ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In the right light, the shadow of a man can stand much larger than the man himself. And in the case of former Michigan quarterbacks Nick Sheridan and David Cone, their shadows of influence have extended onto a Michigan program long past their departures.
Most don't remember their names. Neither can be found in the Michigan record book. Their jerseys never sold out in local stores. And when they left the Wolverines a few years ago, there wasn't so much as a shudder from the fan base.
But to Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, they are paramount. They are the two players who taught Robinson how he should lead a Michigan team.
Not Tom Brady. Not John Navarre. Not Elvis Grbac. Not a single player most would expect.
But why should anyone be surprised? Robinson has never been the typical Michigan quarterback. And in this case, he is no different.
"They had those personalities that you could just gravitate to," Robinson said. "I just wanted to be around them because they had that vibe and they showed me love. They showed me the ropes. They showed me how to be at a school like this and how to carry myself."
As a freshman, more than 1,300 miles from his home in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Robinson was a bit out of place. In a matter of weeks he had changed his schedule, his diet, his surroundings, his entire life.
But there were Cone and Sheridan, veterans at Michigan, though they had never played much. Sheridan saw the field more than Cone. By the time the walk-on would graduate, he'd complete 70 passes for 2 touchdowns. Cone, a tall pocket passer recruited by Lloyd Carr, stayed in Ann Arbor after the spread offense came in, and when he finished his Michigan career he had completed just 4 passes.
Still, Robinson credits those two as the players who helped him get to where he is today, with the accolades he has. They didn't teach him how to play the type of game he plays, but with the values and leadership they taught him they allowed him to excel at Michigan.
When Robinson showed up late to team meetings or when he forgot plays the two stressed to him the importance of leadership for the team.
"It goes with the territory," Sheridan said. "Your teammates are counting on you to be a good leader and set the right example because if the quarterback isn't going to do the right things, who is?"
When Robinson made mistakes in practice, they made sure he understood that it was a team sport and while the blame would never fall entirely on Robinson, they made certain Robinson understood that he owed his teammates his best every time he stepped on the field.
"They made sure I was accountable for what I was doing," Robinson said. "They knew that I was going to make freshman mistakes, but they taught me that I had to learn from every mistake."
And when Robinson's heroics on the practice or game field weren't enough, the two were there to encourage him.
"Every freshman comes in smiling," Cone said. "It doesn't take you that long to stop smiling."
They knew that I was going to make freshman mistakes, but they taught me that I had to learn from every mistake.
”-- Wolverines QB Denard Robinson
It's a lesson that backups know well. Unlike starters and superstars, they have to love the game when their best play comes on the scout team. They have to love the game when they practice every day while they never step past the sideline in Michigan Stadium. They have to love the game even when it doesn't love them back.
But Cone and Sheridan knew the game would love Robinson. He was too good for it not to.
They had learned from mentors of their own, players such as Chad Henne. It was a part of the Michigan program, giving any and all lessons to the younger players, whether they'd be the Big Ten's leading quarterback or a career scout-teamer.
"It's good to know that I paid back what I owed," Cone said. "I owed that to the quarterbacks who had taken me under their wings, the ones who showed me the program, showed me the school, in addition to a whole new life. I owed them that. I feels good that something I did was impactful to Denard in that way."
The impact of their mentorship has demonstrated itself.
The senior has stepped into his final Big Ten season and led the Wolverines to a 2-0 conference mark after a shaky start. Even in his darkest moments after a devastating loss to Notre Dame, the senior came out of the locker room declaring he'd be accountable, that he'd lead this team, that he still loved the game -- everything Cone and Sheridan left with him.
"Sometimes you don't need the big names to make you who you are," Robinson said. "People make who you are today. That's what molds you. That's what shapes who you are. Even though they're not big-name people to most, they're big-name people to me in my heart. ... I would've been lost if those guys weren't here to show me what to do, what not to do. They showed me how to be a Michigan man."