Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen walked into an Ann Arbor steakhouse four years ago for a party celebrating the 10th anniversary of Michigan’s last national championship in football. Brady, of course, had done quite well for himself since 1997: He won the quarterback job after Brian Griese graduated; he went to the NFL and won the starting job with the Patriots; he won three Super Bowls; and he won the hand of one of the most beautiful women in the world. But on this night, he and his wife sat across from a tall man who knew Brady when none of that was certain. Brady started to introduce his wife to the man as they sat down, but she cut him off.

“Oh,” she said, “I know who this is.”

He is not a coach. Never has been. And although his campus office is decked out in Michigan maize and blue, and he was hired as an assistant A.D. by legendary coach Bo Schembechler, this man once hated Michigan so much that he left the school – twice.

But once he returned, he had a powerful effect on the lives of a Super Bowl MVP, a Heisman Trophy winner, and one of the greatest Olympians of all time. He’s not somebody you’ve read a lot about, and some people who have followed Michigan all their lives haven’t even heard of him, but Greg Harden is one of the most important motivational figures in sports.

“Greg Harden has and will always be one of the most influential people in my life,” Brady says.

Desmond Howard goes one step further: “I don’t know if I win the Heisman,” he says, “if Greg isn’t at Michigan.”

Without Greg, We Wouldn't Have Won The National Championship

We turn on our TVs every Saturday and envy the young men on the field. They have their health, their girlfriends, their teams and their shot at national glory just a play away. But many of them are confused, lost, scared. They are confident but also estranged; they can’t just show up to the field and play anymore. They have to study, win over coaches, line up against teammates and opponents more talented than they are. So the frat house partying glorified in movies often masks serious problems. Seventy-five percent of anxiety disorders appear before age 22. And suicide is the second leading cause of death in men aged 15 to 24. It might be surprising to learn that Tom Brady, Desmond Howard and even Michael Phelps had crises of doubt during their late teens and early 20s. The best athletes aren’t supposed to have problems. They are supposed to be brave, impervious, super human. But even those who are on the brink of greatness are sometimes just as close to the brink of breakdown. “A guy like Greg Harden is essential,” says Howard. “A lot of things go through your mind as a young collegiate athlete.”

The next time you watch a Michigan football game, you’ll see the head coach dozens of times. But there will also be a tall man in street clothes on the sideline that you won’t see. That will be Harden – not a coach, not

even a psychologist, but maybe more important than either. Harden’s official title is associate athletic director, but he’s a mentor, a life coach, and a last line of defense. “Greg doesn’t get enough accolades,” says former Wolverine receiver Walter Smith. “He held the same value as the head coach. Without Greg, they wouldn’t have won the national championship in ’97. Or any of the other championships.”

If He Wasn't Depressed, He Was Close

That year, 1997, was a crucial year for Michigan football. But it was also a crucial year for the skinny kid who backed up quarterback Brian Griese that season. He showed up at Harden’s office after two years as a benchwarmer and said, “I think you can help me.”

Harden told Tom Brady to take a seat.

We all know Brady as the leader who seems to know exactly what to do at all times. Well, this Tom Brady wasn’t like that. He was a bit lost. He just had acute appendicitis, he had lost 25 pounds, he was no lock to ever start at Michigan, and the head coach had his eye on a stud prep from down the road named Drew

Henson. The thought entered his mind to pack up and transfer to Cal. “He was feeling like a
victim,” says Harden. “And he hated it. If he wasn’t depressed, he was close.”

Desmond Howard was in pretty much the same place. We all remember him as the silky-smooth Heisman returner/receiver. But Howard was a tailback in high school who was asked by Michigan coaches to play out of position. When he got to campus, he was just another skill player at the “athlete” spot who would never live up to the legend of Anthony Carter. Even when he hit the field, he never knew when he would touch the ball. Howard thought about leaving too. “There were struggles,” Howard says, “There was a lot of blocking. I didn’t feel like that was what they brought me to Michigan to do. I was not sure I’d be a student-athlete at the U of M at the following season.”

Harden told Howard pretty much the same thing he told Brady: “Who gives a f--- if you leave? You ain’t done s--- anyway. You want to leave? Go ‘head.”

I Didn't Ask For Help, And They Assumed I Wasn't Interested

Harden was born only an hour from Ann Arbor, but it felt to him like the other side of the planet. His dad was a Chrysler repairman for 30 years – as dedicated a man as you’ll ever find, but the job wore on him. “Pops worked 70 hours a week,” Harden says. “When you saw him, he was either tired or pissed off.”

Greg saw that tough exterior all throughout his childhood, and he grew one himself. And that was not a bad strategy in Southwest Detroit. “Either be angry,” he says, “or get your ass kicked everyday. You don’t know you’re set up to be self-hating, too.”

