Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The final seconds ticked off and Michigan had lost again. It wasn't even close and by the time it was over I was already numb to it all. Chris Relf plowing through the line become a philosophical reality, and Bulldog linebackers streaming through our line on all-out blitzes like so many Haley's Comets turned life-destroying asteroids, wiping out Michigan's chances like the dinosaurs. An era was over, and despite the brief hope I held that somehow the vast layer of dust left by the impact would catch fire from some random wayward spark--reigniting the hope that once existed about the spread and Rich Rodriguez and the new and certainly better Michigan that would arise of it--it did not, and everything went dark for a while. We were left, leaderless, to madly wander the heath like King Lear, in the cold and in the dark and without direction or any sense of purpose or meaning. We were kings reduced to common men, crazy men.

Rich Rodriguez waited for his fate after the catastrophic failure that was the Gator Bowl (and much of the rest of his tenure) like Meursault, waiting for the gears of justice to finish grinding in order to provide a favorable verdict. After a while, it is easy to trick yourself into believing that something will turn out better than it will. Meursault's lawyer told him he expected a "favorable outcome," which, for me, would have been the retention of Rich Rodriguez and his offense, with, of course, some serious changes being instituted in an attempt to fix what had obviously been broken. Maybe those fixes were impossible because they were fixes to problems caused by things so deeply rooted in Rich's personality that it would've been like telling a consistently pessimistic person to look at the bright side of life. I convinced myself that maybe that would happen, but, like Meursault's case, it did not.

When the bell rang again, when the door to the dock opened, what rose to meet me was the silence in the courtroom, silence and the strange feeling I had when I noticed that the young reporter had turned his eyes away. I didn't look in Marie's direction. I didn't have time to, because the presiding judge told me in bizarre language that I was to have my head cut off in a public square in the name of the French people. Then it seemed to me that I suddenly knew what was on everybody's face. 
And, like that, it was over.


Five days later, Michigan had a coach. Each day seemed like a lifetime in and of itself as the program wandered like Lear, with the rain falling down turning the ash and the dust on the ground into a soft, extinguishing mud. Each day was stretched out and miserable, leaderless and void of anything, not even anything bad, by which to define ourselves. Each day we were left to twist in the wind, hoping for Harbaugh, for Miles (not me), for someone to come and say that they were the leader of this program and they would get on it then and there. Finally, we had that man, and, for a while, I was unhappy. But, as they say, it's in the past.

We're 72 hours and a tailgate away, and yet I get the feeling that it's happening too fast. I wonder if I've done everything I needed to do this offseason? I wonder if the team is ready? I wonder if Coach Hoke believes the things he is saying or if it's all a show? I wonder how media savvy Coach Hoke really is? Is Greg Mattison really that good? Does Borges really understand what he has in Denard? Does Denard really understand how fast he is, and how when there's nothing there on the pass he needs to go?

These aren't questions so much as expressions of anxiety. After a long hiatus, the 2010 season seems like the distant past, as does most of the Rich Rodriguez era. What came out of the Llody Carr era was rebirth, and from that hope, and from that resistance, and failure, and partial rebirth into failure and failure and failure and part of the partial rebirth into dread, the dread of the end and the dread of the beginning, like stabbing at the surface of a pool once, twice, three times before eventually taking the plunge for better or worse.

We're embarking on a slow shift the other way, the way we desperately strove to distance ourselves from after Crable blocked the outside guy on the final field goal against Appalachian State. The old way of doing things, whatever that may mean. There's nothing sarcastic or critical in that designation (particularly since this old way was more successful than the new way), as trying something new necessitates the existence of a prior way, an SOP of Michigan football. Everybody needs definition or else they risk extinguishing the fire of themselves, the thing that makes them do the things they do. For those five days, the fire fell to a low, dull glow, sickly and meek and embarrassing. It's a wonder what eight months can do. I went to bed on January 1st, thinking about what had just happened, what would happen, wondering what another restart would do to that flame. Those five days bore out our biggest inefficiencies, our at times hamfistedness, our determination to revert, to tear down, to criticize. Some threatened to leave if changes weren't made. Some said that all of this was a mistake. I had poured my entire heart into the revolution, and in the end, too many people had put down their guns and gone home.

