Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Familiar Feeling, A New Feeling

In less than 72 hours, Michigan will take the field time zones away from Ann Arbor, in a stadium of red and white on a Thursday night. Like the beginning of every campaign, there's a growing sense of a paradoxical far-off imminence (something that is probably a magnificent word in the German lexicon not available to English speakers).

The first game is near, yet far. We are all hurtling through the dark and dusty space that is the offseason -- a wormhole beckons. Next to it is a sign: "Here for college football." It is both far away and very close, the wormhole. Who knows how long it will take to get there, and what will happen once there.

You spend hours and hours waiting, but really they're months. February passes, and then you wake up one day and the snows have melted for good. A walk outside without an umbrella becomes a foolish venture in the rainy days of spring. Summer hits, those dog days.

Then August. August, August, August. Time stretches and bends and distorts. As a fan, it almost feels closer to football on Aug. 1 than it does on Aug. 31.

But it's game week: finally.

This time, things are different. Not in the sense that "Michigan is back," or anything like that. Things are different -- and as I write this, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is.


I haven't written here in a while -- life has gotten in the way. Nothing has changed about my obsession with Michigan sports, the obsession that pushed me to start this thing on a perfectly uneventful summer night five years ago.

But as anyone knows, when you get a little bit older, things change, particularly once you are no longer a student (undergraduate or graduate) and are, what they might call, a "real person." This is a terrifying metamorphosis, for all of the obvious reasons, but perhaps one of the least consequential subset of changes is the way fandom changes over time.

For the first time last year, I found myself getting up during game action to grab something from the kitchen. There was once a time when, once the game started, I did not move from my sitting spot, as if tethered to it for eternity or the end of the game, whichever came first.

Last year, during the Indiana game, I vaguely remember falling asleep during a portion of the third quarter. It was a long week and a dreary day, and even the surprising success of Ann Arbor's own Drake Johnson couldn't fend off a doze.

Maybe I was tired. Maybe I'm getting older. Maybe it was something else: indifference, a dissipation of pointless resolve.


A counterpoint, exemplifying said pointless resolve. Once, as a freshman at Michigan, in 2007, I stayed for the duration of the Oregon game. Until the bitter end, I always thought, and that didn't change then. A reasonable person would think of the hours wasted at a game that was headed for dissatisfaction: I, like some indeterminate thousands in that stadium, decided to stay, out of some misplaced sense of duty (or, less romantically, the selfish ability to say, years down the road, that I stayed, pointlessly).

Even after the hire of Jim Harbaugh, the offseason took hold, and I will admit -- and this is alarming to write -- that a cousin of indifference continued to hold sway. Life has a way of flicking away less consequential things, sports and the watching of them. At least, it tries to do that.

And so the months went by, and Harbaugh stories rolled in: the summer of Harbaugh. He helped people involved in car accidents, he endeared himself to many by stonewalling Colin Cowherd, he upset coaches far away by setting up camps on their turf, he recruited, he talked about Bo, he unleashed the crazy.

And yet, slightly older me viewed it from afar, bemused but not invested, yet. We've seen this before, after all. Contrast this approach with what I imagine would have been my reaction to all of this as an 18-year-old, or a Michigan sophomore, or even someone a year out of Ann Arbor, and the gulf is vast.

I would have once yelled upon hearing the news of the Harbaugh hire, shared every story I read about his antics, texted and called friends and family to talk about the man who had returned.

Just the other week, I explained to someone how I thought a 7-win season in 2015 is a reasonable expectation, as if I was in a lukewarm conversation about mutual funds or a plant-based diet low in cholesterol or the hopes of an NFL franchise. They could lose to Minnesota, you know. Utah is assuredly a loss, I posited. The gap is too wide between Michigan and the teams at the top, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Let's wait until next year, I thought. But then next year, the linebackers are gone. And next year, the mutual fund of quarterbacks, Jake Rudock, is gone, leaving a yet-unproven Shane Morris and a parade of even-less-unproven young signal callers. And next year, Michigan has to travel to both East Lansing and Columbus. Worries, all of them.

It seems as if life, and its worries, have infiltrated the safe space that has always been college football. Even when it isn't safe (see: 2014 Michigan football, or, really, almost anything from the past eight years), it was something to be excited about, to invest in and not care about the repercussions.

