In this case, he’s in Eureka, Mo., just southwest of St. Louis, and he just spent last Saturday afternoon exulting at his TV such that his wife wondered what on pigskinned earth had got into him. As Michigan’s 42-27 manhandling of nemesis Ohio State unfolded and millions of eyes tried to comprehend it, this set of eyes comprehended something else as well: a pinnacle of a story line he had seen from its frustrated roots.
It’s funny. The two biggest Michigans — Michigan, Michigan State — have won 21 of their 24 games this year, have put the plug back into the socket and re-lit the state and have relied heavily on two heartbeat players, two quiet running backs from well down along the Mississippi River. Both Kenneth Walker IV (1,636 yards) and Haskins (1,232) got forgotten while in high school, waiting for offers that came late. Both saw other dudes tweet boats of lavish offers. Both got docked for alleged lack of sufficient speed. Well, both scored five touchdowns in giant games this fall, Walker for Michigan State against Michigan on Oct. 30 (with 197 rushing yards) and Haskins for Michigan against Ohio State (with 169 rushing yards).
And even while recruiting analysts tend to sort out inscrutable national puzzles with surprising accuracy, both these dignified men became those kinds of stories that inspire people and flatter the players who steadily create them: from the depths of the Friday night national star lists to the heights of the national fall Saturdays.
“When you’re them,” Eureka High Coach Jake Sumner said of college coaches, “and you’re recruiting that caliber of athlete, you hear coaches like me all the time say: ‘This kid’s special! This kid’s special!’” That doesn’t curb the frustration all that much for the flustered high school coach when he’s in the midst of the pitches, especially when there’s that great complicator, love, as when Sumner says, “He’s a kid that around here we all just love dearly.”
With Walker, in the Memphis suburb of Arlington, Tenn., the offer from Wake Forest came so late in his senior year that a coach, Andrew Atkins, drove Walker the 19-hour round trip to Winston-Salem, N.C. (Walker would transfer to Michigan State two years later.)
With Haskins, at least coaches’ eyes got more rest.
As of early October amid Haskins’s senior year in 2017, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound, backflip-capable, non-self-promoter and team player had a mild smorgasbord of offers but only one from the Power Five: Purdue. His older brother, Maurice Alexander, had played linebacker all the way to the NFL, so there had been whispers of having Haskins play defense — and, come to think of it, he does run with a bruising intent that can be felt clear to the top of the stadium. Eureka deployed him as a full-time running back and third-down defensive end.
For one pivotal thing, Haskins dislocated a big toe in the fifth game of his sophomore year, curtailing that season at around 800 rushing yards in four games (!) and quashing all the noise that had been set to blare around him (even if it wouldn’t have come from him). That meant that by his junior season, many colleges had chosen their players already. Some gave it the old, “Yeah, he’s good, he’s just not for us.” Some said he ran too “tall,” a reminder of the bizarre world in which they dwell.
The whole scenario led to a hell of a one-liner Eureka assistant Tyler Wasson retold to Orion Sang of the Detroit Free Press in 2019: “We had a Big Ten school that comes in and watches him jump 6-foot-7 and practice, and the guy told me, ‘Well, he can’t break 60-yard runs. Maybe he’ll break a 30.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Well, give it to him twice.’”
Then in that early October, Sumner got either a call or text from Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh. Sumner said to Wasson, “Oh, my gosh, Jay Harbaugh’s coming down here to come take a look at Hassan.” Sumner said, “You had just hoped somebody’d see that in him. You just go, ‘Look at what this kid’s made of!’ ” He said, “It was just a sigh of relief, like, ‘Gosh, somebody’s doing their homework like we’ve been begging people to do.’ ” He knew, of course, that the problem wasn’t them but their constant avalanche of homework.
Harbaugh came to practice, which became “one of the best practices we’ve had ever, that year,” Sumner said. “Everybody wanted to go to Michigan that day.” Among other things, it impressed Jay Harbaugh that Haskins went to get water for his teammates. Sumner: “He’ll get the water. He’ll carry the bags. He doesn’t care.” And: “He doesn’t have to be in the spotlight.”
“Two days later, Jim calls down” — meaning the elder Harbaugh, the head coach. He offered Haskins on Oct. 12, 2017. Sumner still has a photo of Haskins with the phone on his ear. By the playoffs that season, Sumner had quarterback injury troubles, so he once had the ball direct-snapped to Haskins on 14 or 15 straight snaps, compelling plays filled with will and skill. By the end of that high school season Haskins ranked 40th on rRivals.com’s national list of running backs. By late summer 2018, he started having his three games on Michigan’s special teams.
By 2019, he rushed for 622 yards and four touchdowns.
By 2020, a pandemic dented the stats (375 yards, six games).
By mid-September 2021, 10 or 11 Eureka coaches had driven and ridden an RV from St. Louis clear up to Ann Arbor to see Michigan beat Washington, during which Haskins gained 155 rushing yards and the other excellent Michigan running back, Blake Corum (865 rushing yards this year) gained 171. “How about this: It was fun on the way up with the excitement,” Sumner said. “It was a bit longer going back.”
Then by last Saturday, Haskins had joined the foremost reasons Nov. 27, 2021, will live forever in Michigan football history. Then his coach placed Haskins among his list to extol, and spoke of his helpful knack for — here’s that peculiar dialect again — “falling forward.” Then they brought some players into the interview room, and Haskins talked less than the others. “I want to thank every single one of my linemen today,” he did say. “They played their hearts out. I bow my head for that.” He also said what had been clear to witnesses all through the game: “I told myself, I’m not going down … I just kept telling myself that.”
His high school coach watched from back home. He saw all those things he always saw — “wonderful qualities and work ethic and skill set,” and “being that constant guy” — and he saw them featured in something that looked very much like a justice. It works out that way sometimes for that eternal being, the flustered high school coach. Better yet, it works out that way sometimes for the player.