Joe Bolden and James Ross, Michigan’s two senior starting linebackers, watched the final minutes of the first half of their most recent game alone in a 10-foot-by-5-foot room that felt an awful lot like a prison cell at the time.
The roar of the 111,000 spectators sitting a few stories above their heads slightly outpaced the game against rival Michigan State as it unfolded on the television with a brief delay. Both had landed there due to controversial targeting calls. Bolden was ejected midway through the second quarter after landing on top of Spartans quarterback Connor Cook. Ross was finishing the end of his first-half penance after leaving the previous week’s game in the third quarter.
One other Michigan staffer, who tagged along to make sure Bolden made it through to the locker room and the locker room made it through whatever Bolden was feeling at the moment, was nearby. Otherwise, it was just the two linebackers sitting alone in full pads as an unforgettable rivalry game rose toward its climax.
“I told (Ross), ‘Hey, it’s your turn,’” Bolden said. “No words really even had to be said. We looked at one another and we knew we were just changing places.”
Bolden said he didn’t want to comment on what he thought about the call but did say he pulled out his phone as soon as he got to the locker room and googled the NCAA rulebook to find the targeting rule and search for a loophole that could get him back onto the field. He said he hasn’t yet received any type of explanation on the call.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said he had talked to Big Ten officials about the call but didn’t want to share any details of the conversation. Harbaugh’s immediate reaction to the penalty following the game was that it was “hard to fathom.”
The ejection led to what Bolden called an “extremely long” bye week, in which he was left to try to move on from the final chapter of his memorable and complicated place in this heated in-state rivalry. Bolden vaulted to Public Enemy No. 1 in East Lansing last season when he drove a tent stake into the Spartan Stadium turf prior to Michigan’s fourth straight loss in that building. This season, he was forced to watch from the locker room as the Spartans won in the most improbable fashion imaginable.
“I walked right out of the room. I couldn’t believe it at the time,” Bolden said Tuesday night, speaking to reporters for the first time since the game. “It took a while to set in, but that whole series of events: what I saw taking a step out of the room I was in, and taking a step to where the guys were walking in the locker room, is not a feeling I ever want to relive again.”
As much of a role as the Ohio-born linebacker has played in this rivalry game on the field, he hopes the lasting image of his career against Michigan State was what happened on the sideline that Saturday night after he was ejected. Bolden jogged around the North end of the stadium yelling into the student section and waving his arms to fire up the fans on his way to the locker room.
“There are certain situations that define what kind of an individual you are,” Bolden said. “I could have gone off and ripped the refs' butt or I could have walked across the field quietly, but that’s not the type of person I am. Even though I was removed from the game, I still wanted to win and I still felt like I was a part of the game.”
Bolden joked that he probably would’ve taken a couple laps if a Michigan assistant hadn’t ushered him into the tunnel. Instead, one of the more interesting characters in the history of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry watched the end of his final game against the Spartans while sitting by himself a few hundred yards away.