I first learned what it really meant to be a football fan when I was 13. Mike Lantry missed a field goal, by inches. Then he missed another - by inches. And a group of unaccountable, brutally unfair adults got together and decided that 10-10 meant that Ohio State won, and should go to Rose Bowl, while Michigan stayed home for the holidays.
I wasn't quite the same for weeks. Every morning, there was a brief interval between waking up and remembering that Michigan hadn't won - and then the slightly nauseating feeling hit again. I was old enough already to realize that this was irrational, but not old enough to stop it. I'm still not old enough, really.
Lantry missed again the next year. Ricky the Peach Leach put the HEI in Heisman before Michigan got knocked off by one of the Little 8. By the time I actually got degrees from Michigan, my Michigan football fandom was not an allegiance, not a choice. It was a permanent condition, an extra lobe in my brain connected to a fifth chamber of my heart.
Those extra vital organs experienced plenty of euphoria through the years. And a lot of scars, too. Every year, the hope that this year was the year - the year we'd break through, and prove ourselves to the world. Decades of starting that Fall climb of Everest, only to be turned back hundreds of feet from the summit while smarter or better prepared or more ambitious climbers went to plant the flag at the top. And then the disappointment, upon finally reaching the summit, of finding that someone else had climbed the other side to share the credit. Decades of screaming "throw the f--king football" at the future hall of fame coach, and wondering how other great teams always seemed to get it just a little more. Decades of believing that we just needed a little bit more, that this might be the year ...
And the question - sometimes the outright conviction - that we might not have the right leader to do it. The awful symmetry of reading the gently mocking assessment of a USC coach after the '77 Rose Bowl, that they knew when Michigan would pass because "the receivers turn cartwheels when they break the huddle", and hearing the faint echoes 30 years later from a USC defender after shutting down the most talented Michigan offense ever: "they didn't do anything we didn't expect".
Along the way, in '05, I found this blog. Written by someone who could mix intense passions for writing, humor, analysis, and M football into a remarkably addictive cocktail. It worked for the Engineer in me, and the football fan in me, and I was not alone. I became a more educated, more involved, more insightful fan, able to understand and look for outcomes besides just final scores and records. And I shared Brian's hope that Rich Rodriguez was, at last, the kind of leader that might begin to pay back decades of lost hopes.
It didn't happen. About 12:00 PM PST Jan. 1, the M fan organs went into temporary shutdown. And I have to tell you, they aren't exactly healthy yet. A January hire of a lifetime 47-50 coach just didn't provide enough voltage to jolt them fully back into rhythm.
This is not fair, you say. I must give the new leader a chance before passing judgement, and anyway, who can really project? And I respond that projection is what being a fan is all about. Whether it's "We're gonna kick their ass", or a multi-thousand word analytical piece from Mathlete or Misopogon, trying to figure out what might happen next, and putting your hope and conviction behind it, is what constitutes this crazy affliction. And if skeptically projecting that you are not likely to achieve full success while fervently hoping you are wrong is unfair, it is an unfairness which can't and shouldn't be eradicated. Bo Schembechler and his kids never lost a game because of my screaming conviction that he should pass more, and Bo wouldn't have had a job at all but for people like me.
It is true that there are no closed-form solutions to predicting the future. Two star recruits sometimes become All Americans. A sixth round draft pick becomes an NFL and Super Bowl MVP winning quarterback. A guy with no experience running anything bigger than a tailor shop becomes an iconic U.S. President. But there are reasons why such stories are so inspirational: they're exceptional. Much more often, past is prologue.
So if you'll forgive me, and those like me, I'll not subject myself just yet to the enthusiastic belief that we've found football Harry Truman. I'll leave it to those of you who are younger or less cynical or maybe more naive or maybe just happier. And I won't judge you for being what I once was, and you won't judge me for what I've become. We'll all root for Michigan and Brady Hoke, and we won't mistake apparently undue optimism or pessimism for moral failure. Maybe it's a deal we all could make.