Gardner grows as leader in tough season

Earlier this season, quarterback Devin Gardner wasn’t voted as a team captain for Michigan. But he hasn’t needed the title to do the job.

With an offense struggling, he seems to be one of the few who has never lost his cool, though in many respects, he probably has the most right to do so.

Each week, Gardner has spoken to the media and held it together. He has no problem admitting when he and the offense are struggling. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that most questions begin with “Is it frustrating that…” or “How disappointing is it…”

And after getting sacked 14 times in an eight-day span and being questioned about the toughness of his team, he said anyone who questions that toughness can “shove it.”

He sits at the chair, answers questions, then thanks the media.

“I appreciate y’all,” he said Wednesday as he walked away.

His game has been called into question, but his character has not. And Gardner has shown in the past few months how much he has grown as a leader. He knows the younger players look up to him and his example -- even when Michigan is down, even when the fans are booing, even when he’s limping off the field -- is going to be seen by his 114 teammates.

“I’m the quarterback,” Gardner said. “They’re going to follow my lead. And if I’m frustrated, we’re never going to get better. I’m a leader of this entire team and that’s a lot. But I know what I signed up for.”

Of late, what he signed up for was a lot of criticism. And in today’s age of instant connection through social media, he has to face a firestorm of angry tweets and Facebook messages.

Fans tell him they hate him. His response?

“It’s OK,” Gardner said. “I still love you guys.”

Because, he said, he understands it. And rather than getting upset about it, he turns and looks for the silver lining in the situation.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” Gardner said. “We haven’t been playing well. I guess you could say they’re really passionate about Michigan football. On that side of it, it’s a good thing that they’re really passionate about us.”

It’s that kind of calm under pressure that allowed him to graduate in three years with a bachelor's degree in Afro-American and African studies. And it’s that calm that has allowed him to balance football with his master's program at Michigan’s School of Social Work. And it’s that calm that allows him to continue to lead and love his offensive line despite sack after sack.

“I feel like if I get frustrated and don’t handle things well, it’s going to be a lot worse than it is,” Gardner said. “I just feel like I have to stay focused and continue to be positive.”

That positivity should serve Michigan well. Maybe it doesn’t show up in the statistics or the box score, but if ever the Wolverines needed a positive face and voice, the time is now as they head to Northwestern as the underdog to a team that is winless in Big Ten play.

Gardner sees it as another benchmark in his growth as a leader. This will just be one more test for him as a player and leader.

“I feel like this is a big test and that’s what life is all about -- it’s filled with tests as an athlete, as a business person, as any person,” Gardner said. “I feel like I’m dealing with this test really well and I can’t wait to play on Saturday.”