The following has (almost) nothing to do with autism. But it’s my blog, and I’ve got a few things on my mind, and they touch on some of my favorite things and they involve my son. It’s long. You’ve been warned. If the photo above doesn’t intrigue you, feel free to move along. I won’t be offended.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I’m a fan of the University of Michigan’s athletic teams. I’m not just a fan, I’m an alum. My years in Ann Arbor were a wonderful experience, in no small part due to the time I spent in various stadiums, arenas and rinks cheering on Michigan teams. Michigan football has kept me tied to both my college friends and my university. In the two decades since I graduated, I have taken dozens of road trips to attend games, both in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, mostly with the same core of friends I met as a freshman.
I would rather spend a fall Saturday afternoon in Michigan Stadium than just about any place on earth. And literally from the day Ryan, my first child, was born, I dreamed of sharing the Michigan football experience with him.
We dipped our toe in the water in 2009 and managed to tack a Michigan game on to what was a hockey road trip. That day, an otherwise miserable loss in a miserable season for the Wolverines, remains one of my favorite Michigan moments.
We didn’t try again until last year, but the wait was so worth it. We went to two games together, watching one close win over a terrible opponent and one horrendous, quadruple-overtime loss. And despite that, they were both awesome.
If you follow college football at all, you’ve probably heard some rather unflattering Michigan headlines this week. Actually, the news has been so bad that may have heard about it even if you don’t follow sports. But for those that need the quick synopsis: Michigan is awful. The team is 2-3 and getting worse. That alone would be enough to bring calls for the coach’s dismissal, but that’s not why the Wolverines were featured on the Today Show and World News Tonight this week. In last Saturday’s loss to Minnesota, sideline chaos and miscommunication led to Michigan allowing a player who had suffered a concussion to stay in, and then return to, a game, even as a horrified stadium crowd and national TV audience watched.
It was a shameful display of incompetence and abdication of the responsibility to protect the players that suit up and take the field each week. Michigan’s much-delayed, tone-deaf, likely-written-by-lawyers, released-in-the-middle-of-the-night, response was pathetic and revealed even deeper dysfunction within an athletic department that is tasked with running a multimillion-dollar business.
In the wake of this fiasco, there have been petitions and rallies calling for the dismissal of the director of athletics. The coach? His firing is a foregone conclusion. Fans are staying away in droves, leaving Michigan’s famed “Big House” well short of its 109,000-person capacity. There are talks of boycotts. Fans have taken to message boards and Twitter to discuss whether it’s appropriate for dissatisfied fans to stop attending games and stop watching on television. I was considering taking a trip to Ann Arbor this season, as I try to do almost every year, but those plans have been shelved. However, there is one game that I was never going to miss. Saturday night, Michigan plays in my home state of New Jersey for the first time in the program’s 135-year history when it takes on Rutgers in Piscataway. I arranged for tickets in the spring. I picked up extras because so many of my local Michigan buddies were planning to attend.
And now, this. People are bailing left and right. I don’t blame them. The market to sell tickets on StubHub has cratered. My dreams of taking the entire family to a game for the first time have been put on hold.
Me? I never really entertained the thought of not going. Ryan and I will be in that stadium for kickoff, along with my neighbor, a Rutgers grad and fan, and a friend from my Michigan days.
The reasons for this are many. I’m unhappy with the on-field performance of the football team, which finds itself at one of the lowest moments in its storied history. I am embarrassed by this week’s scandal, as much by the university’s flimsy response as the incident itself. I have joined the online chorus calling for change at the top.
But I can’t imagine not watching. After 25 years of riding an emotional roller coaster with this team every Saturday, it’s in my DNA. I am a fan of many sports, but to me there is a fundamental difference to college football. It’s more than a sport. It’s a religion, and Saturdays in a packed college stadium are the closest thing sports have to a revival meeting. The flock converges to support the faithful, sing the hymns, and share time with fellow true believers.
