Saturday, November 19, 2011

Growing Up with The Game

Unbeknownst to the average fan, the spectacle that is Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor is not the only Michigan Stadium in the state of Michigan.

In fact, there are undoubtedly many Michigan Stadiums sprinkled throughout the mitten in small towns from Mackinaw to Toledo. The one I know exists in my hometown, a short walk down the street I grew up on, through a patch of woods, and in the middle of a vast grassy field speckled with baseball diamonds. The chalk on the football field reads "Lutheran High School Westland," but not in my mind. To me, that high school football field will always exist as the Big House.

When we were young my little brother and I used to toss our peewee-sized blue and yellow Michigan football around our front yard on brisk, grey fall days after school, waiting for our dad to turn the corner on his way home from work. In the days before the early Michigan winter set in, there was just enough daylight left for some quick outdoor playtime with our dad after the end of the 5 o'clock work day. We waited anxiously for him to get home so he could take us down to Lutheran High School's football field, where he would toss the football around to us. To an outsider, it might not seem any different than tossing the football around our own front yard, but to us, playing at that football field was different in so many ways.

When I was on that field, I wasn't catching passes from my dad; I was Mercury Hayes, wearing the #9 Michigan jersey, catching a pass from Scott Dreisbach or Brian Griese. When I chased my brother down those chalked sidelines, I wasn't tackling my brother; I was Ian Gold, tackling some bully-faced Ohio State Buckeye player. When I stopped to catch my breath, sometimes as it formed a tiny smoke cloud from the frigid air, I didn't see some meager metal bleachers on the sidelines; I saw the endless rows of the Big House, with a hundred thousand fans cheering for me under a cold November sky in Ann Arbor. To my brother and I, at least, that small high school football field was Michigan Stadium. And in all those dozens and dozens of games we played there, we never once played anyone except Ohio State -- and of course we never lost.

I don't think this is a unique experience to my brother, my dad, and I. I'd be willing to bet that thousands of fathers and sons from Westland, Michigan to Grand Rapids, Michigan bonded over playing against Ohio State together, whether it be in a backyard, a high school football field, a farmland field, or a park. In the same way, I bet thousands of fathers and sons in Ohio bonded by playing against imaginary Michigan players in imaginary Horseshoe's on autumnal Ohio evenings.

It always seemed like those evenings spent out on that field were all in preparation for some big event, the event of the fall: the Michigan - Ohio State game. It was almost as if we felt that our play out on Lutheran Field was practice for the big game, that diving for all those passes from Dad would somehow boost Michigan's chances of beating Ohio State that year. That if I dropped one of those passes, I was letting down the Wolverines. And that even if I forgot to wear my Michigan windbreaker out to the field, I wasn't fulfilling my civic duty as a young Michigan fan.

In a way, the fall season actually did culminate with the game. Always occurring on a late November Saturday, family and friends always gathered around the television set for a gathering that rivaled Thanksgiving. The fridge was stocked full of ice cold beers and enough soda to keep me up all night, the smell of chili sifted through the kitchen as it cooked on the stovetop, a log crackled in the fireplace, and maize and blue attired faces sat on the living room sofas in an eerily quiet anticipation of the game.

In this way, Michigan - Ohio State is far more than a football game. It is its own culture. It's fathers and sons. It's a way of identifying yourself. It's family gatherings. For families in Ohio and Michigan, The Game is a holiday around which the year revolves. As I'm sure it did for kids in Ohio, it felt like part of my genetics; it was just how I was supposed to grow up. I dream of one day being Denard Robinson throwing passes to my own son in our backyard, buying him his first Michigan jersey, and taking him to his first game. I dream of one day being able to tell stories about my days at Michigan to my grandkids.

Over the past few years, I've subconsciously tried to downplay the significance of the meaning of the rivalry, pretty unsuccessfully. Each loss has brought back images of those autumn evenings at Lutheran Field -- our Michigan Stadium -- scoring touchdowns with my brother. Each loss has brought back the images of those family gatherings, making those losses sting even worse. It's no use downplaying the significance of those games. The Game, to me, will always be more than a game. This Saturday, come four o'clock or so, I know I'll be shedding a tear or two remembering those times with my dad and my brother at our own Michigan Stadium -- I just can only hope this year those tears are tears of joy, and that I'm singing "The Victors" at the top of my lungs.

Go Blue.

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