Ex-Michigan football player’s 1998 novel mirrors findings in Robert Anderson abuse report
The accounts are shocking and unsettling, compiled in a graphic report that detailed the repeated acts of sexual abuse committed by former University of Michigan physician Dr. Robert Anderson.
When the 240-page document produced by the WilmerHale law firm was released earlier this month, it drew national attention that raised questions about how a major public institution ignored Anderson’s transgressions during a tenure that spanned 37 years and ended in 2003. But Anderson’s misconduct may have been revealed to the public 10 years before his 2008 death in a novel about the Michigan football program authored by a former player, Brian Elwood Reid.
Around the time of its 1998 release, the book, “If I Don’t Six,” was described by former New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow as a “hardly disguised roman à clef,” alluding to the term for a narrative about real people and events presented under the guise of fiction. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Reid’s hometown newspaper, went even further and called the 259-page yarn “his largely autobiographical novel.” Evidence of that can be found in the main character: Elwood Riley, a 6-foot-6, 275-pound lineman from Cleveland who heads to Ann Arbor to play for the Wolverines.
In real life, Reid had similar dimensions, standing an inch shorter and weighing 40 fewer pounds when he joined the Wolverines in 1985 from Willoughby, Ohio — a suburb of Cleveland. He eventually switched from offense to defense while his fictional counterpart, Riley, flipped the other way.
Riley is wooed to Michigan by the steely Coach Roe, whose name rhymes with Bo Schembechler. The character who gives Riley and his freshman teammates a medical checkup soon after their campus arrival is only referred to as Doc A, which is one of several nicknames for Anderson mentioned in the WilmerHale report.
On pages 52 and 53 of the book, the encounter with Doc A is described with lurid language.
“Doc A introduces himself and moves through us poking and prodding like he’s at a cattle auction,” the passage reads. “‘Vitamin shot?’ Doc A asks, his three chins gulping against his paisley tie, lips the color of raw bacon. Several guys get vitamin shots while we wait to be questioned about our medical history, examined for hernia.”
The details of the fictional episode align with accounts presented in the WilmerHale report released 23 years later. In one instance, a football player from the late 1970s told a police investigator he complained to Schembechler after Anderson, a team physician, “fondled his testicles” and gave him a rectal examination.
“What’s up with the finger in the butt treatment?” he asked Schembechler, according to the report.
Schembechler responded, “Toughen up.”
Another student-athlete said he also told Schembechler of an uncomfortable experience with Anderson after he went to him for a pre-participation physical but told WilmerHale in an interview he was unaware of any action being taken after the coach reportedly told him he would look into it.
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“The most common form of misconduct patients described to us involved Dr. Anderson conducting sensitive examinations (i.e., hernia and/or genital, prostate and/or rectal, and breast and/or pelvic examinations) that they perceived as unnecessary, performed inappropriately, or both,” the report said.
When the Detroit Free Press contacted Reid about the aforementioned scene in his book, he initially seemed willing to talk and promptly asked for the exact page where the passage could be found. Via text, he acknowledged he did not have a copy of his own novel on hand and said he had just placed an order for it on Amazon. But he did not respond to multiple follow-up messages requesting an interview, and only the author could say for certain what is truth, what is fiction and what occupies the gray area in between.
Reid’s own story is much more defined.
The 54-year-old is now a well-known Hollywood screenwriter who was just recently tabbed as the showrunner for the second season of the ABC crime drama, “Big Sky.” He had previously been the executive producer for the FX show, “The Bridge.” Before that, he wrote four books. His first was “If I Don’t Six.” The novel was published shortly after Reid earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Michigan, where he was the English 125 instructor for Tom Brady.
The encounter with the Super Bowl-winning quarterback was not his first brush with football royalty. Reid was a teammate of Jim Harbaugh, the former star passer who is now Michigan’s head coach. But he never played in a varsity game from 1985 to 1987 and left the program after rupturing discs in his back. In past interviews, Reid indicated he lost interest in football and was reluctant to write about it, saying “it’s not important in my life anymore.”
But write about it he did. Reid penned an unflattering portrayal of Schembechler in a 1999 GQ article titled, “Bully Bo.” It was written with the blessing and input of Schembechler’s youngest stepson, Matt, who was suing his famous father and the university at the time. The story received considerable blowback, prompting former players to defend the retired coach.
“It’s not an indictment,” Reid told the Free Press that year. “It’s about the power that coaches have over young men, whether it’s football or field hockey or soccer.”
The disillusionment with college sports is a central theme of “If I Don’t Six.” Reid writes about men inside the Michigan program who use vulgar language, fight, party and occasionally commit criminal acts — prompting one reviewer to say the characters and scenes are “so over-the-top they read like fantasy.” But as it turns out, there may have been more truthfulness crammed between the margins than was initially believed.
As the plot unfolds, Riley, the protagonist, must determine whether he wants to embrace the macho culture or shun it completely — knowing that if he does he could lose his scholarship. Riley is conflicted because he sees football as a ticket out of Cleveland and wants to pursue a rigorous academic curriculum at Michigan. But soon after joining the team Coach Roe looks at his schedule and begins crossing out the courses Riley selected, replacing them with easier ones.
“You overshot yourself there, Riley,” Roe says. “What you want to do is ease yourself into college life.”
The fictionalized anecdote was substantiated in real life nine years later by Harbaugh, Reid’s former teammate, during an interview with the Ann Arbor News.
“I came in there, wanted to be a history major, and I was told early on in my freshman year that I shouldn’t be, that it takes too much time, too much reading, that I shouldn’t be a history major and play football,” said Harbaugh, who was Stanford’s coach at the time.
Harbaugh’s claims spawned an outcry from Schembechler supporters and drew a rebuke from then-running back Mike Hart, who is now an assistant coach for the Wolverines.
Flash forward to the present day and Schembechler’s legacy is again being challenged. The findings of the WilmerHale report prompted some fans to call for the removal of a Schembechler statue and his name to be stripped from the team headquarters.
The 240-page document has drawn a lot of attention — much more than Reid’s book did at the time it was published.
But his narrative may have revealed the story of Anderson’s misconduct long before WilmerHale completed its investigation.
“If I Don’t Six,” after all, is a roman à clef, which is French for “novel with a key.”
And the key appears to have been with us, sitting on a bookshelf for more than 20 years.
Follow Rainer Sabin on Twitter @RainerSabin.