My first visit to Michigan Stadium was against Michigan State in 1988 with my grandfather. I was ten years old. It was one of the best experiences of my young life. I marveled at the 106,000 fans, the band marching in perfect step across the field as I pumped my fist to “The Victors”, at cheerleaders doing backflips off the wall, at Leroy Hoard, Greg McMurtry, and Mark Messner.
I saw it all, from the 50 yard line, one row above the tunnel.
I ran down to the rail as the team took the field, holding my hand out for whatever high-fives I could get. I was a budding offensive lineman at the time, so getting up close to the massive man-mountain that was Greg Skrepenak was a thrill.
Earlier that day, that ten year old kid - obsessed with all Wolverine sports - got to eat a pre-game lunch on the floor of Crisler Arena. I met Forrest Evashevski. I shook hands with Tom Harmon!
I did all of this at the hip of my grandfather, who was showing off his grandson to his old buddies as much as he was showing me U of M. He only left my side for a short while at halftime of that game, when he walked to the middle of the field with his teammates.
This was the 50th reunion of the 1938-1940 University of Michigan football teams, and my grandfather got a standing ovation from 106,000 people.
It’s been so much fun, this week, to see the 1939 University of Chicago game mentioned over and over. Everyone loves an opportunity to share the pride they have in their loved ones, and the man who introduced me to Michigan Football started at guard that day in Chicago. He was part of the 85 points scored the last time a Wolverine team dominated an opponent as thoroughly as this year’s team did Rutgers.
This is from the 1938 team picture. My grandfather, Fred Olds (#56), is on the right, the other starting guard from the Chicago game, Milo Sukup, is in the top left, and Tom Harmon is in the bottom left.
After graduating Michigan, my grandfather went on to serve in the Pacific Theater during WWII. He married a U of M alumna. They had three children, but lost one at a very young age. He worked as an engineer. He traveled the world speaking to scientists and policy makers as an expert on Nuclear Power. He became editor of Power Engineering Magazine. He was part of a group that founded the city of Prospect Heights, IL. He was brilliant. He was quick to smile and make others smile in turn.
Years later, he watched his son enroll at Michigan, get married, and then go off to Vietnam –to fight another war across the Pacific. That son gave him a grandson, one of 4 grandchildren. In 1988 he took that grandson to meet the men who had been so large a part of his story 50 years prior.
I don’t know all of their stories, or even most. We all know about “Harmon of Michigan.” I know that at least 3 other members of that team are also in the College Football Hall of Fame. I know that Evashevski coached Iowa to a National Championship. David Nelson invented the winged-T formation and brought the winged helmets to the University of Delaware.
I also know that most of these men went straight from the gridiron to the war. Most then went on to have families of their own. There were other children at that reunion: likely grandkids who forged their fandom that day, and will someday pass it on.
12 years after my first game, my grandfather’s friends met up again. They expanded the reunion to include teams from 1938-1942, but still there were fewer of them that time around. I came across this picture from that day, which inspired me to write this (now incredibly long) post. My grandfather is kneeling in the front, viewer’s right.
The perfect frame for all of this eludes me, but the team we’re seeing now looks more and more like the teams he introduced me to. My fandom started at his house, watching games in which Jim Harbaugh played quarterback. Now Harbaugh’s back, and so is the winning. It’s a team and a coach in the image of Harbaugh’s hero, Bo Schembechler. Bo passed just before the last epic showdown between Michigan and Ohio State, and now his protégé is poised to lead us into the next.
There’s something here about the passage of time, about emulating our heroes, about loss and reclamation and salvation. Maybe it’s just being reminded more clearly of the things and people that we loved and that brought us so much happiness.
I don’t know if that group met again in 2010, because my grandfather had since passed. 77 years after the game against Chicago, I’m sure most members of that team have joined him. One of the great things about College Football – and Michigan Football specifically – though, is the celebration of history. Each historic event recalls the achievements of the past… tying these events together across generations of fans.
As we celebrate 78-0, I thank everyone who has helped to remember 85-0. I especially remember one of the great men who made it happen. I’d love to hear from anyone else connected to that team.