Monday, October 6, 2014

Losing My Religion

"I don’t know what it feels like to grow up there now. I want these things to disappear from my consciousness, but they won’t. The place where I grew up is gone, and it’s not coming back."
- Michael Weinreb, "Growing Up Penn State: The End of Everything at State College"

The End of Everything in Ann Arbor 

Millwood Village, the place where I grew up, was constructed in 1990. Surrounded by woods in every direction, the quiet subdivision was carved out of the Hines Park woods on the edges of Tonquish Creek, so named for the Indian chief who was slaughtered by white pioneers in those very woods. My parents were not alone in 1990 when they thought the newly-constructed suburban haven a good place to raise a burgeoning family. In fact, there were about five recently-wed new parents that moved into that neighborhood at the same time, all of them, seemingly, the parents of boys. Naturally those boys became my playmates in time, and later on they became the guys I "grew up with," some of which I now live with.

Those woods surrounding Millwood, it seemed, sheltered us from much of the outside world in more ways than one. I never once saw a police car in Millwood. The neighborhood was brand new, meaning that no old people lived there and nobody ever died there. I remember discovering in middle school and high school that many of my classmates' parents were "divorced" - a theretofore foreign word to my vocabulary. No one's parents in Millwood ever got divorced, you see, and marriage, to us boys who grew up in Millwood's woods, was not only an inevitable prospect of life, but an infallible structure of family.

The thing about growing up sheltered, though, is the tragedy of emerging from that shell. Eventually the reality of the world becomes obvious to all of us, but to those of us raised in neighborhoods of naivety, the process of accepting that shattered reality is all the more painful. To someone who was raised by divorced parents, for instance, the idea of marriage might not sound that appetizing. To someone like me, raised in a neighborhood where divorce simply did not comprise a part of our world, marriage is the only thing, and divorce is, well, unfathomable. It took me two years to get over a relationship in which marriage was the mutually agreed upon destination, and I have my own amateur-psychological conclusions (when it takes you two years to get over something, you pretty much exhaust all theoretical analysis of said something) regarding how my childhood in Millwood affected my inability to accept failed love.

'Tis a sad thing, after all, to watch something that you believed in crumble. But it is sadder, yet, to watch something which you thought was incapable of breaking crumble. Such is the tragedy of the Michigan Football fan.

Michigan Football was a lot like Millwood Village to me growing up: nothing existed outside of it, and if something did, that something didn't matter much. If two-parent households with two-car garages were the one pillar of life I was subconsciously conditioned to believe in as a boy, then the divine mandate of Michigan as a perpetual power atop the Big Ten was the other pillar. In accordance with such a vision, I grew up believing in the infallibility of Michigan's head football coach - a figurehead that seemed to me more mythological deity than man. I believed that the annual rites of Autumn included nine to ten wins, at minimum, and that Midwestern seasonal change was not defined by the first snowfall but by The Game, pitting Michigan against Ohio State in a clash of titanic powers to decide the Big Ten championship. Michigan Football was the only thing. An infallible thing. Over the past several years, though, I've watched all of those tightly-held beliefs from my childhood rupture and split, one by one. 

The Minnesota game at the Big House was a new low in a relationship already studded with them. Several people close to me could not understand when I told them that watching the Minnesota game live from the bleachers of the Big House was my lowest ever moment in Michigan Stadium. Undoubtedly Appalachian State was worse, they countered. And it's true there are a handful of games I've attended in Ann Arbor that seem unrivaled in agony, on the surface. I was there for Appalachian State, being on the wrong side of the greatest upset in college football history, the day Lloyd Carr lost that aforementioned deity status in my mind. I was present at the Horseshoe in Columbus in 2008 when we lost by 35 to Ohio State, capping my Junior year and the single worst season in Michigan Football history to date. I was there for my final home game as a student in 2009, when we lost once again to Ohio State, when I sat for a long time afterwards in the stadium reflecting sadly on the prospect that I would never again enter Michigan Stadium as a student, but mostly reflecting on the fact that I would forever be saddled with the burden of having never beaten our arch rivals during my four years as a student. 

Yet there was always the glimmer of hope in those days. There was 'Lloyd Carr is past his prime,' to 'Rich Rod will lead us back to glory' to 'Rich Rod was a mistake and we just need a Michigan Man to Lead us back to glory'. Perhaps we Michigan fans, especially those of us raised in the sheltered decades under Bo and Lloyd, were so conditioned to believe in the just righteousness of Michigan Football as a Big Ten power that it would take more than one cycle on the merry-go-round through college football hell to break us.

Sitting in the stadium against Minnesota, I didn't have any preconceptions about "what" that game was, anymore. My team was no different than a myriad of other college programs that had fallen into irrelevance over the years. My stadium was no longer hallowed grounds but now just another giant advertisement with pre-packaged pop songs blaring through the speakers. And the "Michigan Man" walking the sidelines was just another guy wearing long pants who was underqualified to perform his job. Not only that, but the institution that I at one time thought so highly of that I literally devoted my entire high school life towards getting accepted into, was just another bureaucratic institution - one so caught up in its own elitism that it doomed one good football coach before he even started just because he was an "outsider", one too proud to admit that it had made a mistake and played a kid who had clearly suffered a concussion, and one that can't even lure its own alumni from San Fransisco to come coach here.

Michigan Football is Santa Claus to me now. Something that meant something a long time ago. There will always be Christmas, but deep down I know that scientifically-speaking it's nothing more than another goddamn day.

We're 2-4. And I'm running out of things to believe in.

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