*Note: One of our very few readers, and one of our very many cousins, Jonathan Brater of Ann Arbor, MI (though currently walking the halls of Congress) will grace us from time to time with some thoughts on sports from the perspective of someone from the North. Enjoy!
My 11th Birthday was not a good one. Why should you care? Well... you shouldn't. But if you're going to read the rest of this, it's relevant. When I turned 11, a few good things happened. I got a bicycle - diamondback outlook. Very nice. I think a girl at school kissed me on the cheek - that was the most action I'd get for awhile. The problem is, on that particular weekend, a fellow named Kordell Stewart decided to heave a ball 75 yards into the south end zone at Michigan stadium, off the hands of a couple over-eager young men in maize and blue uniforms, and into the waiting hands of Michael Westbrook, whom, we were disappointed to discover, was clad in a different hue.
The shocked hush at Michigan Stadium that followed was not the first to grace the corner of Stadium and Main in Ann Arbor. But for me, at least, it marked a significant turning point in terms of the way I interacted with sports. As I realized that we had just lost a game in a way that it is scarcely possible to lose a game, my reaction was... not a shocked hush. It was a shocked string of profanities that my parents were probably surprised I knew. And then the waterworks. Think losing team in the little league world series waterworks. Simply put, I cried like a little b... a little boy. And while I was probably a bit too old to be crying at the result of a football game, (I think the only other time I cried in the 7-11 age range is when Optimus Prime died in transformers. Damn that was devastating) I can't really blame myself. Like those LLWS kids, something I had invested a lot of myself in had just turned into a f---ing train wreck.
There was, however a key difference between those kids and me: I had no input, no control whatsoever over the events that had unfolded. For me, like billions of others around the world, my happiness, sanity, and psychological well-being depended, as it does to some extent continue to depend, on an outcome that I had no ability to effect. Does this make it less painful when things go awry, or more so?
I saw a hush just like the Colorado hail mary hit Michigan Stadium on September 1 of this year. The inconceivable had happened. A division 1-AA school (I will not say FCS) had come into Ann Arbor and trashed the national championship dreams of a senior-laden Michigan team, tabbed by most to win the suckier-than-ever-before Big Ten and send the coach out on top in what many believe to be his final season. In a certain sense, a purely football sense, this should not, perhaps, have been as shocking as it seemed. Fast team, spread offense, running quarterback, well coached - it's been well known for at least 10 years that this is how you beat Michigan. But on a conceptual level, as a Michigan fan, it was and remains impossible to accept.
It seems paradoxical that so many invest so much in something so beyond our control. But it's exactly that relationship that can make fandom such an intense, tolling, and desperate experience. What happens on the field is so magnified that it becomes other-worldly. Sure, many of us have played a little ball, know a couple guys on the team, or whatever, but that doesn't mean we understand what it's like to be down there. If we could understand it, if we could participate in it, it would lose much of the mystique. For most of us, the experience of watching a game that we care about is tantamount to surrendering our will to a higher power- one that operates in a world where fundamental tenets are supposed to apply.
If your team of choice happens to be a college football powerhouse, one of those rules is that, win or lose, the team isn't supposed to lose "it." Losing that game in 1994 was brutal, but it was not a fall that transcended any significant boundaries. Michigan had just beaten Notre Dame the week before, back when that was an accomplishment, and was, like this year's team, ranked in the top 5, and poised for a title run. That didn't happen, but the order of the universe nevertheless remained intact.
Such was not the case earlier this month. The God damn plane had crashed into the God damn mountain. This was the Titanic. This was the Hindenburg.
Obviously, watching that game, I reacted somewhat differently than my 11-year-old self. When I was little, growing up in Ann Arbor, I literally worshipped these guys. When I was 7, I was at some fan appreciation thing, when Desmond Howard threw me a football, and I somehow managed to catch it. When he said "nice grab," I nearly soiled myself. I dunno, maybe I did. Even in high school, I used to walk by the players practicing on the way to school. It still seemed larger than life. I just turned 24, (and no, Abram did not call me on my birthday) and I haven't lived in Ann Arbor for 6 years, so I obviously view things a bit differently. Some of these kids are only 3/4 of my age. I know full well that when I was 18 that I didn't know jack, and i can't imagine it's different for many of these guys. I have to think, as the years pass, it will seem more and more ludicrous to follow the exploits of athletes that get younger and younger than I am. I'm not going to be these guys.
So no, I'm not going to cry when my team loses a football game. I can also, mercifully, drink alcohol, which as we all know, serves the wonderful purpose of interfering with the brain signals that otherwise allow us to act like functional human beings. And oh, did it serve me well in that regard on Sept. 1. But I have to admit, as the debacle ended, I didn't think of the devastating implications, or the wave of insults followed by anger followed by self pity that would grip the Michigan-verse. I thought of that day in 1994, and wondered, as I have after many a loss, why I care so much about what these college kids are doing. It makes no sense. It's meaningless.
Which is exactly why I'm about to buy a plane ticket to Ann Arbor for the weekend of November 17.
Hey, it's the Ohio State game.