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He Ain’t Nothin’ but a Wolverine

Ever since I heard that the University of Michigan’s football team had a quarterback named Elvis, I have been happier than a kitten with a string. Oh, how I have been looking forward to UCLA’s appearance here Saturday, so I could drag out my best/worst Elvis material and offer it to you the way the King himself gave wet scarves to the girls in Row 1.

Like, picture Elvis and his pelvis, behind the Michigan center, bent at the knee, wiggling and jiggling--only ABC-TV refuses to shoot him from the waist down.

Or, like, Elvis calling out the signals for the Wolverines, doing the cadence, about to take the snap . . . “Well, it’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, now go cats go!”

Or, like, Elvis alongside the old gentleman who discovered him, Colonel Bo, stepping into a postgame news conference wearing a white jumpsuit with cape and a diamond belt buckle, denying rumors that he’ll be taking Ann-Margret to the fraternity toga party, then slipping away through a rear door to the Michigan locker room as the school’s publicity director yells: “I’m sorry, but Elvis has left the building!”

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Enough?

Enough.

Go right ahead, have your fun, says the living Elvis, the 20-year-old, Ohio-born quarterback of Yugoslav descent, Elvis Grbac. Treat me like a fool, treat me mean and cruel.

“I just laugh,” he says. “My friends tell me to expect it. ‘Elvis is alive and in Michigan.’ I really don’t care.”

Does he swagger? Does his lower lip twitch? Does he wear mutton-chop sideburns and wraparound sunglasses and blue suede Reeboks?

Uh uh.

Just look at Elvis Grbac. Six feet five inches. Skinny, obviously not addicted to cheeseburgers. Short, curly blond hair. Far more preppy than punk. Look at him crossing campus with his backpack and his khaki shorts and his eyeglasses, on his way to art class to study graphic design. Nobody even notices him. He’s a big man on campus, but only because he’s big.

Once in a while, somebody recognizes him, yells out his name. The name. “Elvis!” Then, for a minute or two, it can become one of those hilarious “Look, it’s him!” scenes straight from a Presley movie, the polite but uncomfortable celebrity, pinned down by giddy admirers.

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Except it isn’t particularly amusing to Elvis Grbac.

“Sometimes, in a crowd, when people are looking at you funny. . . . " he says. “Well, I just clam up.”

On the football field, Elvis can be bold and forceful, a real leader, even though he has started only five collegiate games. Elvis has self-assurance, self-confidence, sufficient poise to play before 102,000 Michigan Stadium football fans who have taken a shine to him (and 102,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong).

Gary Moeller digs the kid, too. Although Bo Schembechler lured Grbac and his Cleveland high school teammate, Desmond Howard, across the state line, it is Moeller, as successor to the successful Michigan coach, whose eyes popped and heart puffed when Elvis threw two touchdown passes to Howard in last week’s game against Notre Dame.

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Reminded him of last year.

Michigan was behind by eight points in its 1989 opener and needed help, needed to replace the starting quarterback. Enter Elvis. He completed 17 of 21 passes against a huge Notre Dame team that would have made other freshmen wish they were back in the 12th grade, serving as cafeteria monitors.

“Most guys would have wet their pants,” Moeller said.

Although the Wolverines lost both of their last two Notre Dame games, they definitely got a good look at what Elvis could do. The ’89 relief job earned him a start against UCLA, which he turned into a 24-23 victory. Elvis also started against Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State before returning the ball to another quarterback, an upperclassman.

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That was a familiar routine for Elvis. His high school had such a standout quarterback that Grbac couldn’t start until his senior year. Even then, he couldn’t show off his arm. The offense was so tailback-dominated that about all Elvis could do was hand handoffs to his old buddy Howard, who, by sheer chance, now happens to be his leading receiver at Michigan.

Elvis was patient. He had his priorities.

“Around my house, religion comes first, school’s second, sports is third,” he says.

I suspect the King could have appreciated that. Grbac’s parents come from Istra, Yugoslavia. They have four children, and Cecelia Grbac calls this one particular son both special and stubborn, saying he’s always been too restless to sit still and listen. Oh, and they didn’t name him Elvis because of the singer. They named him Elvis because evidently it is a fairly common Yugoslav name.

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Same as his brother’s.

Englebert.

No wonder I’m so overjoyed to be attending this football game. Elvis is now entering the stadium. If only James Bonds were still playing quarterback for UCLA. The whole highlight film could look like a ‘60s movie.


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