Mark Messner, Michigan’s All-American defensive tackle, was a hyperactive child.
“When he was a pre-schooler he was a terror,” said Del Pretty, Messner’s stepfather. “Our friends wouldn’t invite us for dinner if we were going to bring Mark. When my wife took him to the grocery store she’d put him in a harness.
“One time when he wanted to see what fire looked like in a dark room he lit a piece of newspaper and took it into the bathroom and shut the door. But he got afraid when the newspaper started to burn down to his fingers and he ran into the living room and dropped it on the carpet. It burned a big hole.”
Messner also got into trouble outside.
“He chopped down my 30-foot pine tree when he was about 5,” Pretty said. “I made him stand out by the tree (stump) for an hour after dark as punishment.
“When he was 10 he put a piece of cardboard on the snow blower and shot an arrow at the target. He thought the cardboard would stop the arrow, but it punctured the gas tank.”
Football provided an outlet for Messner to unleash his energy.
He was a natural. His natural father, Max, was a linebacker for the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers.
“He’s a tough kid and I’m really proud of Mark,” Max Messner said.
And he excelled at the game at Redford Central Catholic High in Hartland, Mich.
One of the nation’s most highly recruited high school players in 1984, Messner narrowed his choices to UCLA and Michigan. One visit to Los Angeles sold him on UCLA.
"(I liked) just about everything about everything,” Messner said with a laugh. “When I left (Michigan) it was 10 degrees in February and I got here and the Santa Ana winds were blowing and it was 80 degrees.
“I came from an all guys high school. There were girls on roller skates in string bikinis at Venice Beach. I said ‘God this is for me.’ ”
But after returning to Hartland, Messner had a change of heart.
“When I got home, seeing the forced smiles from mom and dad, I realized that that they would never see me play and they were a big part of my life. So, I decided I should stay home because Michigan had everything but the weather and . . . well I shouldn’t say that.”
After Messner enrolled at Michigan, Pretty was happy that his stepson had stayed close to home.
“I remember when (UCLA Coach Terry) Donahue flew out to meet with Mark and the family,” Pretty said. “Terry said a lot of guys like eagles. They fly off as soon as they get wings. And some are like robins. When they get wings they stay in the nest.
“We were driving in the car one day and I asked Mark if he was a Bruin and and he was silent for a moment and said ‘I’m a robin.’
“Watching him play in college was one of the highlights of my life because I wasn’t supposed to be able to live long enough to see him play.”
Pretty was diagnosed as having terminal cancer of the lymph nodes in 1980. He got ready to die.
“I was 40 and when I heard the word cancer it was too awesome for me to have nothing but total fear,” Pretty said.
He has extended his life 10 years with the aid of an experimental drug.
“I’m not cured but it’s in remission,” Pretty said. “The doctors just shrug their shoulders because they haven’t had across the board success with the drug. To me, it’s a miracle.”
Messner said his stepfather’s courage has been an inspiration to him. After playing in the 1987 Rose Bowl, Messner gave Pretty a Rose Bowl watch.
“I promised him that I’d get another Rose Bowl watch and I kept the promise,” said Messner, who leads the 11th-ranked Wolverines against fifth-ranked USC in the 75th Rose Bowl on Monday.
Mark Messner, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 244-pound senior, has made many tackles during his extraordinary career at Michigan.
A finalist for the Lombardi Award, Messner was a consensus All-American. He was the second player in Big Ten history to make the all-conference team 4 straight years.
The team co-captain, Messner is the heart and soul of Michigan’s stingy defense, rated No. 1 in the Big Ten.
“Without a Mark Messner on our defensive unit we really wouldn’t have gotten as far as we should have,” said Brent White, a senior defensive tackle who plays opposite Messner. “Mark usually gets two and three guys on him and I’m able to go against one. With Mark taking the heat off me, that makes me pretty happy.
Messner’s work ethic is contagious.
“He’s an inspiration,” said Bobby Abrams, a senior outside linebacker. “To see him hustle and play the way he plays every play, it inspires the whole defense.”
Said Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler: “When you have a great player you want him to give 100% in practice too and Mark does that.”
Messner, Michigan’s most valuable player, holds the school records for most tackles for losses and most quarterback sacks. He’s a quarterback’s worst enemy.
Seated at the same table with Messner at an All-American dinner, USC quarterback Rodney Peete asked Messner to go easy on him in the Rose Bowl.
“He promised me he would, but I don’t believe him,” Peete said.
Said Messner: “My main concern is catching him. If I drag him down by a shoestring, I’ll be happy. With his speed there’s no way I’ll do anything but cough his dust.”
Messner has also met Aaron Emanuel, USC’s junior tailback.
As Messner was fielding calls on a Detroit radio show, Emanuel phoned and asked Messner what he thought of USC’s running backs.
Although the call had been pre-arranged by the host Mitch Albom, a Detroit Free Press columnist, Messner had no idea it was Emanuel.
The exchange went like this:
Emanuel: I have a question for Mark Messner. What do you think of USC’s running game?
Messner: They have a great rushing attack and we respect them.
Emanuel: What about this guy Aaron Emanuel?
Messner: He’s a great back.
Albom: Well, you can stop him, can’t you?
Messner: Oh yes.
Albom: That’s Aaron Emanuel.
“He just freaked out,” Alblom recalled. “His whole skin turned red and then he said ‘Aaaaah, well Aaron, you’re a great back.”
Although he’s intense on the field, Messner is polite almost to a fault off the field.
The big redhead has dimples as big as Shirley Temple, the Rose Parade grand marshall, and his smile is disarming.
Doesn’t this guy ever get up on the wrong side of bed.
“I’m always smiling,” Messner said. “That’s just the way I am.”
Messner loves to play pranks on his teammates.
“He’s kind of like a little kid,” said T.J. Osman, a junior middle guard. “He put me to sleep one time. He made me hold my breath and then he squeezed my chest real hard. It knocked me out for about 10 seconds, but it felt like an hour.”
Although football players are stereotyped as dumb jocks, Messner doesn’t fit the mold.
He’s completed work for a degree in computer information systems marketing.
“I’m not relying on an athletic career,” Messner said. “I wouldn’t mind sitting behind a desk because it’s a lot less painful.”
Although he doesn’t figure to be a high draft pick because of his size, Messner wouldn’t mind giving the NFL a shot.
“They look for the guys who can jump like a deer, run like a rabbit and lift a house,” Messner said. “I can’t do any of those things but I can think and I can react. I have an instinct to the ball. And I don’t think that’s something you can teach. I’ve always underestimated myself,” Messner continued. “I never thought I’d be able to play at Michigan. And given the opportunity I was able to play.
“I just hope that I’m given the opportunity in the NFL. I don’t care if it’s long snapper or water boy. I’d like the opportunity. I don’t care what position. I don’t think I have the size for the line but maybe I could play linebacker.”