Friday, April 29, 2011

The End of an Era

I will be graduating from the University of Michigan this Saturday, fulfilling the lifelong goal of graduating and the lifelong dream of becoming a Michigan grad. I arrived in September of 2007 and I will graduate, in the Big House, this Saturday, only no game will be played. That time has passed, and my allotted four years of undergraduate football are up. I saw the end of Carr, the beginning and end of Rich Rodriguez, and the vague beginnings of Brady Hoke in my four years; three unique individuals, football coaches, men. I guess you could say that, despite it all, I saw a lot. Some of it good, some of it bad. But, in the end, I'd rather witness Michigan's worst day than anybody's else's best, and I say that without reservation or qualification.

The Appalachian State debacle was my third day on campus. My freshman tickets sat me in Section 16, far away from my fellow students. I sat next to a white-haired old man--whose natural hair color might've been blue--and his son each week. My enduring memories of that first game are conveniently sparse; my first memory is of Chad Henne zipping a passing to Mike Massey in the opening drive. I saw it all from my bird's eye seat in Row 96 of Section 16; it was perfect and logical, a rational manifestation of our pre-season top 5 ranking. Then, the defense took the field.


I remember sneaking into the student section before the beginning of the second half. I was worried that I wouldn't get in, being a naive freshman and whatnot. I didn't know what was what. I got in, flashing my ticket and walking through the throng of students, using them like a Dustin Byfuglien screen on Roberto Luongo as I scooted past the ushers. I shouldn't have been there, but eventually I made my way into the student section. I sat by people I didn't know. When Mike Hart began to take over in the fourth quarter, I experienced my first encounter with Michigan Stadium ecstasy an as undergrad. I had experienced it before (most recently at the 2004 Homecoming game, which ended with a game-winning drive and a Tyler Ecker romp to the endzone), but it wasn't like this. I high-fived random strangers and tried to fit in as a student, despite the fact that I in fact was one, and no fitting in should have been needed. I had been a Michigan fan my entire life, and had attended many Michigan games (home and away) before my matriculation to Michigan, but once I entered that student section for the first time, I was just another person is a sea of maize, hoping that Mike Hart would save us from ultimate shame. Amidst the noise and the fretting, I worried that my former neighbors--the old man and his middle-aged son--thought I had left the game at halftime. Even now, I think on that moment when I stood there, actually concerned that someone somewhere was questioning my fandom. It was all so absurd and irrationally self-critical; but I suppose that's what being a fan really is.

The moments leading up to that final kick, after the hope-inducing heave from Henne to Manningham, are perhaps most indicative of my experience of a fan as a whole. Do you know that feeling, when a player that you root for and hope succeeds--whether a basketball player at the line in the final seconds, a baseball player at the plate with a 3-2 count in a one-run game, a hockey team faced with a one-goal deficit with two minutes to go--is asked to perform in a moment of ostensibly supreme significance? A miss means a loss to Appalachian State, a make represents a small victory, an escape from eternal shame. Nothing in sports is as black and white as it was that moment. In some cases, a player can make a play despite the failure of others, as Mike Hart showed throughout his career; whether or not Adam Kraus or Jake Long made an effective block on the now infamous zone left play, Mike managed to gain at least 4 yards every time by virtue of his power of will and raison d'etre, which said that you must move forward until you cannot do so anymore. Unfortunately, the circumstances of the game of football don't always manifest themselves so conveniently, and sometimes the men that don the maize and blue are asked to perform coldly and alone.

But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain. 

Jason Gingell lined up for a kick that I, the random strangers to the left and right of me, and everybody in the stadium knew he would miss. I watched him line up, and no inkling of a Phillipp Brabbs-esque circa 2002 miracle crossed my mind. It was like watching somebody else quite literally kick your goals and self-esteem into a far away ocean. I watched everything unfold, not even knowing at the time that Crable had blocked the outside man instead of Corey Lynch. The kick went up and was batted down to the ground unceremoniously, along with all the hopes and dreams and pre-conceived notions of dominance that I and everybody else came into the season believing in so adamantly. Corey Lynch ran the other way with the ball like a scalp from some grim McCarthyian passage, in the opposite direction of all of Michigan's hopes and dreams. Appalachian State's fight song pierced the dull roar, which I'm convinced came partly from ASU fans but mostly from the suppressed angst of the Michigan fans in the stadium, a feeling which had built up gradually and violently once the end result became a distinct possibility. It was long, slow stadium-wide release, a mass exhalation of barely audible but palpable defeat.

