ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Desmond Howard was in the middle of a 45-minute run on a Schembechler Hall elliptical machine in early 2011 when a young man he didn't know walked onto the Michigan practice field with a speed agility ladder and footballs in tow.
Howard saw the young man set up nets, put down the ladder and start to work. With the elliptical faced out over the practice field, Howard watched Devin Gardner throw.
"For like 45 minutes he went through his workout," Howard said. "Going through drops, going through the ladder, go get another ball, work the ladder, his drop, throw to his left.
"All by himself on a Saturday afternoon."
It impressed Howard, who met Gardner in the locker room afterward. Howard asked why no one else was around. Gardner told him the receivers didn't want to work on weekends. But he needed to, so he showed up anyway.
To understand how Gardner became Michigan's starting quarterback, contemplate the journey it took for him to reach this point. The transferring of high schools. The structure, balance and support provided by a single mother and two brothers as Gardner watched for two years and then played wide receiver for half of another.
Gardner is a free-flowing, life-loving, "Phineas and Ferb"-watching quarterback with a child's heart in a man's body. He is also a leader his teammates trust, a player who chose to bide his time and switch positions only to move back instead of transferring. And the structure in his life led him to everything.
The structure that led Gardner to Michigan started at home with his mother, Marlene Turner. She had raised his two older brothers, David and Gavin Gardner, and by the time she started with Devin, her message was clear.
She explained to him how he will always be challenged. By other people. Academically. Athletically. How you deal with it is what matters.
"If there's something you want to do, be confident in what you want to do. If somebody says you can't, why can't you? Don't let people question what you want to do. If you can do it, just do it."
Those were words guiding him through everything else.
Sometimes Turner leaned on David and Gavin for support. They would talk to Devin when she didn't think she got through. Devin briefly moved in with David during David's first year of teaching.
With Devin a student at the same middle school where David taught, David heard any complaints about his brother. He then explained how important living a certain way, with a set plan and defined goals -- structure -- would be. David set times for breakfast, for showering, for waking up and for Devin to shut off his phone.
David asked teachers to stop telling Devin about his potential because he believed that if his younger brother focused on doing instead of the idea of it, he could reach whatever he was capable of. David made sure he was always available to talk -- and never lectured. He talked to Gardner like an adult, which was how he wanted to be treated when he was a teenager. He presented repercussions of decisions and then let Gardner decide.
One decision, which came after a meeting between David and the dean of students and principal at Gardner's first high school, University of Detroit Jesuit High, changed everything.
At Jesuit, Gardner had been getting in trouble for trivial things, such as not tucking in his shirt. At a strict Catholic school, this was a big deal.
"I was a smart kid, always had good grades in school, but I got in trouble a lot," Gardner said. "Undisciplined kind of guy. Never disrespectful but, 'Why are you talking when someone else is talking?' Things like that, playing around as a kid."
Just not at Jesuit. After the meeting, the family decided he should transfer. Devin settled on Inkster. Soon after, he met the then-football coach, Greg Carter.
Like his brother, Carter believed in a certain way of doing things but had a personality that fit the way Gardner portrayed himself. David Gardner and Carter focused on Devin's academics. Devin had excelled on the field, but they sent the message that he needed to have a similar focus in school.
"He [Carter] has a way of telling people things," Devin Gardner said. "He made it known it wasn't going to be tolerated, and if I wanted to go to college, I would have to change."
That structure and discipline never left him.
Family keeps him close
Devin chose Michigan partly because of his family. They had been there for him growing up, so he wanted to make sure they could see him when he reached that success.
So even though LSU and Florida were interested -- and David would later ask Devin during the Under Armour All-American Game if he wanted to take a trip to Florida -- Devin never questioned his decision.
"For me, I love my mom and she's always been able to see me play," he said. "I think it would have been rude of me for her not to be able to see me play every time she had the opportunity. So I always wanted to go to Michigan.
"Obviously, you consider other schools, but Michigan is the place I wanted to be. I wanted my family, who had seen me play all these years -- they should be able to see me play now."
He enrolled early. Even though Michigan had an incumbent starting quarterback in Tate Forcier and an electric backup in Denard Robinson, there would be a chance he could win the job.
He didn't -- although he maintains he was close -- but played in the 2010 season opener when then-coach Rich Rodriguez inserted Gardner instead of Forcier to take over for an injured Robinson.
"When I went in for the first time, the crowd was so loud that I said, 'Hike,' and nobody moved," Gardner said. "So that was not good. I screamed out hike and I was concentrating so much on screaming out hike, I forgot the play.
"So everybody probably wonders, 'How did he get a 4-yard loss on his first-ever play?' That's why. I forgot the play. I was too focused on the snap."
Michigan wouldn't see much of Gardner the next two years. All the while, he prepared as if he would play. He found receivers, including his best friend Jeremy Gallon, who would go out with him to catch passes.
And he waited.
The wait forced Gardner to wide receiver last fall. Another injury to Robinson sent Gardner back to quarterback for good against Minnesota on Nov. 3, 2012. In the second quarter, Gardner scrambled around the field on a third-and-17. The play looked lost before the first-time starter wiggled away and found Drew Dileo in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown.
As he has done often since, he then clasped his hands together.
"It was such a big moment of everything he worked for," David Gardner said. "It culminated in such a spectacular play, and he was grateful and we were happy and grateful and everything's been a blessing.
"If he had come in and played right away, I don't think he'd be the player he is now. I don't think he'd be the person he is now."
At one time, Devin Gardner was alone at Michigan, throwing to an empty net. Now, everyone around him is watching what he might do next.