"Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There'd been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn't even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time."
- Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son. (the eerie applicability of this, my book life, to that of my life as a fan - two worlds that don't often intersect - is something I spent a considerable time pondering after I had read this.)
Internally, I buried the last notion of the Michigan Man that there would ever be in East Lansing this Fall. There, in the throes of yet another in-ring pummeling at the hands of the team we had so conceitedly labeled "Little Brother" those naive years ago, I hung my head in my hands in my seat at Spartan Stadium, surrounded in every direction by masses of enemy colors, each one of them basking at eardrum-shattering decibels in the complete and utter collapse of the university most reviled in that town: my Michigan.
It was not so much the loss that stung; no, those had come in doses far too heavy over the last several seasons to elicit such emotion yet, the pain of each successive loss having gradually become more tolerable than the one before it, until what before had been pain finally evolved into a perpetual numbness, and that which now teetered so critically on the brink of apathy -- the place where sports fans' souls went to die. There had been The Unspeakable Game, that perception-shattering loss to open up that revelatory sophomore season of my college years. There had been Ohio State four times over during my years as a student, too, including the two at The Big House -- that last one finding myself pondering the tragedy of that being my last game in the student section long after all the other fans had emptied the stadium -- and then there had been one more in person at the Horse Shoe just for good measure, as if I needed another dose of poison. There had been another four straight at the hands of our supposedly inferior instate rivals over on the Red Cedar. And there had been countless forgotten others that I had embarked upon deliberately trying to purge from my memory with an onslaught of illicit substances and a sailor's worth of liquor. There had been Minnesota only weeks prior, too: the day that Ann Arbor turned angry, resulting in a discomforting mob mentality atmosphere I had theretofore never before felt in Michigan Stadium -- a feeling I never wanted to feel in Michigan Stadium again.
Down 35-11 to the Spartans late, I tried to fight the tears that were welling up in my eyes; they would have eaten me alive in Sparta. All of the false promises had been washed away. All of the gods I had worshiped as a boy had been unmasked, and all of the churches I prayed at during those crucial years demolished into rubble, one disappointing revelation after another: Lloyd Carr was no longer a god, Michigan Stadium was no longer hallowed grounds, Charles Woodson was an old man, and Michigan Football as I had known it as a boy was nothing but a figment of my mind, existing only in that great void known as the past.
But for once these tears were not for me; like most fans mired in an unhealthy relationship with his team, I always felt Michigan's losses were my trials and tribulations, my great suffering, my life's grand injustice. I watched my girlfriend, clad in enemy clothes -- god bless her soul -- look down on me with sympathetic eyes. You'll never know, I so conceitedly thought, as if no other fan in the world could fathom the depths of my fandom; I had a vision of the inevitable argument that would occur in about an hour's time on the drive home on I-96 East when she would tire of my self-imposed silence and utter those cringeworthy words that other girlfriends before her had uttered before: "it's only a game, you know."
I watched a helpless Brady Hoke pace up and down the sidelines of Spartan grounds for the last time, a dead man walking. I felt bad for the guy. He was, after all, just another guy wearing pants like me.
I thought about my future son -- that little guy existing only in the twinkle of my eye, for now, that little miniature version of me who I hope to bring to The Big House for his first football game, just like my Father did with me on a fateful August day in 1995. I thought about how he'd never know the Michigan I knew as a boy, the Michigan I fell in love with. I saw the legends of Michigan lore that I planned to tell him of disintegrating before my eyes, falling away into the great void of things that might have been. He would never truly hear me tell of Charles Woodson's dash down the sideline on a cold November day in Ann Arbor -- one that eerily resembled the same path that Desmond Howard had taken only years prior -- or of Braylon Edwards' historic comeback against these very Spartans, or of how Denard Robinson's shoelaces flopped so beautifully in the wind as he bolted past Notre Dame defenders on his way to the endzone for the first of oh so many memorable times in a Michigan uniform.
A sea of green blossomed in eruption as the game clock ticked inexorably towards zero, and I not for the first time told myself, quite seriously, that I was done with Michigan once and for all. How had a relationship that had begun as a schoolboy crush become so toxic over the years? It seemed my time had come long ago to terminate such a childish dependence on something so out of my own control for my own well being, but that maybe I had drank my way through those developmental years of college and missed a critical junction somewhere along the way in the process.
I left my sports soul for dead in East Lansing that day, under the red sky of a fading Midwestern Autumn's evening. And I buried that idea known as the Michigan Man right there alongside it. If ever things were to change, it would have to be at the expense of absolutely everything Michigan Football used to be.
And yet. I sit here on the cusp of perhaps the biggest Monday in Michigan Football history, the Old Michigan Football suddenly, unexpectedly seeming not dead after all. Things feel strange almost. Like there are spirits in the air. As if perhaps the ghost of Bo has risen from the graveyard where I used to drunkenly roam as a freshman at Mary Markley Dormitory, risen and issued some prophetic creed to put an end to the disastrous landslide the program had been on seemingly since that very day Bo died, on the eve of the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game in perhaps a century, fittingly. It felt like Bo had come back to issue orders to his former Wolverine quarterback, a man made very much in Bo's image, a man who had hitherto seemed uninterested in returning to take Bo's long vacant place but had heard Bo's voice calling him in his sleep.
What do you when something you buried with your own hands arrives on your doorstep a la The Monkey's Paw? I buried the last Michigan Man I would ever believe in right there in Spartan Stadium, October 25, 2014. And now it's risen from those very grounds and arrived at the gates of Schembechler Hall, a zombie walking. Am I to pretend after all these years, nothing has changed? I should know better.
But here I am: Only some odd weeks removed from the last game of the season, feeling the familiar stirrings of that ever so dangerous idea known as hope. So I couldn't give it up, like I said I would -- it wouldn't be the first time I had been through that.
Because with Jim Harbaugh come home, there may indeed be life, yet - after all those dozens of times I had buried it over the years -life, yet, in the Michigan Football of my boyhood.