ANN ARBOR, Michigan — As volunteers passed out turkey dinners and jugs of milk in the November cold, a woman pulled up next to a snowy sidewalk, leaned over the front passenger seat, and rolled down her window.
“Is the football player here?” she asked, scanning the small crowd gathered under the eaves of Sycamore Meadows, a sprawling condominium complex in Ypsilanti, Mich.
No, Blake Corum hadn’t arrived yet. The subject of this week’s biggest story was still at Schembechler Hall, where he is believed to have been treated for his left knee injured in late Saturday’s win against Illinois.
With less than a week to prepare for the biggest game of his career in Michigan, Corum could have been excused for skipping the Thanksgiving charity event he started last year. The stakes for this year’s Michigan-Ohio State game couldn’t be higher, with two unbeaten teams, Heisman Trophy hopefuls on both sides, a Big Ten championship and a place in the College Football Playoffs at stake. And now this.
No one would have blamed Corum for keeping to himself and staying out of the public eye on Sunday as he processed the emotions of the past 24 hours. But as the volunteers packed up and moved to an elementary school a few miles away, there was Corum, walking stiffly but wearing a smile as he carried food to the line of cars forming in front of him.
“God woke me up, gave me another day to stand on my 10 toes, stand on my feet and wiggle my fingers,” Corum said. “It didn’t occur to me not to come. I am blessed. When you are blessed, there is nothing to be sad, angry, or angry about.”
When coach Jim Harbaugh describes Michigan as a team of “happy warriors,” he’s referring to Corum. Perhaps not exclusively, but no player has brought Michigan and its fans more joy this season. Teams are taking on the personalities of their best players, and that’s one way to understand how the Wolverines have evolved over the past two seasons.
Last year’s team, who were on an eight-game losing streak against the Buckeyes, took on Aidan Hutchinson’s relentless engine and Hassan Haskins’ punishing stride. This year’s team can overrun an opponent and smile all the time. The Wolverines get that from Corum, whose work ethic is matched only by his endless supply of positivity.
“He’s amazing in every way,” said Harbaugh. “Larger than life personality. Greater empathy than life.”
Understanding where Corum gets his outlook on life explains a lot about the make-up of this Michigan team. It came from years of 4am wake-up calls, two-hour commutes in Washington, DC traffic, long days on his father’s landscaping team, and weightlifting nights in a friend’s garage.
The two-car garage next to Bill Whisenant’s house is fairly primitive, with plywood walls and neon lights on the ceiling. It has heavy chains, dumbbell racks, stacks of plates, a fan for the summer and a space heater for the winter. Whisenant, the father of a childhood friend of Corum’s, left the garage open at night just in case Blake wanted to come over for practice after practice.
“I think his daddy called it the dungeon,” Whisenant said. “Nowadays people would call it vintage weight machines.”
Whisenant is a strength coach at Kettle Run High School, a school in Fauquier County, Virginia where Corum grew up. Corum showed up there in middle school to train with the high school soccer team. Whisenant noticed immediately that Corum was different. Even at this age, he not only tolerated work; he longed for it, sought it, craved it.
“If I could get everyone to work half as hard as Blake, I’d be in super good shape,” Whisenant said.
Corum credits his father James, who owns his own landscaping company, for his work ethic. James Corum’s father and grandfather were stonemasons and James spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm, watching his grandfather come home from work each day and tend to the animals immediately.
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When Corum was in elementary school, he tried to emulate Herschel Walker’s daily workout routine of at least 1,000 push-ups and 1,000 sit-ups. He usually reached around 250, which was a lot for a kid his age. He would be in his room at night doing calf raises and crunches while his father watched.
“Every night I was like, ‘Dad, come and look at this,'” Corum said. “He came up and watched me do it. I like it when Pops watches me work because I know all the work he put in that day.”
James Corum’s day usually begins around 4 or 4:30 am. He goes to his home office and finishes the paperwork before heading to the shop around 6 or 7 to start his landscaping teams for the day. After work, he takes his daughters to cheer and volleyball practice, and then tries to hit the gym for a workout of his own.
James wanted his son to understand that hard work is the key to a happy life. Because of the family’s landscaping, Blake’s mother, Christina, was able to be at home with the children and take them to their activities during the day. Blake played a lot of sports – he was an accomplished baseball player and also a wrestler – and always had the resources to pursue his dreams. That’s the reward for hard work, James said: the ability to do what you want.