I could do nothing but sit. I couldn't think about anything, and when I try to recall distinct memories about that point, I come up blank. For an event so cataclysmic and important to me, I can’t recall as many details about the game itself as I can of the minutiae of my experience that day. I’ve seen videos of that blocked kick, read articles, listened to other people talk about it, and yet, when I draw upon my own memory, everything is reminiscent of a dream, and perhaps that is a subconscious coping mechanism. As time has gone on, that September day becomes more and more vague, to the point that only the contours of the memory are there, like a cloud shaped like something distinct, yet could in fact be anything else. Even after the end of the season, a season salvaged by a valiant middle and a triumphant ending, all thoughts go back to that one game and that one moment. I sat in my seat for what felt like half an hour, until most of the student section had emptied out and the giant maize M on the seats across the way was visible, like a reminder of what was and what was lost. It was rock bottom; it changed everything. 


It hasn't all been bad, and even when it has it hasn't been that bad. Michigan won some games that they probably shouldn't have, like the 2008 Wisconsin game. Of course, they lost many more throughout the Rich Rodriguez era. As a football fan, it was crushing and ruined many weekends. In that respect, I am jealous of all those that came before me who have experienced better times. Yet, as I sit on the precipice of graduation and leaving Ann Arbor, I find myself not as upset as I was yesterday, or the day before, or in November when we lost to Ohio State once again and it was clear that Rich Rodriguez's time in this down was gone like the wind. Even after I sat through the 2008 Northwestern game, the 2010 MSU-Iowa-Wisconsin triumverate, and countless others, I find myself appreciative of the mere opportunity to be a part of it all. I wish things had gone a different way, but they didn't. I wish that Rich Rodriguez had made some better decisions and won some more games because I liked the guy and thought he was, all things considered, an excellent football coach, but he didn't. I wish that I had more time to spend in Ann Arbor, to spend the rest of my days eating Cottage Inn Pizza, walking to class in the snow, religiously not stepping on the M in the Diag, and all the countless things that make Ann Arbor what it is. 

The roar of the Big House crowd is what I will miss the most, levels of unadulterated noise that were only amplified by their relative scarcity (whether due to the performance on the field or the notorious key-jingling propensity of the fans that filled it). Denard's touchdown against Western, Greg Mathews's touchdown at the end of the '09 ND game, John Thompson's interception against Wisconsin...the list goes on and on, each one bound to the others in a fraternity of moments that I will never forget and can never be replicated. Each moment was unique and will never happen again, even if the same exact plays occur in the same exact manner in the future, which they surely will. The names on the backs of the jerseys will change, the head coach will be a different man, and the fans will all be different people; older, wiser, disillusioned, happier, sadder, sick, healthy, grateful, down, lucky. That is the beauty and the sadness of everything in life; everything only happens once in one specific, irreproducible way. If you miss it, you miss it, and that's that. 

While I wish that graduation and many difficult decisions weren't upon me, I look at everything that has happened fondly. It didn't work out perfectly, but I enjoyed my Michigan experience (football and otherwise) and I look forward to taking it out into the world. Many people go through life without loving anything, people or things, and so I'm lucky to say that I've found at least once such thing in Michigan. I am utterly grateful for my chance to witness history, to be able to say that I was there, like people talk about the '69 OSU game or the 1950 Snow Bowl. I was there when we lost to Appalachian State, I was there when Rich Rodriguez spoke at halftime of a basketball game against OSU, I was there when Steven Threet ran much farther than he probably should have, I was there when Michigan scored 67 points, I was there when Brock Mealer touched the banner, I was there when Coach Hoke got the nod. I was there and I will be there forever, whether I'm in Ann Arbor or not. That's all you can ask for. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

ALL IS WELL: Spring Game Observations and General Nostalgia

It seemed that it would never come, but after several months of post-bowl game doldrums it came and went in the blink of an eye. The weather was bleak in the annoying yet charmingly PURE MICHIGAN fashion, and the Ann Arbor permacloud was out in full force. It was almost like a real game in the fall, only it wasn't. While some of the happenings might serve to slightly tweak or reaffirm previously understood concepts (e.g., hey, Will Campbell is kind of big), it was a Spring Game and should take care to treat it as such.