College sports is a mess. So much money has crept in that, at the highest levels, it’s impossible to deny that it is a pseudo-professional league masquerading as an exercise with amateur athletes that are there to pursue a higher education. Its business model is broken, as massive surges in revenue have been spent lavishly and enjoyed by everyone associated with the sports, except for the athletes that create the value. I know this. I agree with many of the calls for reform. I wonder if it will even be around in any recognizable form in another 10, 20 or 30 years.
But at kickoff, in a packed stadium? All that goes away. I’ll be on my feet, screaming my head off, hoping against hope that Michigan can rediscover how to play football.
I will go because when I was 10 or 11 and on a summer driving trip to Michigan’s upper peninsula, I made my parents get off the highway just so I could ride past Michigan Stadium, which I knew to be the largest in the country.
I will go because the first time I walked into that stadium as a freshman in 1990, I was enveloped by an energy that captivated all my senses and made the hair on my neck stand up.
I will go because in 1994, I was there when Kordell Stewart threw a ball 73 yards and made 100,000 people lose their voice in an instant, sucking the air out of the place like a black hole collapsing.
I will go because in 1997, I had an out-of-body experience watching Charles Woodson return a punt up the left sideline and right towards the end zone where I was standing and jumping up and down, not believing my eyes.
I will go because in 1998, I talked my new wife into taking a trip to Hawaii to see Michigan play — and she agreed to the trip.
I will go because my freshman dorm buddy V. and I have traveled to at least seven different states to watch Michigan play, cementing what I know will be a life-long friendship. He and I sat together at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1998 and watched Michigan win an improbable national championship — making my sports bucket list pretty much complete before I hit 27.
I will go because of Dreisbach-to-Hayes, Biakabutuka’s 313 yards vs. Ohio State and Tom Brady shredding Alabama. Because of John Navarre in the 100th Michigan-Ohio State game. Because of the Braylon-fest comeback vs. Michigan State. Because of the scar on my right knuckles, which I got after jumping up and hitting my hand on the ceiling after Henne-to-Manningham in 2005. Because of Denard Robinson vs. Notre Dame in the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium, and Devin Gardner vs. Notre Dame in the second. I will go because of how each of them made me feel, whether I watched on TV or in the stadium.
I will go because Robinson and Gardner are two of the most likable players in any sport I’ve ever had the pleasure to root for. I will go because Gardner, once again the starting quarterback after an unceremonious benching last week, deserves my support. He will leave Michigan after playing for two head coaches and three offensive coordinators, and with two degrees. And because of what he almost pulled off against Ohio State in 2013 while playing with a broken foot.
I will go because my work allowed me the opportunity to skate on the Winter Classic rink at the Big House last year, and it was one of the greatest experiences (non marriage and birth-of-children category) of my life. I’m not ashamed to admit I knelt down and kissed center ice before leaving the rink.
I will go because I watched Michigan lose to UCLA while holding Ryan, the day after he was born. I alternated singing Hail to the Victors to him and explaining how we would watch many more games together.
I will go because it took nine years to make that a reality, and when I turned to my right in the fourth quarter of an ugly Michigan loss and saw Ryan throwing up his arm in a “hail,” along with the fight song, I began sobbing crocodile tears instantly, and when I called my wife to tell her, I could barely talk — and she understood exactly what that moment meant to me. I get choked up just thinking about it now.
I will go because the two games we went to last year, neither of which will be fond memories for Michigan fans, will always have a special place in my heart because I shared them with Ryan, and because of the long road we traveled to get there. Those are memories I will cherish forever, and a wise person taught me the value of that.
The Wolverines are coming to my home state. I will go because Ryan wants to. I will go because my Michigan buddy D., who I don’t get to see as much as I’d like, is coming with me. I will go because my friend and neighbor C. is also coming. He’s a long-suffering Rutgers grad and friend, and I was with him at Rutgers Stadium in 2006 when the Scarlet Knights beat Louisville on national TV and I watched an entire stadium revel in the experience of arriving at the doorstep of greatness. I will go because if you weren’t affected by the euphoria in that stadium that night, you are likely a cyborg.
I’ll go because, no matter Michigan’s record or the negativity swirling, I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Hail to the Victors. Go Blue.