He would find out soon enough.

Harden was all-city and all-state in track at Detroit Southwestern. He was so good that as a senior, he pulled a hamstring and finished eighth in the state without being able to jump in the finals. Harden went to Michigan and put up the same angry front. When coaches told him to hit the weight room, he was too proud to say he never lifted a weight in his life. “I didn’t ask for help,” he says now, “and they assumed I wasn’t interested.”

Coaches told him to take P.E., and Harden bristled. He blamed everyone but himself. “My relationship with athletics went straight downhill,” he says. “I thought they were racist. They didn’t like me, I didn’t like them. I didn’t know I had a bad attitude.”

Harden dropped out, got his girlfriend pregnant and moved back to Detroit. So that’s why Harden tells the story to all the freshman athletes about the kid who was faster and stronger in high school and wound up on the front porch doing nothing.

That kid is Harden himself.

He got married and that turned into “a complete disaster,” he says. He found work in a steel mill and hated it. So he tried Michigan again. But he wasn’t any less angry. This time he cared more about being an activist than a student. He wasn’t much of either. He dropped out a second time. “My opinion of Michigan,” he says, “was that I wasn’t intelligent enough to be there.”

Harden needed cash. He wanted to get into TV and put in some hours as a cameraman, but that didn’t pay much. So he got a job at a residential treatment center in nearby Ypsilanti. He figured he was qualified because of his life experience. “Hey, I lived in the fast lane for a minute,” he jokes.

Then a funny thing happened: He loved it.

Instead of spending every day finding problems in the world around him, he was charged with solving those problems. Now young people came to him with anger and bitterness, and he had to tell them what to do about it. “I suddenly had an awareness of how common our lives are,” he says. “How do we get the best out of ourselves?”

That was a question he turned upon himself. “I was always giving advice, since middle school,” he says. “And I was believable. But to me it was still less than credible because I was talking the talk but I wasn’t walking.” He didn’t trust his life to himself. So Harden returned to school for a third time. At age 28, he graduated from Michigan -- with honors. And in 1986, when Harden was 36, Bo Schembechler heard about this charismatic fellow helping adults rehab in Ypsilanti. He wanted to meet the guy.

Harden came back to Michigan for a fourth time. This time, he stayed for good.

You Don't Get To Decide My Response

A little more than a decade later, by then a full-time assistant athletic director, Harden sat across from Tom Brady. And he said, sorry Tom, but I can’t help you become a starter at Michigan. “But what I can help you with,” he said, “is this: I can help you believe you should be the starter at Michigan.”

Harden saw an athlete who was confident in his abilities, but insecure about his ability to succeed at Michigan. Up until this point, talent led Brady directly to success. That’s how almost every prep athlete thinks when he or she enters college. But when talent doesn’t lead to results, the freshman mind goes haywire. Harden needed to get Brady to put another variable into the talent equals success equation.

Harden told the quarterback to become the best player at his position first – to know the playbook better than any other quarterback and to be able to make every throw better than any other quarterback. If he knows the position better than Drew Henson, Harden said, at least he’ll know in his heart he belonged in the starting lineup. Worry about that, and then worry about being the best in the conference, and then the nation. “We can all rationalize being stuck,” Harden says. “It’s your response that matters. You don’t get to decide my response.”

Brady’s response was to do exactly as Harden said, and he found himself sitting in the man’s office every week – or more. And slowly but surely, he became the best quarterback in Michigan history – even though he constantly had Henson on his heels. Brady looked so unbothered to the outside world, but Harden saw how hard things got at times. “He had always been like that,” Harden says. “Always zen. You’re not going to see him sweat. But we all need someplace where we can unload. So he would unload and walk out and be Mr. Mellow again.”

Desmond Howard was the same way. Harden didn’t coddle, but didn’t criticize. Learn to block, he told the young receiver. Block downfield, block in space. Become the best blocker on the flank. Then become the best receiver on the team, in the conference, in the country. “Control the controllables,” Harden said.

“I’ve never had a problem with tough love,” Howard says. “I love Bo Schembechler more than you can imagine because he implemented tough love. He would look you in the eye and have you deal with it as a man, instead of talking to you in riddles and you have to figure something out. Tough love doesn’t have to be mean. Greg wasn’t that way. He could give you tough love but you understood the way he cared.”

But with Brady and Howard, Harden had athletes who wanted to be helped. It doesn’t always work that way. “I didn’t want to talk to him,” says Smith, a close friend and teammate of Howard’s at Michigan. “I definitely didn’t want to talk to a man that didn’t have anything to do with football. My environment was in inner city Detroit, where there’s a lack of leadership in black households.”

