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Published: Monday, 12/26/2005

Can Hart listen to his head?

SAN ANTONIO - Mike Hart shouldn't beat himself up this way. He gets beaten up on the football field enough already.

You can't help but feel bad for Hart, the University of Michigan's talented sophomore running back who believes he's letting down his coaches and teammates because of a painful high ankle sprain that has kept him on the sideline and out of harm's way.

Mike Hart runs with the Wolverines in practice Saturday, but says he still has trouble making cuts. He feels he'll be letting his team down if he doesn't play Wednesday in the Alamo Bowl. Mike Hart runs with the Wolverines in practice Saturday, but says he still has trouble making cuts. He feels he'll be letting his team down if he doesn't play Wednesday in the Alamo Bowl.

Hart rushed for 1,455 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman and was on his way to another stellar campaign until misfortune struck. You can't help but wonder why a player of his caliber feels compelled to defend himself.

Painful injury or not, Hart's heart is telling him to do whatever's necessary to play against Nebraska in Wednesday's Alamo Bowl - risk further injury, if need be.

But Hart's head is telling him to use his head.

The two sides of Hart are having difficulty meeting in the middle.

One side wants him to do the right thing, lace up his cleats, and play.

"A sprained ankle, it couldn't really be a long-term injury, that's the way I look at it," said Hart, who was limited to 588 yards and four touchdowns in seven games this season.

Hart's other side realizes he needs to do the sensible thing and make absolutely certain he's healthy enough to play.

"I try to be smart about things," he said. "I can jog and stuff. It gets better and better every day. We don't want to chance anything right now. ... If it keeps bothering me, we'll have to wait. It's going to be a game-time decision."

The root of the problem runs even deeper for Hart, who hasn't been the same back since the injury.

Hart's ears are burning. He said he isn't imagining things, that he's right-on in his belief that he must prove himself all over again to those around campus now observing him with skeptical eyes.

"It's tough," Hart admits. "People look at you like, 'He's not tough.' I did everything I could. I did everything possible. I came back when I could."

Hart, who played with nagging injuries all season, injured his right ankle in the first quarter against Iowa on Oct. 22. A gifted playmaker with a sixth sense for running to daylight, he said the injury limits his ability to make sharp cuts.

"I cut a lot," he said.

Michigan coach Lloyd Carr understands Hart's plight - up to a point.

Carr understands that Hart has been playing hurt, that if his star running back does takes the field against Nebraska he'll be doing so at less than 100 percent.

Given those circumstances, Carr won't pressure Hart to play.

"It's a miserable injury from the standpoint those high ankle sprains are slow to heal," Carr said.

Carr also understands that Michigan needs to upgrade a ground attack that ranked eighth in the Big Ten Conference in 2005, and that Hart gives UM the best chance to be successful.

The Wolverines, who have also been ravaged by injuries along the offensive line, averaged 156.9 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry.

Against Ohio State, Hart tried valiantly but was only a shell of his former self. He rushed nine times for 15 yards in UM's 25-21 loss.

"I think we all understand a running game allows us to control the line of scrimmage. It allows you to do a lot of things to help you win," Carr said. "We were very average running the football, and I think that comes back to haunt you."

All things considered, a banged-up Hart is better than no Hart at all.

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