Big Ten

Jim and Roy, the tale of two Wolverines



Allow me to go back almost 30 years ago, 1986. Peter Gabriel has one of the great videos and songs of the year with Sledgehammer, Miami Vice is one of the hot shows on TV, Oprah Winfrey is making a name for herself in Chicago, Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee are the big movies. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, there are two big men on the Michigan campus. One a tall, rangy, good-looking quarterback named Jim Harbaugh, the other another good-looking, really tall and rangy kid named Roy Tarpley.

Jim had just had a successful season at Michigan. He led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. He finished third in Heisman voting and he was well on his way to becoming the number one pick of perennial playoff combatants the Chicago Bears. A solid career would await Jim as he would play 177 games starting 140 of them, winning a comeback player of the year for a great 1995 season that saw him finish with a second place vote for NFL MVP. One of the all time great football players in Michigan Wolverine history, Jim Harbaugh in his trek through life saw him acquit himself well and…well, we will see what happened to this guy a little later…


Roy Tarpley just lead Michigan to the Big Ten championship on the basketball side of things. He was co-captain of the team, team MVP, and set records for blocked shots that to this day still stand. He could score, board, and in spite of an early second round exit in the NCAA tournament, the future was bright. He was on his way to becoming the number one draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks. A team up and coming and ready to play with the big boys.

Roy’s career however wasn’t as bright as Jim’s. He had a productive rookie year then his second year, he won the sixth man of the year…and that was to be his highlight. Alcohol derailed Roy Tarpley. This writer does not judge him, his demons did that enough, he just could not get untracked after Michigan and wandered aimlessly. The numbers were there he could get you 15 and 12 in his state, he just couldn’t get sober.

Two DUI’s caused his first suspension then a third caused a “lifetime” ban in 1991. He would go to Europe and win championships in Greece but in his homeland he was persona non grata.

In 1995, Roy was reinstated by then commissioner David Stern and 3 years out of basketball he looked like the Tarpley of old instead of an old Roy Tarpley, but then he violated his after care program and this time like Michael Ray Richardson a decade earlier, lifetime did mean lifetime. in 2009 Roy did sue the NBA under the Americans with disability act claiming his substance abuse was a disability and he was treated like a criminal. The NBA and Tarpley settled out of court with terms undisclosed.

So now we flash forward to this time, 28 years 9 to 11 months later. One Wolverine comes back home. It is a lovely time as most Michigan fans rejoice that after a decade of mediocrity, the Wolverine football program is back under Bo Schembechler disciple, Jim Harbaugh. Though living in California, this writer was cheering it on too. Jim has a track record as a competitor, player and coach. He should bring back the toughness that has seemed to be lacking since 2006.

Jim’s classmate Roy? Well he was dying. Roy Tarpley held out to the New Year. He got to see 50 years of age about three weeks before I did. But by January 9th, the body that was once lean and athletic, gave up on him. This is sad for me to write because I knew Roy Tarpley. We weren’t “boys” or anything. I’d say “Hey, Roy” he’d say “Hey, Tom” I’d work in the restaurant, he’d prepare for classes and Purdue or Ohio State or Indiana. I went to the Navy in 1987 so I’d follow the progress of their careers from a distance at this point.

Fate has a way of balancing things out for every positive there is a sad even tragic negative. Hail Coach Harbaugh, we as Wolverine fans are glad you returned, Farewell Roy, I will miss your humor and earnestness and I hope the other side treats you kinder than your demons on this side did.

About Tom Shepherd

a lifelong state of Michigan fan professional and college. Living in the Sierra Mountain foothills 70 miles away from Yosemite National Park, but in spite of being inundated with San Francisco and Oakland stuff, I still represent the 313, 734, 989, 517, 616 etc…

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