One day, Howard told Smith he wanted to take him for a drive. That was fine with Smith – anywhere off-campus was cool. But Howard drove him straight to Harden’s house. Smith was “very uncomfortable,” he says, and refused to say a word. But Harden kept reaching out – “40 or 50 times,” Smith says. Harden saw in front of him an angry black kid from Detroit. He was looking at himself. “He understood who he was,” says Smith. “He understood who I was. He understood my heart.”

Harden told Smith he loved football too much – imagine a coach saying that -- and that he needed to look beyond the game. Otherwise an injury or demotion would crush his self-image, the way it almost did for Brady and Howard. Smith started to listen, and eventually, when he did get hurt in 1994, he responded so well that teammates elected him captain even though he couldn’t play. “Without Greg Harden,” Smith says now. “I definitely wouldn’t have made it through Michigan, or became a captain.”

That’s really the essence of what Harden does: he prepares athletes for a life without athletic success. Because eventually, athletic success will end. So Harden challenges athletes to gauge their worth without relying on plays or stats or wins. “We’re better off because of Greg,” says Warde Manuel, who played at Michigan in the mid-1980s and is now athletic director at Buffalo. “I’m a much better husband, man, and father. Were we forced to see him? Well, yes. But because of that, we got the edge that takes us the half-step to becoming better people.”

I Don't Have Six Years. I Got A Cat Who's Gotta Perform In Two Days

It’s a fall morning in Ann Arbor. Harden is in his office early, surrounded by photos of young men and women who have sat here and confided in him – Brady, Howard, Smith, Jalen Rose. There are mottos and words of inspiration everywhere. Most prominent is that phrase on his desk: “Control the Controllables.” No use railing against the system, or against circumstance, Harden says. You can only change what’s within.

But that part is hard even for Harden. There are some kids he just can’t reach in time. There was the 300-pound lineman, full of life and energy, suddenly in the hospital, diagnosed with bipolar disorder. There was the athlete who had a mental breakdown so severe that when his coach came to visit him in the hospital, the kid didn’t recognize him. “That was so frightening,” Harden says, and his booming, jolly voice is now a rasp. Dial Harden’s cell number, and you get a low staccato that stops you cold. “Leave a message with your concern,” he says flatly. “Your message will be kept confidential.” He is not a PhD, but he is sometimes an athlete’s only safe harbor. Just beneath Harden’s outward joy, there is always an undercurrent of urgency. “Athletic counseling is not traditional counseling,” he says. “I don’t have six years. I got a cat who’s gotta perform in two days.”

Bob Bowman knows what that’s like. He mentored perhaps the greatest swimmer who ever lived – Michael Phelps. But he needed someone to mentor him. That was Harden, who as sport administrator for swimming was technically Bowman’s boss at Michigan. “He’s a miracle worker,” Bowman says. “He’s just invaluable. I used him as much as the athletes did. He’s brilliant in the way he can connect with them and not be threatening and preachy. They all love him. I do too.”

Harden spoke often with both Bowman and Phelps during their time in Ann Arbor leading up to the 2008 Olympics, and he often helped one communicate better with the other. Phelps decided not to comment for this story, but Bowman gives Harden some of the credit for all the success Team USA had in the pool in Beijing. “He helped me do a better coaching job by not being the hard-ass all the time,” Bowman says. “He taught me the athletes would do what I wanted if I set some goals and tried to keep them on track. He made me a better coach, and a better person.”

Bowman even says Harden was one of the major reasons he came to Michigan in the first place.

The Program Went Into Shambles Because He Wasn't A Big Part Of The Process

Michigan's new coach, Brady Hoke, won’t report directly to Harden. But maybe he should. After Lloyd Carr left the Big House sideline, Harden was marginalized. Most fans blame poor coaching and recruiting for Michigan’s football spiral. But some alums think Harden’s absence was just as damaging. If players like Brady and Howard didn’t get mentally stronger, how good would those Michigan teams have been? “That’s why the program went into shambles,” Smith says. “Because he wasn’t a big part of the process.”

Will he return to his former place in the football program? Hard to tell. But the players who turned to him won’t stop now. “He will always be somebody I rely on for sound advice and mentorship,” says Brady. “He has helped me with my own personal struggles in both athletics and in life.”

Funny how athletic director Dave Brandon scoured the nation for a leader of men, when in fact the best example might be down the hall. Hoke would do well to introduce his recruits to a Michigan Man who gave up on Michigan. Those players will sit down with someone who will bludgeon their bravado without curtailing their confidence. Greg Harden won’t go with the old Bo bromide: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” But he will teach an even more powerful lesson that he took so long to learn himself:

Those who are champions will stay.

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