With that said, some general observations:

-Quarterback play obviously left something to be desired, but insert general offensive transition rhetoric here. Much of the playbook is certainly (hopefully?) uninstalled as of now or was simply not utilized in this short 75 minute pseudo-game. As a general note, QB play in spring games across America has been largely unimpressive, with Arkansas's Tyler Wilson serving as one of the few exceptional performances to my knowledge. This is the way of spring football. Devin wasn't great, but he's still young, and in any case he's not supposed to start until after Denard graduates.

-It will be interesting to see how this staff handles the situation at tailback. Even with the new wave of Mike Cox hype, I'm still in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode. His touchdown run was a thing of beauty; his physical abilities are unquestioned. However, being a guy and the guy are two entirely different things, and whether or not Mike can handle this onus remains to be seen. A committee of backs will likely bear the load for the Wolverines in the fall, which isn't a bad thing. After all, we didn't have a carry-hoarding back in 1997, and look how that turned out. If Cox can be the A-Train, Shaw/Smith a jitterbug like Clarence Williams, and Hopkins a Chris Howard/Chris Floyd type, then things are pretty darn good. Of course, asking Cox to replicate Thomas's production is just a tad optimistic, especially given the current OL vis-a-vis the 1997 line (and subsequent lines) that Thomas had the privilege of running behind. Rawls is a wild card, and who knows what we'll get out of Toussaint, if anything.

-Although optimism should be tempered to an extent, the defense showed some signs of life for the first time in a while. Naturally, the defense should always be ahead of the offense in the spring (especially given the overhaul of the offense), but players like Jake Ryan, Carvin Johnson, and Marvin Robinson to an extent flashed some ability. I hope we can learn from Stevie Brown's career arc and play M-Rob at a LB position; his talents and overall scouting report seem to indicate that he could be a similar player down the road. I'd take a Stevie Brown circa 2009 any day at this point. The offense was perhaps set up to fail in some cases with the way Mattison called the scrimmage, but it's nice to see some defense of any kind.

-Will Campbell's struggles are well-documented, but he will certainly be a player that can make this defense go up twenty or so spots in the defensive rankings if he performs to expectations (which, admittedly, are quite lofty and often unrealistic). It took a while for the light to come on for Gabe Watson, and although he wasn't a Glenn Dorsey type at any point he was more than serviceable. If Will can approach that level of competence, including stuffing the run and/or allowing linebackers to make plays while also providing an occasional pass rush, his 2011 campaign will be deemed a success.


A long summer and fall camp separates us from the season, where optimism or pessimism are borne out or not. While many assumed that the 2011 would be similar to 2010, if not a win or even two better,  I would not be surprised to see this team take a small step back or reach 7-5 in the regular season once again. All might not be well, but what we saw on Saturday is a twisted, doctored version of the product we will see in the fall. Denard will run, a freshman or two will make some noise, and currently sidelined players will be back in the lineup barring any further setbacks. There are reasons for optimism...cautious optimism, but optimism nonetheless.

On a sad note, this was my final spring game as an undergrad, and my penultimate visit to the Big House in that same time (GRADUATION!). Each of the three spring games I was able to attend here were a joy and a privilege, and given that I'm not sure when my next chance to attend a game in the Big House will be, I cherish each and every one, and I encourage all of you to do the same. Seeing little kids run around on the field in over-sized helmets and jerseys and a small toddler crawling up the Big House steps, filmed by a smiling father with a small phone despite the light rain, are memories that will live on for as long as Michigan stands and as long as people choose to follow it. There is nothing like the spring game in the intimacy it provides while also providing the skeleton of the Michigan gameday experience. Watching Scott Boerma smile as the band engaged in some indecipherable chant and the rain fell and wayward passes hit the ground was all a subtle reminder that the whole day was about Michigan; not necessarily the product on the field in and of itself, but Michigan, generally. Take away the score (literally, no scoreboards) and the opponent and all that remains is Michigan, that thing that we love because of football and countless other reasons, and it is for this reason that I hope that the spring game can continue to grow as the team grows, and that one day we can replicate the kinds of turnouts seen elsewhere across the country.