Friday, August 29, 2014

A Personal History of The Horror (or Appalchian State)

An Exercise in Either Self-Loathing or (more optimistically) Catharsis

Since 2007, I've learned that the most painful things in life are often those that are the most unexpected, the ones that hit you like a brick from seemingly out of the blue: deaths, breakups, bad news. But on September 1, 2007, I was but a naive young sophomore, and I didn't know any of that. I was soon about to take my first dose of that bitter pill. To understand the agony the prevailed in the late afternoon and then well into the night September 1, 2007, you have to first understand the bliss I awoke to that morning.

September 1, 2007.
6:30 a.m.  

After celebrating the carefree daze of a welcome week Friday night well into the whiskey hours of the morning (the Greenwood block party is, or was, traditionally held on the Friday of Welcome week), my alarm clock woke me much too early given the previous night's events. Yet thoughts of neither sleep-deprivation nor of a hangover plagued me that morning, as what I anticipated to be a triumphant football season was upon us that day. Hence I stumbled through the fraternity hallway - the semester had yet to start, but it was already filthy from a week's worth of fraternity revelry - to my good friend Andy's room to rouse him as well. We cracked our first beers with unspoken glee, knowing the day we had waited several grueling months for was upon us, and hastily showered and dressed. During our freshman year, our initiation into tailgating culture commenced at a neighboring fraternity, where we came to idolize a certain southern fraternity guy - an unforgettable tailgating hero - who dressed in gameday oxford and tie and generally put on a debaucherous show for passersby from what was known as "The Ledge". Determined to emulate our idol, Andy and I donned our southern gameday dress, performed our ritual pregame superstitions which we had started practicing as roommates in the dorms the previous year, and toasted our beers, downing what would be the last indoor beverages of the day.

7:15 a.m.
And so we waltzed out onto the fraternity porch, a sprawling porch that virtually looked out onto the entire undergraduate campus, and climbed atop our fraternity's ledge. The first tailgate song of the day playing from the speakers - the song selection probably governed by our newfound taste in country music, to round out the fraternity cliche we were living in - we glanced out onto State Street, almost entirely empty in the calm before the storm. Football season was upon us, but the weather was no indication. The sun barely yet overhead, it was already baking down upon a fraternity lawn that in three shorts hours would look unrecognizably decimated. The beautiful September dawn reflected the state of my soul quite aptly. I was immensely happy. Not just that in the moment kind of happy, but truly, genuinely happy: with my environs, my social life, my academic life, my relationship-life (or lack thereof, as the idea was then).

Andy and I prided ourselves on being the first tailgaters awake and governing the fraternity porches that entire season, and I'll never regret the hours of sleep we lost doing so. There was something magical about that pre-pre game, when we were alone in the strange quiet of the early morning, waiting for the other hardcore tailgaters to arrive prior to 8:00 a.m., knowing that in a matter of hours tens of thousands of people would be flooding State Street through a parade of deafening music, red solo cups, and Greek debauchery. But there was never anything like that first game: there's something strangely magical about The Possible on the eve of a brand new college football season. And the 2007 Michigan Football season, make no mistake, was supposed to be a magical one for our Wolverines. Michigan had went 11-0 heading into The Game the previous season during my freshman year, and perhaps but for a bone-headed personal foul call late in the Fourth Quarter, could have been on its way to the National Championship. Michigan returned its stars on offense, including Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, and Mike Hart - who, by the way, appeared on the Sports Illustrated cover of the college football preseason edition only days earlier. In other words, losing on this particular day seemed unfathomable.

9:30 a.m.
 If Southern tailgates are known for their tradition and class, Big Ten tailgates are known for their binge-drinking atmosphere. Especially as the season meanders into late October and early November, the frigid temperatures force Northern schools to play almost exclusively day games throughout much of the college football season. At Michigan and a majority of Big Ten schools, this means a solid portion of the games are noon kickoffs. On Greek Row on Ann Arbor's state street, these noon tailgates are taken as a sort of challenge, if you will, to consume the most amount of alcohol in such a short tailgating time frame.  And that's sort of how most of my tailgating days at Michigan went.

