I grew up half way in between Detroit and Ann Arbor. They are two very different cities. I have a fondness for both cities in general and a love for both city’s football teams in particular. Since I was an only child I’d throw the football around the backyard to myself alternating my fantasies between being the quarterback of the Detroit Lions winning the Superbowl and the running back of the Wolverines scoring the winning touchdown against Ohio State. They were of equal value to me. When I won any of those mythical games I would spike the ball and run to my imaginary teammates to celebrate. I don’t recall doing any pre-orchestrated dances where I feigned twirling a sword or boogied in a night club before shooting myself in the leg. And I never remember throwing my arm in the air to celebrate making a simple first down, but it was a long time ago so who knows. I doubt it.
Sports have changed quite a bit since I was that under 10 year old boy. I know it’s easy to play the “remember when” game and place an inordinate value on the way things used to be, but really it’s true, isn’t it? Sportsmanship was better. Integrity was more genuine. We played for the logo on the front of our shirts way more than we played for the name on back of our shirts. Things were simple. Amateur athletes were amateurs and professionals were professionals in the truest senses of those words. And just when you think that maybe you will never get that feeling again, something happens that reminds you that at times it’s just as good as it used to be.
Yesterday I went to the “Big House” to see my first Michigan vs. Ohio State game in person in at least 20 years. Many call it the best rivalry in all of sports. I realize that I’m biased, but I truly can’t imagine anything that could possibly be better than this. Yankees vs. Red Sox? ESPN try again. Ravens vs. Steelers you are “Johnny come lately”. Florida vs. Florida State. Notre Dame vs. USC. Lakers vs. Celtics. Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs. All very nice rivalries. But this is “The Ohio State” university, and as we found out again yesterday finally, “This is Michigan”.
As we walked up to the stadium I got those same old chills that I got for the first time when I was about 8 and my Dad took me to the “Big House” long before it carried the nickname. On this day we tailgated with new and old friends in both maize and blue as well as scarlet and gray. There was fun, there were Bloody Marys, there was good nature ribbing and there was respect. Respect for a game that has endured more than 100 years of history with swings in both directions. Maybe you would recognize these famous “one name” players in this historical game like Woody, Bo, Desmond, AC, or Archie, maybe you wouldn’t, but if you had been in the “Big House” yesterday it wouldn’t have mattered at all. You still would have know you were experiencing something remarkably special.
For three and a half hours two teams of talented young men fought for yards and traded leads. There were great individual efforts and amazing team plays. They fought for the colors on their jerseys and not for the recognition. They played harder than they had ever played individually and collectively out of respect to all those who had played in this game in the past. Both programs have experienced great controversy and great change in the past few years, but on this day none of that mattered in the least. In the end the home team won by six points on a tough defensive stand that could have gone either way. When it was over the media talking heads asked Michigan first year coach Brady Hoke how he felt about beating “Ohio” in his first year. His answer? “Oh, I don’t know, it’s not really about me. I’m just happy for those Seniors,” as he pointed to the corner of the stadium where the team was celebrating and singing Hail to the Victors with the students and the band. In a similar vein Ohio State coach Luke Fickell, a man who is likely to be replaced as soon as tomorrow by the fabled Urban Meyer said, “I’m hurt. I’m hurt for those players in the locker room who played their hearts out.” In both cases this was no lip service, it was true, sincere and emotional.
In an age where sports is filled with meglomaniacs and millionaires, every once in a while you are lucky enough to see a true display of sportsmanship and integrity. Michigan vs. Ohio State. Bitter rivals. Midwestern survivors. Hated enemies. Respectful competitors. The names in the game change over the years. The integrity and the sportsmanship prevails. You see, this is “The Ohio State University” and “This is Michigan”.
And this is and always will be “The Game”.