Hart silencing all the doubters

Mike Hart ran for more than 11,000 yards during his high school career. He crossed the end zone more than 200 times. His team didn't lose a game in his final three seasons.

And yet, Hart had his doubters. There were two simple reasons: He was a small man playing at a small school.

The slights, perceived and real, were so palpable that Hart once told a reporter: "I could go to the NFL and get every record in the book, and people are still going to hate on me."

So how did Hart respond? He chose to attend Michigan, where the football stadium is the biggest in the land and the competition is among the fiercest.

"They said I was playing against no competition," Hart said recently of his prep days at tiny Onondaga Central High School near Syracuse N.Y. "There are always going to be naysayers."

Well, not always. Not when you've won the job as Michigan's starting tailback as a true freshman. And not when you follow a 40-carry, 234-yard performance against Illinois with a 33-carry, 206-yard effort against Purdue in back-to-back wins.

Hart became just the second Michigan player -- following Jon Vaughn in 1990 -- to top the 200-yard mark in consecutive games. Hart also shattered the school's single-season freshman rushing record by pushing his total to 936 yards, breaking Ricky Powers' mark of 748 yards.

"I can't say that I expected him to be carrying the ball 25 times a game," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "I can't say I expected him to be the starter. He has displayed an amazing durability, and he's smarter than the devil.

"If there's anything that amazes me, it's how quickly he has learned the protections in the passing game. That's more impressive to me than running the football."

Fair enough, but Hart's running has been dazzling.

At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Hart uses his quickness to avoid defenders and his balance to bounce off them.

"Those guys with a low center of gravity, they can be very tough to bring down," Illinois coach Ron Turner said. "He runs hard, low to the ground, has very good quickness and vision and outstanding balance. He keeps his legs going and has good instincts."

One of Hart's runs against Illinois was so hard to believe, it required a look from the Big Ten's instant replay team. Hart took a handoff on the Illini 4-yard line and appeared down at the 1. But his legs kept churning until he crossed the goal line.

After originally being ruled down, the officials used instant replay to reverse the call.

"Thank God it was a touchdown," the soft-spoken Hart said.

Hart amassed 11,045 rushing yards at Onondaga, second all-time to Ken Hall, who ran for 11,232 from 1950-53 in Sugar Land, Texas. Hart owns the all-time record with 204 touchdowns and 47 games with 100 or more yards.

Now when people doubt him, it's usually in jest. Some of his offensive lineman have taken to calling him "The Midget."

"On the team," Hart said of the ribbing, "it's all funny."

Teddy Greenstein covers the Big Ten for the Chicago Tribune.