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Seniors reflect on journey

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Every week, Vladimir Emilien will check his phone and there will be a text message or call from an hour north, guys from his old home checking in to see how he is doing at his new one.

Emilien was once a member of the Michigan football team. Had he stayed with the Wolverines, he would have been walking out of the Michigan Stadium one final time on Saturday like some of those who still reach out to him. He had played as a true freshman, and after one game of his sophomore season decided to leave Michigan for "personal" reasons he still declines to discuss.

His route took him initially to Colorado and then, after Dan Hawkins was fired, back close to where it all started -- Toledo.

"It's kind of funny but I also feel like that's kind of a blessing because I had grown fond of the players at Michigan and still think of them as my brothers," Emilien said. "Talk to them daily."

He pays attention when he can, noticed what Devin Gardner -- one of those with whom he stays in good contact -- did against Minnesota in his first start at quarterback two weeks ago. He'll likely also pay attention this week, and while he doesn't wonder what could have been, he will know what Saturday represents for those who stayed at Michigan.

This week will be emotional and contemplative for many of Michigan's seniors, guys who have spent four or five years with the Wolverines, playing for two coaching staffs and in some cases, having been recruited by a third group of coaches.

Many stayed, but in the course of two transitions, through reasons of transfer and lack of playing time, disagreements, dismissals and injury Michigan has seen 20 of the 46 players committed in 2008 and 2009 leave the Wolverines without their eligibility being completed.

It was a message imparted on the now fifth-year seniors when they arrived on campus.

"As a freshman coming in, the upperclassmen told us, look around at the guys you're coming in with because you're not all going to graduate," fifth-year senior Elliott Mealer said. "That's how it all works. Whether guys have other interests or football doesn't work out for them. It's true."

Some, such as Emilien, Dann O'Neill (Western Michigan), Je'Ron Stokes (Bowling Green), Sam McGuffie (Rice) and Darryl Stonum (Baylor), are finishing up their careers at other FBS schools. Others, such as Justin Feagin, dropped down a level, where he is a quarterback/receiver at Division II Glenville State, and Isaiah Bell, now at Lake Erie College.

This is where some of those who did stay differ. Some don't think about or talk to those they came in with who left all that often. Others consider them still part of the larger group, even if they didn't finish what they had started at Michigan.

"Once you come to Michigan, man, it's always family," fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd said. "That's how we look at it. Once you spend one day as a Wolverine, you're family. I look at those guys as brothers, because ultimately this game of football is going to stop one day for all of us.

"So wherever you are, you're always family and looked at as a brother around here."

It becomes a tricky thing when a guy leaves, too. Some players choose not to talk to those players much. Others hang on to friendships. Fitzgerald Toussaint has known Bell from their days in Youngstown, Ohio. Roy Roundtree and Terrence Robinson have remained close.

The defections they saw also taught the Michigan seniors something else. They were the ones who survived it all.

"I think about it a lot," senior running back Vincent Smith said. "Just think about there's been a lot of change and I just adapt to it, adapt to my environment.

"It's not a big deal to me, just keep moving and doing what I can do."

For Michigan over the past two seasons, that has meant rebuilding a program most of those who left had seen in its most struggling days, when winning seasons were barely, if at all, accomplished. Those who will walk out of the Michigan Stadium tunnel for the final time know what they went through.

They can look around and see who else stuck it out with them.

"It's been quite the ride, quite the journey," senior safety Jordan Kovacs said. "So to step out on the field in the Big House for the last time it's going to be surreal, going to be emotional and one of those things that you never thought would come to an end.

"But it will on Saturday."