The beginning of each season was once like what I imagine the moment when a first-time skydiver steps to the edge, the infinite air ahead and below and above. But, over time, it became something else: something to be approached reasonably, with caution, with care.

This, it goes without saying, is a regrettable development.

Sometimes, it takes something small to kick you out of something like that, to climb out of a place where caution and reason exert their influence, like a 3-yard hitch on 3rd and 5.

The other day, I read this story about Harbaugh's reaction to a phone call from Michael Jordan. As a native of Illinois, something clicked. Here was Harbaugh, revered by many to be the man destined to return Michigan to a prior state, reacting with awe to a call from -- and I unabashedly say this, despite the aforementioned pseudo-cynicism -- MJ, a hero of my childhood.

"Come onnn, who is this?" he said.

I don't know if that transcription is an embellishment, or a reflection of the conversation. Did he really say "onnn," like someone truly awestruck, like, for example, me if I received an unexpected phone call (a redundant phrase, of course) from Michael Jordan?

Did he? You might think this a splitting hair, a negligible footnote.

It matters, not because of its inherent truth or untruth, but because its truth or untruth doesn't matter.

And with that realization, as I've come to it now, I realize that I'm ready for football. I'm ready for the weekly parade: the afterglow of the previous game extending to Monday and Tuesday, the beginnings of mental preparation on Wednesday and Thursday, the imminence of Friday, and the anguish and exaltation of Saturday morning.

Harbaugh was awed, I believe, because, quite simply, I think that he was. I really do. It fits with the picture of him as a person, simultaneously aware and unaware of his station in the football universe. It's an agreeable thought, a simple one.

In the summer of Harbaugh, with the man preparing to take his first Michigan team into a season -- how weird is that to type, even now -- he took the time to reflect on a summer phone call with Michael Jordan.

Come onnn. Jim Harbaugh, coaching Michigan?

It's real. No, really.

In a rush, it's all coming into picture. The little human interest stories, the camp quotes, the discussions of his personal quirks, were all seemingly disparate dots, disconnected but amusing, like a standup comedian connecting on approximately two-thirds of his or her jokes. A good show, a spectacle, maybe even memorable.

But they hadn't formed up together, a picture of meaning.

I don't know how many games Michigan will win, but the picture, in these last few weeks, has started to become more clear. Michigan has a coach, a great coach, who has returned to the place of his youth, a place in which he won games and made declarations (guarantees, even).

Forget the football storylines and the personnel hand-wringing: that is a story to cling to, an idea worth investing in, like the idea of the Rich Rodriguez offense was worth investing in or the lovable yet stern persona of Brady Hoke once stood as a beacon of something more. But, of course, there's more to it than those vestiges of Michigan's recent past.

This, this is a story. A combination of proven excellence and quixotic wanderings of the mind. We are witnessing a homecoming, different than any other we've seen.

And if this sounds like a building cult of personality -- if you'll excuse one more intrusion from Cynical Fan -- well, I suppose it's too late for Cynical Fan to pump the brakes on that train. It's out of the station, screeching across the tracks from Salt Lake City to State College, leaving sparks in its wake like a continuous fireworks show, laughing metallically into the quiet heart of America, bombastically announcing its presence wherever it goes.

College football was never meant to be reasonable. It was never meant to be analyzed. It was born in a nebulous era when you got maybe one game on TV, or were able to huddle up to a radio, with the hope of hearing something worth remembering. It was born in an information void: you took what you could and filled in the gaps with mythology.

For a little while, I forgot that. Remembering that, I think, was the greatest victory of this offseason.

And this is the moment when I, the previously cynical, walk up to the edge in that college football skydiving aircraft.

What lies below? Who knows. A soft landing spot, maybe, or perhaps not.

But, you know, there's no story in the would-be skydiver who didn't skydive, who stayed in the plane and upon bumping down on a remote landing strip, drives home safe and sound.

It's 2015, the only 2015 season there will ever be. It's 2015, the only first-Jim-Harbaugh-season there will be. It's 2015, the time-space home of the only summer of Harbaugh there will ever be (there will be other summers, in which Harbaugh does Harbaugh things, but this is the only summer of Harbaugh). It's 2015, the only time this particular version of newness will ever be before us.

Forget the rest: that's the crux. That's all there is, and all there needs to be.