I am not trying to be Mitch Albom (I swear)
Today, I went for a walk. I left my central campus apartment and headed south on State St., hoping that if I walked slowly enough, by the time I got to the stadium, there would be someone at the gate to take my ticket and let me in. I seriously even took my ticket along, just in case. I walked because I could not read another word or watch another video about Michigan Football (yes, when it comes to Michigan Football, you capitalize the ‘F’). I had no intention of writing anything, but as I walked, I could not fight the urge.
I walked by the ticket office, and saw a couple dozen people picking up their tickets. “Who could possibly wait until today to pick up their tickets,” I wondered. But then again, I called the ticket office in a panic when a friend’s tickets arrived in the mail and I had not yet received mine yet. I hadn’t even checked my mail yet. They were there. That day, I took out my tickets, snapped a picture on my phone and sent it to my brother, a Michigan alum living in Chicago, who wasn’t as much jealous as excited, and will be here with me as many Saturdays as work will allow this fall.
I walked by Schembechler Hall, and thought of Bo. I never met the man, and am not even old enough to have seen the games he coached live, but have read about and watched everything I can about his legend. I like to think that his handshake could have told you all you needed to know about him. Strength, confidence, a touch of brashness and a genuine human-beingness that makes you try to make up words like human-beingness. Probably what it’s like to shake the hand of a 4th generation plumber, his hands strong from wrenching the steel inner workings of his teams, who loves what he does and couldn’t give a damn if you don’t respect his craft. I thought of how many people’s lives he must have touched, how many large, grown men probably heard the news of his passing, silently walked to a room away from their wives and children, and wept. How his death deeply affected millions of people who probably never got closer to him in person than the confines of Michigan Stadium’s railings would allow. I saw what appeared to be two grandfathers with their grandsons walking to take a peek inside Schembechler Hall. I thought of how one day I hope I’m lucky enough to do the same. To pass on what is one of my greatest passions to another generation like so many have before.
As I walked, I saw a pizza delivery car pass with a Pizza House sign atop its roof, and thought of Rich Rodriguez. A couple friends and I would occasionally go to the coach’s radio show on Thursdays to drink beer, eat pizza and listen to Brandstatter and whomever the guest of the day was. There, I met Rich Rodriguez several times. While I had hot and cold feelings about him throughout his tenure, it becomes much more difficult to dislike a man when you meet him. When he turns to your table in commercial breaks, asks you about your future and jokes that he wishes he could have a beer with you. When he meets you only a couple times, you’re nothing more than another fan, and he remembers your name. When you watch him order the free pizza Pizza House provided him with to take home to his wife and kids. I thought of how, regardless of your feelings on him as a coach, you have to be so thankful that he brought Denard Robinson to this program. A young man who redefines his position, loves playing football more than anything in the world, and encapsulates humility and what you want in a student-athlete in a way that is indescribable. I literally hate that last sentence because it falls so incredibly short of capturing everything great about Denard Robinson. Ronald Bellamy’s Underachieving All Stars does the best job I’ve seen. Brian’s not too bad at it either.
I walked past the Al Glick Field House and noticed something I had not seen before. By the Southeast entrance is a stone sign with ‘2009’ engraved in it. I realized its significance. When myself and everyone reading this are long gone, it will remain. There will be a 232nd year of Michigan Football, and 332nd and on and on. The magnitude of a tradition that great and sacred filled me with pride.
I walked past the field hockey fields and thought of Charles Woodson. Strange, right? But the color and texture of the field reminded me of what used to be at Spartan stadium (yep, they get a lowercase ‘s’ in ‘stadium’) when Charles Woodson went on a solo mission into space and landed perfectly back at Cape Canaveral, with his intergalactic pigskin in tow. The man in black and white stripes who could not even contain his own amazement as he reached back and made the most deliberate first down signal for Michigan I’ve ever seen. “Neutrality be damned,” thought that referee, “that was awesome and deserved to be called like a home plate umpire who rings someone up in the bottom of the 9th of a perfect game in game seven of the World Series on a nasty curveball thrown by Cy Young striking out Babe Ruth.” Except more exciting and historic. (Boom, Fred Jacksoned.) I thought of how Charles Woodson an idol to me in my childhood. How when I recently found a journal from my elementary school days, scribbled in awful penmanship and grossly misspelled was, “My hero is Charles Woodson. He plays cornerback for the Oakland Raiders. He went to the University of Michigan. I am going to go to the University of Michigan.” I thought of Saturday afternoons when I would sit with my friends glued to ABC watching every amazing second of every game, then going out in the brisk autumn evening to throw a football around until it got dark. “I’ll be Charles Woodson,” my friend would say. “No, I will,” I’d argue back. We all wanted to play cornerback. Kids who like football do not grow up wanting to play cornerback. They want to be Joe Montana or Barry Sanders, but after 1997, they wanted to be Charles Woodson, too. When I played football in seventh grade, I was a quarterback and the smallest middle linebacker in the history of the universe, because that’s where my coaches wanted me to play. I was number 24, Sir Charles’ number for the Raiders. I wasn’t number 2 only because one of my best friends on the team had a name before mine in the alphabet and got to pick his jersey number first, that bastard. When I left middle school and they let us have our jerseys, I scribbled ‘Woodson’ on the back with a Sharpie. Obsessed probably doesn’t do it justice.
