`Tripp's A Trip' Welborne Gives Wolverines His All

DETROIT - Tripp Welborne has caught Michael Jackson's hat. He hangs out with Michael Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jackson and that Michael Jordan.

Ask anyone on the Michigan football team about Welborne, an All-America strong safety, and he will surely laugh, shake his head and give you another anecdote.

``It's like all our players say,'' said Lloyd Carr, Wolverine defensive coordinator. ``Tripp's a trip.''

The North Carolina vanity plate on Welborne's candy-apple red Nissan 300ZX sums it up: ``U-TRIPP'N''

Characters such as Welborne have not been known to thrive at Michigan, which prefers its heroes strait-laced. But former coach Bo Schembechler accepted him because there is a side to Welborne as serious as his given name: Sullivan Anthony Welborne III.

Welborne was an Eagle Scout at Greensboro (N.C.) Page High, and is a marketing and business-communications major at Michigan. He aspires to own a chain of Nissan dealerships.

``A lot of kids would rub people the wrong way doing the stuff Tripp does,'' Page Coach Marion Kirby said. ``But he wears the mantle of greatness lightly. We acknowledged he was a hot dog, but he gave us everything we wanted.''

Page was 40-1-1 and won two state championships with Welborne, who made big noise on the field and quietly tutored classmates off it.

``Tripp is such a laid-back guy,'' Carr said. ``And yet, when he goes to class or steps on the field, he is always ready to compete. Not many guys can turn it on and off like that.''

Welborne is second on the team with 32 tackles, has 184 for his career, and could challenge 1975 All-American Don Dufek's school record for defensive backs of 249.

``Tripp does more than any player we've ever had,'' Carr said. ``He is an outstanding blitzer and ball-reactor, very intelligent. The only skill he had to refine was man-to-man coverage.

``I challenged him to be better at that, and when he came back this fall I could not believe how much he improved. I said, `Tripp, what happened?' And he said, `I worked everyday this summer on my pass-defense techniques.' He might be fun off the field, but he's also fun to coach.''

Ah, yes, Tripp off the field.

What a trip.

``I went with Tripp to see Michael Jackson at the Palace,'' flanker Desmond (Magic) Howard said. ``Michael is the ultimate entertainer and we were all dancing in the crowd.

``Well, Michael throws his black hat into the crowd while singing `Billie Jean.' Me and Tripp both grab it. People are grabbing and pushing for it, but Tripp gives it to me and shouts: `Leave him alone! It's his hat!'''

Welborne gravitates to glitz, but except for an occasional long punt return, is a meat-and-potatoes player.

``I liked how hard they worked here,'' Welborne said. ``And when I was shown the stadium as a recruit, it was covered with snow. Now, I hate the cold, but I looked down at the middle of the field. Someone had marched down there and made a big block M with footprints. I thought, `Shoot, these fans must be crazy here. I've got to be part of this.' ''

Welborne played receiver as a freshman, catching two passes for 45 yards and a two-point conversion pass from Demetrius Brown at Minnesota. He moved to defense in 1988, but still fantasizes about offense.

``It's the glamour-boy side of Tripp wanting to get out,'' said defensive back Otis Williams, his roommate.

``The play I remember most in my career is that two-point conversion pass,'' Welborne said. ``I had a pulled stomach muscle and they didn't want to let me play. Bo looked at me and said, `I know you're hurting. But can you go?' I played and never gave up. I learned to play through adversity.''

Welborne realized he needed discipline away from home. His mother, Gloria, a kindergarten teacher, and father, Sullivan II, a North Carolina A&T chemistry professor, saw to that.

``I was punished for tackling a guy too hard when I was 11 or 12,'' Welborne said. ``I couldn't watch TV or use the phone. But Dad took me off that. Mom still gets on me and Otis for hard hits.''

Welborne said his work habits come from his mother, his disposition from his father.

``This Nissan is an early graduation gift from Dad,'' he said. ``But he says he's taking it back if I don't graduate. I'll graduate in the spring, though.''

By then, Welborne likely will have been an NFL draft pick, and might have won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.

Free safety Vada Murray calls him Jim Thorpe. ``He swears he can do it all,'' Murray said. ``He calls himself Ivan Becker, the ultimate combination, when we play tennis.''

Which brings us to basketball, Welborne's ultimate fantasy.

``He can play,'' Jordan said. ``He's very talented in football and basketball, and is a good friend.''

Welborne met Jordan (``The year before he went Air'') through a mutual friend.

``I was over his house this summer, and didn't have to sleep on the doorstep like I did the year before,'' Welborne said. ``Me and (Michigan basketball guard) Demetrius Calip worked at his basketball camp as referees. At night, Michael would bring his fellas from the Bulls and we would play.

``Michael got me and Otis tickets for the playoffs at the Palace and Chicago Stadium. I have great respect for his talent, but I am not in awe of him. When I talk to kids, I try to personalize it so they can see that the guy on the poster is real.''

His message: Whistle while you work.

``I try to find fun ways to get my points across, so they can learn and smile,'' Welborne said. ``I want them to know that anything they want, they can be. But you must work hard to feel that self-satisfaction.

``This summer, I knew receivers would be wanting to make a name off me. So I worked on my footwork and learned to think faster, be quicker.''

Don't let that smile fool you.