Somewhere between Batman comics and Langston Hughes, the kid found poetry. Scribbling on notebooks and slips of paper. Letting his mind wander during class.
"I was in the seventh grade," he says. "I started playing with words."
Free verse like zigzagging through the defense on a punt return. Cadenced art like running an exact pass pattern.
Steve Breaston sees a connection between writing poems and playing football for Michigan, both forms of expression. Yet his dual passions can also seem very different.
"Some guys use sports as an outlet," he says. "I love playing football but poetry is my major outlet. Whatever I feel, whatever's going on, I've got to get it down on paper."
Slam style, rhythmic and urgent, meant to be read aloud -- the words come to him more frequently now. When Michigan plays USC in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the game will mark a stanza in his life.
"I'm almost done with my college football career, almost done with school," the fifth-year senior says. "Right now, I'm at a time when I'm writing a lot."
I've taken Langston's 'Ways of White Folks,'
And Hurston used slang like my folks,
Which I've learned the ways of my folks
Which I crave for and like folks,
Cause I'm under light post at night folks,
Reading my life away folks....
Start with the comic books. Growing up outside Pittsburgh, Breaston was a fanatical reader of the DC classics.
"That's what I thought writing was," he says. "My mom didn't know it, but I would spend my lunch money before school, get comic books early in the morning."
Lest anyone get too picky about the creative arts, Breaston points out that Superman has lived a fairly long life in print, requiring a good amount of character development.
If nothing else, comics provided kindling that ignited in later years when he read some poetry his older brother had written and was introduced to such writers as Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
At the same time, Breaston was emerging as a high school football star, playing quarterback, defensive back and returning kicks, these talents translating into a football scholarship.
Michigan asked him to switch to receiver and he responded with 444 yards in receptions and a school-record 619 yards in punt returns for the 2003-04 season, earning him freshman All-American honors.
The next year, in the 2005 Rose Bowl against Texas, he set a bowl record with 315 all-purpose yards.
Although he has failed to meet some fans' expectations, Breaston returns to Pasadena as one of the top receivers in school history, a possession man to complement Michigan's deep threat, Mario Manningham.
"You have to watch out for him," says Rocky Seto, USC's defensive secondary coach. "He makes a lot of plays."
Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr adds: "He's a guy that his teammates, coaches, understand the value that he adds to this program."
And football is only part of the equation.
Or maybe you should just ...
Stay in the house.
Because I've seen bodies outlined on sidewalks
Where lines of 4 squares and hopscotch
Were heavily marked with chalk,
So ... Maybe you should just stand there
College has meant creative writing classes and influential professors, as well as exposure to social issues that spark him to write more. Maybe a little rap music too.
How many journals has he filled? How many times has he tapped a few lines into his Sidekick, saving them for later?
At present, he is waging something called "The Literary Wars" with teammate Landon Smith, a running battle of text messages. Breaston picks a theme and writes a paragraph or two. Smith responds.
Sitting in the lobby of the team's plush hotel in Century City, Breaston flips open his cellphone and scrolls through several months' worth of volleys.
"We're on 'Literary War No. 6,' " he says.
There have been trips to an Ann Arbor high school to share his work with students and evenings on stage, be it a traditional reading or a slam, where audience members rate the performers on delivery as well as content.
"People might take me as a typical athlete," he says. "That's not exactly right."
Never get rest and lay at night with open eyes ...
Her eyes now fixed on my mine.
I'm the only one drinking the devil's wine I see ...
She is so blind when it comes to me ...
On New Year's Day, Breaston will take the field before a national television audience and a stadium filled with more than 90,000 fans.
That's nothing compared to his first time at a slam.
"Fifty or so people in the audience," he says. "I can be very soft-spoken, so getting in front of that crowd was ... "
"A hundred-thousand in a football stadium is a lot easier."
On the field, fans see Breaston as a set of physical skills, the ability to accelerate and cut sharply in various combinations. This talent may or may not take him to the professional level.
Nor is it certain where poetry will lead. But he knows this: Writing is like training and the more he does it, the stronger he feels.
Oh, you need the answer, right?
About what literature is? ...
And it is what it is,
Since a kid, it's been this ...
Literature is the reason I am me ...