I, myself, am furthering myself from certainty. This weekend marks the first home game for which I won't be in attendance since 2006. I don't know what I'll do, or how I'll handle it. This coming Saturday last year, I was in the stadium when Brock Mealer walked across the field. It got dusty.

I was starting my senior year, which I thought would never end, as people always do at the beginnings of things. I've had to adapt, to realize that things are now irrevocably different, that they won't be the way they've been the last four years, where I could walk to my window any evening of the week and hear a faint and distant rendition of The Victors, chopped up in pieces, played and replayed and perfected. I always wondered how they could practice it so many times, because when they played it during the games it sounded the same every single time.

I'm in New York now, a place that represents the antithesis of college football culture. I've seen my share of Michigan gear here and exchanged Go Blue's with people I would never see again. On my way back home to New York after a trip to Alabama in June, I met a Nebraska fan in the airport in Huntsville, AL. I told him I wished him well and that I hoped he would enjoy the Big Ten conference. He said that he was looking forward to it. I had over an hour until boarding; I ended up talking to this stranger, who was kind enough to approach me upon seeing my #16 jersey. He asked me if I was a Michigan fan, and I laughed and said yes while thinking how no answer would ever convey what I was thinking.


I got to watch Mike Hart and those guys for a year, my freshman year, after watching them play for three years while I was in high school in north Alabama, surrounded by Alabama and Auburn fans. Michigan won the Big Ten when Mike Hart and Chad Henne were freshmen, and even they they lost their last two games that season you had the feeling that an endless future extending to infinity existed, that three years of Henne and Hart might as well have been an eternity. Everybody said to wait till 2007, when they would be seniors. If you think this is good, wait till they're older, better, more experienced. Everything gets better, everything is linear and un-tampered with, watch this success unfold methodically. It was the height of certainty, as far as knew it, as certain as I could be as a 15-year old. I got to Ann Arbor in 2007, and things did not happen the way people expected them to, and uncertainty ruled the day.

Even then, the fire burned. It never wavered because I saw Mike Hart carry the ball 44 times against Penn State with strep throat. I saw a gimpy Chad Henne lead the Wolverines to a victory in Evanston after the young upstart Mallett proved to be unworthy of the throne. I watched Mike Hart pick up a fumble that miraculously bounced into his hands--on the first snap that Mallett took after Henne hobbled to the sidelines midway through the fourth--as if he was picking up his laundry and it was all perfectly logical and true to life.

It was absurd and irrational but it was memorable and it kept things alive. Hart did that his entire career; just when you thought things were over, when you thought that Michigan would lose to Michigan State for the first time in six long, dominant years, Hart pulled out a big bucket of kerosene and poured its contents all over his own body and set it on fire to prove a point. Even at the bottom, the smallest, most ridiculous events spawn things beyond their original scope. A seed becomes an apple tree, a fumble picked up like the stray singular sock on your bedroom floor becomes victory; unadulterated, undiluted victory. When I look back, I remember the defeats, but they litter the landscape light stray leaves, secondary aspects of a grander scene. Disappointment is relative, but memories are not. I remember Mike Hart doing that thing, and it was. It still is.

This team has has its heroes. I could go through them, but to draw attention to them is superfluous and most probably not what they would want themselves. The thing that's most worth knowing is that heroes will be born this season, but you might not know it until next year, or the year after, or 20 years down the road when you're wondering what happened to that guy or that guy.

We can't control what happens on the field, but we can control the fire that burns, that must burn, if you're a fan of any sort. I choose to relish the moments, the players, and the experiences I have with Michigan football. There's always a time for moping, a period of days or weeks when it's justifiable to be a cantankerous, horrible version of yourself. We are all allotted this time by ourselves, a special time we've set aside at the beginning that we've condemned yourselves to lose, like walking into a casino and saying you'll lose this much and that it's okay. 

I've learned, in four short years of horrible, frustrating, and exhilarating Michigan football, that you've got to take what comes, assimilate the failures into the overall sum of memories so that in the end they're indistinguishable. Selective memory is just another name for optimism. As long as you keep the fire burning, as long as you feed it and nurture it and remember why you even do it when it shoots up smoke and burns everything around it to the ground, leaving unseemly trails of blackened earth and ashy detritus, then you'll understand, and everything along the way becomes a part of the process, a part of the burning. After all, sometimes the only thing that lets you start over in earnest, is fire. 

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