Part Three of our travel series to Ann Arbor, courtesy of our friends at Hampton
How can you possibly begin to tell the story of what happened yesterday? How can you possibly start to sum up the pandemonium, the emotional roller coaster, and the sheer absurdity? We'll have to try with starting at the beginning, but I reserve the right to change my mind halfway through.
It might have been a noon kickoff, but we got an early start, hitting the hotel breakfast at 7:30, which already had a spattering of Buckeye fans, and would become a majority scarlet-clad by the time we left. I found myself running late after getting in a long conversation with a family of Michigan fans who made the trip from Massachusetts, ruminating on everything on Hoke's job security (better be safe, but that Al Borges guy has a cubicle with his name on it at Florida Atlantic or something), the likely crowd situation at the Big House (a "true" Michigan Man would never dump his Ohio State tickets on the cheap) and a few funny stories about Ted Kennedy when he was running for president in 1980 that I promised I wouldn't print. Eventually, I looked at my watch, saw it was 8:40, and decided it was about time to make my way to the stadium and see what all of this was about.
There was a shuttle running from my hotel to Michigan Stadium, but the first one didn't leave until 10 a.m., and judging from the crew already assembled for free waffles and orange juice, it was going to be packed. According to the front desk, it would be at least an hour before anyone would be able to summon a cab. Google Maps said it was only about 2.2 miles away, so we decided to walk; we weren't the only ones.
The pay-for-parking lots popped up almost as soon as we walked onto State Street, mere minutes from the hotel. Three hours before gametime, lots were filling up quickly more than two miles from the stadium, many full of tailgaters, already deep in their grilling game. About halfway through, we found a huge golf course, already about a third full of RVs, trucks, tents, and various other partygoers. Most of the vehicles were Michigan-clad, but there were a few Buckeye ones sticking out. I joked, but once this lot filled up, it would be larger than my hometown of around 5,000.
After surveying the tailgating scene and listening to The Best Damn Band In The Land practice, we actually made our way into The Big House. From the outside, Michigan Stadium certainly doesn't *look* that big. It isn't the concrete monstrosity of Ohio Stadium, at least. Once you step inside the actual stadium and take that first step down the steps, you realize how big everything is. And that is the correct word. The scoreboards are big. The steps are big. And as you march down those steps towards your seat, you become acutely aware that this crowd is big, over 113,000 fans if you're the type to count those things. Even a non-football fan could appreciate the sheer scope of the enterprise, although few of the 113,000 would fall into that category.
The only thing about Michigan Stadium that isn't big, sadly, is the actual seating. It's straight bleachers, all the way through, so Michigan is counting on every fan to be roughly the same size (c'mon man, this is the midwest...AFTER THANKSGIVING), and to hold strictly fidelity to their correct row and seat, despite emotions running high and blood alcohol content riding higher. This was a fools errand, so seating assignments could only be treated as an approximate suggestion. This bothered a few Michigan Men and Women.
I should take a break here for this public servant announcement. By and large, the Michigan fans I encountered on this trip were the pinnacle of class and grace, especially after a total gutpunch of a loss (SPOILER: Ohio State wins!), and even when perhaps I was not so muted in my celebration. Anything that I write here should not be interpreted as a slur against the Michigan fanbase (which is smart and was kind to us) or Ann Arbor (which is a lovely town).
The woman sitting behind us was not happy with the ad-hoc nature of the seating arrangement, especially after the Buckeye fans in our area (it was about 40-60 in favor of Michigan fans) stood up to better see Script Ohio. She loudly reminded everyone, in her best approximation of a "principal voice" that we needed to remain confined to our seats, and should sit down, lest she and other Michigan Men be unable to see. When reminded that if we sat, we wouldn't be able to see because OTHER people were standing, she responded with "well, they should be sitting too", as if that would be a satisfactory answer to the fan who paid $150 bucks for their ticket and now was unable to see. When the rest of our section, primarily Buckeye fans, remained unconvinced that her self-awarded Senior Director of Seating in Row 17 job title was a sufficient credential, she became angrier and angrier.
She pouted throughout the entire pregame, including the flyover and appearance by an actual bald eagle (an omen perhaps?). The two gentlemen standing in front of us, Michigan-clad gentlemen from Georgia (and self described Georgia fans "who don't have a dog in the fight") took us aside and said "listen, no matter what happens in this game, I hope we can all come together and appreciate the fact that the bald eagle was freakin' awesome." We all agreed, as the southerners took the first of what would be many hits from a flask hidden in their sock.
I won't spare you too much in the way of commentary of the actual game, but let it be known that my emotional state remained frazzled for the entire first half. The Seat Director standing behind me took personal joy at this, and she would literally scream in my ear, a nasally, high pitched shrill of a scream every time Michigan did anything right. AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHEEEEEEEEE, at decibel levels normally reserved for dog whistles. Michigan Stadium is not that loud (noise has to be pumped in; their band is mic'd), but this fan behind me....she was.
When Ohio State did something well, her retort was to loudly challenge the moral character of the players (they cheat! they're thugs!), the coach (Urban is a cheater!) or perhaps their supporters. Such behavior should be expected when one comes into enemy territory, and I can't promise that she would have necessarily been awarded better treatment in Columbus, but between the screaming and the poor performance on the field, I may or may not have tweeted "somebody please send bail money, just in case", right as my phone died.
As Ohio State opened up a 14-point lead late in the 3rd quarter, I started to relax a tiny bit, but as anybody who read the box score knows, such peace was short lived. My wife became more invested in my own emotional well being than the actual score, as I'm sure my face took on the same sort of white-knuckle, sweaty fear that came with trying to land that cardboard airplane out of Greenville.
After Michigan scored what should have been the tying touchdown and lined up to go for two, I think my knee might have actually buckled a little. My heart, perhaps slowed by the residue of Thanksgiving dinner and Zingerman's the previous day, would have not been able to handle an overtime. From my vantage point, already crowded as the fan behind me abandoned her principles and stood on my bleacher seat, inching behind me, crowding me, I couldn't really see the far endzone. I saw the pass go up, and somebody caught something, and the muted roar of some part of the crowd, and OhMyGodTheBuckeyesHaveIt and I nearly collapsed, bear hugging my wife, nearly too emotionally spent to scream. The Buckeyes escape.
When the final horn sounded, I composed myself enough to scream with my Buckeye compatriots. I didn't even give my tormentor the satisfaction of looking at her, where I don't doubt she was muttering something about how a True Michigan Man 'wins the right way" or something. I grabbed my wife around the arm, and sang Carmen Ohio with the rest of my newfound best friends at the top of my lungs, awash in relief and satisfaction. If we were to continue that plane landing metaphor, our aircraft lost a wing about twenty minutes ago, and somehow safely landed amid a fiery inferno. The Buckeyes were still undefeated. I wouldn't have to try and remember how to write a losing story.
I sought out my friends standing in front of me. "Fellas. I just want you to know one thing."
"That bald eagle, though. Did it kick ass or what?"
They laughed. "It sure did."