My fraternity that year partnered with the Delta Gamma sorority for tailgates, and I knew many of the girls as me and a couple other buddies worked in the DG kitchen as bus boy's (see: slaves) that year. The sororities are notoriously late-arriving to tailgates, but State Street on a Football Saturday is truly a beautiful thing once the sororities converge en masse to the various fraternity houses. It's then that the party really starts: the drinking games, the speakers blaring into the streets, the dancing on ledges. The entire scene is a remarkable portrait of the joy of late youth - that burdenless, liberated, carefree time that is so fleeting. And those select Saturday's from that Fall were some of the most purely fun days of my life, days that just can never be recreated.

12:00 Noon
Prior to the arrival of Rich Rodriguez to Ann Arbor, students were still very much concerned with actually making it to football games, albeit sometimes well after kickoff. Though I hated the prospect of leaving the tailgate, I still prided myself as a devout Michigan fan, and somehow managed to stumble my way over to the Big House every Saturday. I remember feeling very hot as I finally found my seats in the student section, as the last vestiges of a Michigan summer were in full display. I think I remember that moment because it so highlights my disbelief that an actual game - a competitive one - was about to unfold.

It's funny, too, that I remember that pre-kickoff moment, because I don't remember much of the game at all. Whether that is a result of the countless beers and jello shouts I had consumed in the previous four hours or the result of a long, long subconscious purge of the memory from my brain, I am not entirely sure - probably a little of both. But I remember knowing before all of the other students in the student section that we were going to lose. I was, after all, more experienced in this Michigan football thing than most of the other students, many of whom hailed from different states and were not lifelong fans, and as I was a more seasoned Michigan fan, I was naturally a pessimist when it came to my team. And then Appalachian State blocked the field goal, and Michigan Football as I had known it was never the same. I was never really the same.

I grew up thinking that 10 win seasons were a way of life. Though I didn't know it at the time, Appalachian State taught me a lot about life - about how things change, even things you think are fixed in place.

I don't assume things anymore. Not in football, not in life. 

4:00 p.m. - ?

As any Michigan football fan who came of age in the nineties, I grew up spoiled by gridiron success. And like many of my peers in that demographic, I had grown quite unsatisfied with what was known as "Lloyd-Ball" - characterized by Lloyd Carr's ultraconservative style of play - in the early aughts as The Rise of Jim Tressel was underway in Columbus. September 1, 2007 was the death knell for Lloyd Carr. Needing a primary scapegoat after the game, I drunkenly took to social media to express my disgust with Carr's waning coaching abilities. At some point that year I even changed my Facebook profile pic to a picture of LSU's Les Miles, advocating for Miles - who had Michigan roots - to return home to Ann Arbor and lead us back to glory (I even got a request from the LSU student newspaper for an interview about Miles' potential return to Michigan). But as most Michigan fans learned in the confusing hours after that game, social media was not a place I wanted to be that day; Michigan State fans were brutal as they basked in the schadenfreude, and I soon discovered that other football games would not be a distraction either, as not a one broadcast could be found that wasn't working in an Appalachian State highlight at some point. If the reality of the loss hadn't yet set in, it was in this way - browsing social media, and flipping through the sports networks on television - that the gravity of our loss sunk in. So a full scale media blackout was my only recourse, and I don't think I was alone amongst Michigan fans in being eager to get back to classes that week.

In my efforts to avoid any sort of contact with the world outside of a very depressed Ann Arbor, I ended up on the fraternity lawn drinking whatever leftovers remained from the tailgate - I didn't care what I was drinking, as long as it would kill some brain cells. And the rest is a blur, though I know I ended up at the fraternity next door drinking with some dudes there. Perhaps surprisingly, turning to the bottle that day actually seemed to work, as the rest of that day has melted into a collective blur in my memory.

August 30, 2014
I spent most of August - usually a time of great anticipation for me, as Michigan football looms - decrying the decision to schedule a rematch with Appalachian State. I wanted no part of the replays of that game - replays I had fairly successfully avoided for several years - that would undoubtedly be brought back out of the ESPN archives this Saturday, or the radio talkshow mockery of the game, or of that painful memory of the most embarrassing day in Michigan Football history. I told myself I didn't even have interest in going to the game.

But the funny thing is, as I sit here on this Friday before the game, I find myself feeling very nostalgic for a place that I have now long moved away from, for a time, for those people at those tailgates who have since departed from my life. I find myself wishing I could go back to September 1, 2007.

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