“It didn’t make us millions of dollars, but it gave us what money can’t buy,” James said. “It gave us freedom.”
Blake grew up in rural Virginia between the small towns of Warrenton and Marshall. By the time he was in middle school, it was clear he would have the opportunity to leave the county and play for a bigger high school. He ended up at St. Vincent Pallotti, a prep school in Laurel, Maryland, across from Washington, DC
With traffic on the Beltway, the 70-minute journey could take two hours or more. Blake’s mother would leave at 4:30 or 5 a.m. every morning to drive him to school and James would be on the road at 3:30 p.m. to pick him up. They did that every day for two years.
“I really don’t know how we did it,” James said, “but we did it.”
Ahead of his junior season, Blake transferred to St. Frances Academy, the Baltimore prep school coached by Biff Poggi, a Harbaugh confidante who spent the last two years on the Michigan staff before accepting the head coaching position at Charlotte. Living in Baltimore for those two years opened Blake’s eyes to a whole new world, both in terms of the caliber of competition he faced and the experience of living in downtown Baltimore.
“Where we live, we’re in the country,” James said. “We don’t see a lot of violence, we don’t see a lot of crime. Everyone is pretty much middle class. He met kids who said, ‘It’s nice to have my power on.’ Some children may not have electricity, may not have eaten that evening. Letting him see another part of the world has kind of matured him.”
At the time, Jay Harbaugh was the Michigan assistant responsible for recruiting Corum. The Wolverines liked him as a running back, but more than that, they loved him as a person. It’s common for recruits to post about their workouts on social media, and coaches are learning to recognize who’s faking it and who’s real. At Corum, that was never a question.
“A lot of guys have been posting videos of their workouts or they’ve been posting a picture of a barbell or a ladder and they’re like, ‘Grind season!'” said Jay Harbaugh. “Blake posted these videos in his car while he was driving. It was 4:15 a.m. and he just said, on the way to his gym, just various little captions, right?
“It was like, ‘Wow, he’s up really early.’ And you noticed day after day, every day, that it was like that. This is not a pre-planned thing that will be automatically posted. This guy literally gets up at 4 a.m. every day to work out.”
The only blow to Corum was its size. He was fast and elusive, but at 5ft 8 he didn’t fit the typical shape of an every-down running back in the Big Ten. Last year Michigan found the perfect mix with Haskins as the hammer and Corum as the home run threat. When Haskins went to the NFL, Corum essentially filled both roles. He was the third down back, the short yardage back, the goalline back, the big threat, and the workhorse of Michigan’s offense.
By any measure, Corum has been one of the most valuable players in college football this season. Corum has touched the ball on 32.9 percent of Michigan’s offensive snaps, which ranks 12th among FBS running backs, according to TruMedia. (Chase Brown of Illinois is No. 1 with 41.4 percent.) He ranks second with 18 rushing touchdowns, third in rushing yards with 1,457, and ninth among FBS running backs in terms of his share on his team’s total yards before scrimmage.
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Corum has surpassed 100 rushing yards in all eight Big Ten games in Michigan, including a career-high 243 yards against Maryland. He’s also logged 25 carries or more in six games, including two games at 30-plus.
As the hits piled up, Corum emerged each week with questions about the physical strain of carrying the ball 25 or 30 times. Each time Corum smiled and said his body felt great. It wasn’t acting, his father said. The saying goes that Corum could play a game in the afternoon and play another in the evening if he had to, and this isn’t just a folk tale.
“He doesn’t put on a show to make you all laugh,” said James Corum. “He is serious. He loves the game that much.”
Against Illinois on Saturday, Corum encountered something that hard work alone couldn’t fix. As an Illinois tackler slid at his feet, Corum touched down and went airborne. Before he landed, he was already clutching his knee. He tried to warm up at half-time and returned for a carry, but it was obvious his injury was more than a minor change.
Since then, updates on Corum’s status have been intentionally vague. When asked about his status for Saturday’s game, Corum simply said: “I’ll be there.” Even if he can play, the injury dampens the highlight of his season – the reward for all his hard work.
A moment of self-pity would be allowed, but that’s not Corum’s style. If he started feeling sorry for himself, his teammates might be tempted to do the same. Corum woke up on Sunday morning, put his 10 toes on the ground and showed up for the people who were counting on him, just like he always does. He’ll do that again one way or another on Saturday, and the Michigan team will follow his lead.
“That’s what I live for,” said Corum. “I will do it until the day I die.”
(Top Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)