spartan linebacker) Denicos Allen is probably the best player I've ever played against. He's one of the most aggressive players, and I was so surprised he didn't get drafted."

Gardner was hit often last season, mainly because of a weak offensive line.

"We didn't play well," center Jack Miller said of the Michigan State game. "Last year was last year, it wasn't good for a number of reasons (that game and that season). Any time your quarterback takes hits like that … last year we weren't playing well as an offensive line."

Despite the pounding Gardner took last season, he said he got over it quickly.

"It got to me sometimes, but in the Michigan State game, it didn't," he said. "I was past the point of getting hit. That stopped after UConn. I was past the point I'm thinking, 'I'm going to get hit.' I was going to have to make plays when I could make plays and take advantage of opportunities I was going to get. I felt like I did a good job of that, and I feel like this year I've done well and taking hits and persevering and standing in the pocket or getting out of the pocket when I can."

Finding a way

He can laugh now about how tough it is to play quarterback when the hits keep coming.

"It's hard to play effectively when you're continuously getting hit," Gardner said. "But that's the situation we're in. And my guys are trying as hard as they can, so I can't ask for anything else. I've just got to find a way, which I'm trying to do each week, so the stats aren't going to be there sometimes. It's just finding ways to win, that's it."

Michigan has five more games this season and needs to win at least three to become bowl eligible. How does Gardner see the rest of the season going?

"Every game is winnable. I feel we can win every game," he said. "Some people say it and don't believe it. I believe we can win every single game. I feel we're hitting our stride on offense. I feel if I hadn't been hurt in that (Penn State) game, we would have beat them by more. And on defense we're playing well."

Gardner has played under three offensive coordinators and two head coaches while at Michigan. He played receiver in 2012 to help the team, and says now he hopes to have an NFL career "no matter what (position) I play." He said he has "overachieved" as far as his academics and will be close to earning a master's degree in sociology.

Things haven't played out as he envisioned, but he's learned about perspective, too.

"The thing I wish I would have known then, you can't plan your future, so don't do it," Gardner said, adding he tried too hard to have everything be too perfect. "I wanted to make no mistakes. You plan out this fantasy, but that's not how it works. You can only control what you can control. You control how hard you play."