I turned right and headed down the train tracks. I thought of the men that built those tracks, and I bet they liked Michigan Football. I’ll bet they were the kind of households where if someone asked to watch a different game at halftime, the father would say, “we only watch one team in this house. Michigan.” (I’ll confess I stole that from Rudy. And if the timing of black and white TV and railroad construction and televised football don’t match up, screw you for caring.) I thought of warm apple cider spiked with a little whiskey, bratwursts sizzling and smoking on portable grills, the smell of a cigar or two, and the feeling that everything is right in the world on late chilly fall Saturdays in Ann Arbor.
I walked through the parking lot and was in awe of the pantheon that is Michigan Stadium. Or Cathedral. Or Mecca. There’s something magnificent about a building that’s awe-inspiring even when it’s completely void of its purpose and patrons. Like a church you walk around even though there’s no priest or parishioners in it (if you’re into that kind of thing), Michigan Stadium begs to be explored even when you’d be only one of one in there instead of one of 113,000. I can think of no other stadium in the world I’d rather have my favorite football team call home.
I walked as close as I could to the tunnel and saw the Rose Bowl Years painted by the player entrance and thought of Lloyd. A man who I think I’d be proud to be like as a father. A man who supports Mott’s Children’s Hospital as if every child there is his own. If you asked me who the best football coach in the country was, I wouldn’t have hesitated to say Lloyd Carr, right or wrong. Someone who pretty much anyone would love to play golf with, or just talk life. I’m upset with myself right now for waiting this long to talk about Lloyd. My attention span is waning and there are only so many analogies and adjectives left in the keys right now. Suffice it to say, I’m proud to know that Lloyd Carr was a coach for my favorite team. He’s a great man and a pillar of hope in the sometimes selfish, cold and calculated world of college football. If he ran for political office, I wouldn’t vote for him, but not because I don’t think he’d be good at it, because I think he’s above that world, and I’d want to protect him from it.
I walked a little further, and this long walk reminded me of Brady Hoke. A man who would have walked from San Diego. Yes, it’s been talked about so much by idiots like Drew Sharpe that it’s almost annoying, but I still love it. Because I believe him. Like many people, the Brady Hoke hire was scary for me. I wanted Harbaugh. I don’t resent him for going elsewhere. I kind of wanted Les Miles, but was a little leery. I did not initially want Brady Hoke. I knew who he was only because I am a college football NUT, but I wasn’t excited. Then, he had that press conference. Words can only do so much, but sometimes sincerity and emotion can make a big difference. Brady Hoke belongs at Michigan. He has already achieved his dream. Not just to coach college football, but to be the Head Coach at the University of Michigan. People will feel that. I doubt there will ever be a time when Hoke really wants to talk about how many hours he puts in, because he doesn’t care. Not talking about your new salary until after you quit your old job and move your family across the country is kind of crazy. But it’s not crazy if it’s for your dream. I think he would have accepted a 10th of what he’s earning if that’s all Michigan could have afforded. As long as he could’ve provided for his family, he would have been A-OK with that. You know that question from Office Space about what you would do if you won a million dollars ? What would Brady Hoke do if he won 100 million dollars? He would coach the University of Michigan Wolverines, I think. Also, buy lots of sausage. Maybe commision the invention of a time machine to go and convince Chris Farley never to play that Matt Foley guy. Regardless, I have faith, and maybe it’s partially blind faith, about the direction he’ll take Michigan. But that blind faith is part of what makes being a fan so great. The hope for the future success for your team and the belief, even the deep-rooted feeling of a knowledge that your team will be great again. It also is part of what makes the offseason so painstakingly long.
I walked back up Hoover and decided to write this, knowing it would get me that much closer to tomorrow. And tomorrow, I’ll walk back down State St., surrounded by tens of thousands of people who love and believe in the same thing that I do. That walk will be filled with less thoughts, mostly because I’ll just be awash in excitement and anticipation. But there’s a few vague words or feelings concepts or horribly cliché ideas that will run through my brain. Winning. Pride. Championships. Character. Tradition. Michigan Football.
P.S. In the most uplanned and awesome timing ever, we’re now 24 hours from kickoff.