Niyo: After plane incident, Wolverines bond and respond

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan forward D.J. Wilson, right, reacts after his dunk with teammate Zak Irvin, left, during the first half.

Washington, D.C. — A day later, they were able to laugh about it.

But in the moment, as the plane carrying Michigan’s basketball team was careening off a runway, the future suddenly in doubt for some of the passengers on board, this was no joke.

“You guys know me: I’m a little goofy, always kidding around,” sophomore forward Moritz Wagner said, attempting to explain the emotions of what he described as the “craziest 24 hours” of his young life. “So I looked around and I was like, ‘This ain’t real.’ But then I saw the fear in some people’s eyes and I realized, ‘Oh, my God. This is real.’ ”

And Thursday afternoon, after the Wolverines had regrouped and reboarded, after they’d endured a sleepless night and another flight they’ll never forget, there was no need for another reality check. Not after all that.

“No, it’s just relief, mostly,” said Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan’s senior co-captain who was one of the few passengers that needed medical attention — five stitches to close a gash on his right leg — after Wednesday’s incident.

Survive and advance? Sure, that’s what this time of year is all about in college basketball. But for this Michigan team, after surviving a harrowing journey to the Big Ten tournament here in the nation’s capital, Thursday’s 75-55 rout of Illinois was about much more than advancing to Friday’s quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Purdue.

“Sometimes it’s about more than winning and losing,” Wagner said. “Sometimes it’s just about being here and being grateful for that.”

So here they are, minus their luggage and still carrying some of the emotional baggage that comes with the kind of accident they all were a part of Wednesday, when the charter flight carrying 109 passengers — including family members of the coaching staff, as well as the U-M pep band and cheer team — had to abort a takeoff due to high winds.

Wolverines shaken but grateful after plane mishap

The plane then skidded off the end of runway 23L at Willow Run, collapsing the landing gear as it plowed through a chain-link fence, across an airport road and over a small ditch before coming to a stop perhaps 150 yards from a tree-lined ravine.

Passengers moved quickly to rip the exit row doors open — players Mark Donnal, Jon Teske and manager Tyler Davis got the job done — and the inflatable emergency chutes deployed. Head coach John Beilein, his face awash in gas fumes, helped some of the wives and young children off the plane. Most of the players clambered to safety by walking out on the wings of the plane and jumping off.

Getting some run

Walton admitted Thursday he’d jumped headfirst off the wing in a bit of a panic. Once he regained his feet, he bolted along with teammate Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

“Muhammad was right behind me and was like, ‘I’m not stopping running,’ ” Walton said.

Wagner said he followed suit, no questions asked, what with the plane engine still roaring nearby

“Because you see the movies, right?” Wagner said. “You have that in your head, as a naïve 19-year-old kid, that this plane behind you is about to blow up. So I ran. I ran as far as I could.”

Once they stopped, it all started to hit them, though. Beilein said when the engines finally shut down, “there was this big pop, and I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ ” Zak Irvin, another senior co-captain, said he was fighting back tears as he called his mother to let her know he was OK.

“It was so windy outside, she could barely hear, but I just told her I loved her, I told my family I loved them,” Irvin said. “Anyone goes through something like that, it’s tough. You’re just thinking, that could’ve been the end right there.”

But it wasn’t, and for the team, a strange odyssey was only just beginning.

Counselors from Michigan’s athletic department were there to talk with the players, and Beilein held a lengthy team meeting as well.

“His leadership every step of the way has been amazing,” athletic director Warde Manuel said. “I’m proud of that.”

Logistics tricks

University officials, meanwhile, were scrambling to find another way to get the Wolverines to Washington, D.C. The idea of a bus trip was broached, but Michigan ultimately settled on an early morning flight using a custom jet used by NBA teams.

That meant a 6 a.m. wakeup call for the players at the hotel, and getting to sleep wasn’t easy for any of them.

“We had a lot of deep conversations, just about how blessed and thankful we all felt,” senior Duncan Robinson said.

It also meant getting back on a plane again, which was a scary proposition for some.

“It’s tough, but you’re gonna have to get on a plane eventually,” Irvin shrugged.

Manuel said counselors spoke to the team, and reached out to other passengers. Players had the option to stay home, he said, and at least one staff member decided not to make the trip.

“And we will continue to monitor it,” Manuel added. “We want to make sure everything is good with them. Games are something we do. But it’s not life.”

Manuel stayed in contact with the Big Ten discussing contingency plans with Michigan scheduled for the noon tipoff Thursday. But once the team had arrived safely -- with a bit of a bumpy landing, players said -- and endured a 90-minute bus ride from the airport to the arena, the decision was made to push the start back only 20 minutes.

Beilein felt his team was ready, but he’d already scrapped the usual film work and walk-through the night before. And in the locker room before the game, his message was simple.

“He said we’re supposed to go out and just forget everything,” Wagner said. “Use it as an opportunity for freedom, to free ourselves from thinking about all that stuff that happened. Just be together.”

So they did, and they were, as odd as it may have felt, or looked. The Wolverines wore their practice jerseys — maize tops, blue shorts — and mismatched shoes, because the team’s equipment is still trapped in the cargo hold of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 aircraft that’s now the subject of a federal investigation back at Willow Run.

Beilein joked after the game he’ll be wearing the same suit as long as Michigan keeps playing here this weekend.

“I might have to make a visit to the drugstore, get some toothpaste,” he laughed. “But we’re here, bare bones.”

And for now, they might prefer to keep it that way. Asked whether regular uniforms might be on the way soon, Robinson tugged his jersey and smiled, “Who knows? We might just ride this wave.”

And why not, as Michigan State’s Tom Izzo noted later Thursday, offering praise for Michigan’s composure — and Beilein’s handling of adversity — after his Spartans had handled Penn State in similar fashion. Earlier this season, Illinois’ Maverick Morgan had called Michigan a “white-collar team,” effectively questioning the Wolverines’ toughness.

“And then they had to wear their practice gear today,” Izzo chuckled. “I almost felt bad for Illinois.”

The Illini did seem overmatched from the start, as Michigan played loose and free offensively — they shot nearly 60 percent from the field in the first half — and were locked in defensively.

Michigan never trailed, and when Irvin turned a steal into an alley-oop pass to D.J. Wilson for a dunk to make it 22-9 with 11:21 to play before halftime, a pro-Michigan crowd inside the Verizon Center reveled in it. The players did, too, as Wilson ran to halfcourt and knocked Irvin to the ground celebrating while Illinois coach John Groce angrily called a timeout. Soon after, the lead had grown to 20 on another Irvin 3-pointer, and the rout was on.

“They played connected today like they were connected yesterday when we got a hundred-something people off an airplane in what seemed like 2 minutes,” said Beilein, who got choked up after the game when he found his son, Andrew, and daughter, Seana, for a long-overdue hug. “What these guys have been through the last 24 hours has been incredible. It’s been bonding. It’s been emotional for many of them. But it’s made them so resilient.”