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Roh's early struggles fall by wayside

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- After every Michigan football game this season, Luke Roh and his older brother, Craig, have spoken on the phone.

Even from a great distance, Luke, a freshman guard on Colgate's basketball team, sensed something was up. Craig always had been positive. He always had boundless energy.

This was the same kid who after his high school games at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., made sure his brother was part of every postgame meal. They were more best friends than brothers, and to Luke, Craig was a role model.

When Craig left for Michigan, where he plays defensive end, that relationship remained. Yet even as Craig tried to remain his usual chipper self, something was different.

"Before the season he was struggling a lot," Luke said. "He was really sick and wasn't playing too well, so he was kind of down on that. But he always kept a good attitude."

Craig had been expected to be a breakout performer in Michigan's new 4-3 defense, a junior playing in a position where he could use his speed and size to thrive.

Yet it wasn't there. And it was starting to weigh on Craig enough that his younger brother could tell.

Weakened state

Before Michigan's fall camp started, Craig Roh went back to Arizona and spent time with his family. His brothers had mononucleosis over the summer, but Craig returned to Michigan feeling fine.

Three days into camp that changed. He was tired. By the end of the day, he ended up in bed with the chills.

Was it possible? Could he have contracted it, too?

He didn't know. What he did know, his father, Fred, said, is he was in bed and uncomfortably sick. The next day, Craig woke up with fever of 102 degrees. He went to the doctor searching for answers, and received antibiotics. Doctors had diagnosed him not with mono but a respiratory infection.

He skipped one day of practice and began to feel a little better. Cleared by doctors, even though his energy level wasn't at 100 percent, Roh returned to practice of his own volition. The sickness, though, had done its damage.

Roh couldn't move as fast. What he used to do wasn't coming as easy. And if he was practicing, the coaches wanted and expected the energy and effort they had known from someone who had been a defensive starter for two seasons.

For the first time in his life, coaches were unhappy with Roh's play. Even more so, they were displeased with his energy -- a drastic change for a kid who never had an issue with that and who had tried to keep himself positive almost to a fault. A kid who never doubted himself.

For the first time, he did. Roh didn't know what was going on. This was supposed to be a great year -- a coaching staff full of defensive line coaches -- and former ones -- ready to work with his talent. His head coach, Brady Hoke, had been a defensive line coach. So had his defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison.

Here he was, underperforming, and Mattison let him know. He had expectations. Roh wasn't meeting them.

"Craig is another guy that, all of a sudden, he sees the bar is higher than he expected it to be," Mattison said two weeks ago. "What he thinks sometimes -- and this is for everybody, not just Craig -- what he thinks is acceptable is just not. He's bought in and is going to be an outstanding football player."

Roh had the worst game of his career against Western Michigan in the season opener. He didn't recoord a tackle. Frustrated and confused, he turned to the man who had always given him guidance -- his father -- and broke down.

"Tears, for the most part," Roh said. "Release, emotional release. It's tough sometimes, but God really helped me get through that."

Well, kind of.

Michigan's newest 2011 commitment

The Michigan hat sat on top of Roh's television in his apartment. He sat in front of it a few days after the Wolverines played Western Michigan, still searching.

In talking with Craig after the Western game, Fred Roh became concerned because his son sounded "lifeless." So he boarded a plane and flew from Arizona to Ann Arbor. He needed to see what was wrong and how he could help.

The Rohs have always been a religious family, going on missions to help build houses in Mexico when their children were growing up, and consistently teaching them about their Christian faith. In times of need and of happiness, the Rohs have turned to the Bible.

This was no exception. What Roh called an "epiphany" was really this: He sat for two days in his apartment with his girlfriend and his dad, going through conversations about what was important. Where was he in his life? Where was he in football? What did he have to do to turn what had once been a joy in his life, football, back into that?

They discussed Bible verses, including Philippians 3:12, which reads: "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own."

He had hit what he deemed his rock bottom, so he had only one choice: to get back up.

Roh looked for those answers. Someone who had been rooted in being perfect discovered he wasn't.

"I am not perfect," Roh said. "And that is OK for me to not be perfect, because God has a plan for me, and going forward with that, God has put football in my life because he wants me to play and wants me to enjoy it.

"After that, any criticism I get from Mattison doesn't tear down my whole entire world. He's just trying to make me a better player."

Roh already felt better physically. He started to understand what Mattison wanted out of him. Now, he just needed to recommit himself to achieving it.

"That's kind of what I detected," Roh said. "You know, it was just a change, and I thank God for it. I've just had such a more positive attitude, and it really helped me with my play."

So the three sat in his apartment, deep in thought. Roh was silent for about a half-hour. Then he turned to his father and asked him to grab the Michigan hat on the television.

Roh started to smile. He made his decision. He had been through a tough time and found his way out. He was ready to listen to what Mattison had to say, to push himself how the coaches wanted -- how he wanted.

He put on the cap.

"He said, 'I'm going to recommit to the University of Michigan to play football,' " his father said. "He did it as kind of a joke, and we all laughed, but it was symbolic of what he was intending to do."

'Good old Craig again'

Roh saw Eastern Michigan quarterback Alex Gillett in his path. He wasn't blocked, had a clear lane, so he went for it.

It had been less than two weeks since his breakdown and recommittal. Here was the opportunity he waited for.

He ran at Gillett. He hit him -- hard -- and picked up his first sack, and the Michigan defensive line's first sack, of 2011. Roh got up and started to celebrate. He'd sacked quarterbacks before and made big plays before.

But this was different. This was a release of everything. Of the past month. Of the sickness and the struggles. Of everything he had wanted through the past two-plus seasons.

All of it came out that day, and then the next weekend against San Diego State, when he picked up another sack and forced a fumble. This was the Roh fans expected, the Roh Mattison expected.

This was what he expected.

"Craig Roh is making a concerted effort to get better every time he steps on the field," Mattison said. "I think a lot of our guys are going out there every day in practice and every game they are playing in and saying, 'I've got to get better, and this is what I've got to do to get better,' and are working to do that.

"Craig is, you can see by his production, that he's starting to do that."

Roh isn't there yet. He knows that. Mattison knows that. His family knows that.

But through it all, through one of the toughest months of his life, Craig Roh has rediscovered himself. And he's enjoying playing football again, with seven tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in four games -- a long way from not having a single defensive statistic the first two weeks of the year.

It has shown through on the phone.

"He's definitely been more amiable, more chipper, because he's been playing better," Luke said. "He's been better the past couple weeks."

And he has shown it in person -- both on the field and off it.

"It was a kid not understanding what was going on a little, and we were able to figure out what was going on. Once we understood it and made a choice with options available to him, it just lifted his burden," his father said. "I'm telling you, it's been three weeks, he's just totally good old Craig again.

"Possibly, even better."

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.