Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Notes From The Big House

Though I had been a fan for years, I finally managed to attend my first University of Michigan football game a few weeks ago. It proved to definitely be a worthwhile experience and I found myself in awe of the spectacle that I had finally been privileged enough to witness. Though I would stop short of calling this a life-changing event, I have a new appreciation for what can draw an otherwise rational human being out of their usual roles as productive, well-heeled professional citizens of society and reduce them to drunken blubbering gridiron hooligans at the sight of anything bearing the school’s colors, maize and blue.

As with most other sports, the game itself is almost an afterthought in fan culture. Though certainly important, I would guess that very few of the 110,000 people who travel to Ann Arbor for every Wolverine home contest go there just for the sole purpose of watching a football game. They could stay at home and have a better grasp of what is happening on the field through their television screens. What they would not get though is the rush of being in the midst of tens of thousands of like-minded Wolverine fanatics and the unbridled joy of socially acceptable binge-drinking at seven in the morning.

Michigan game days start early. Mine started at 5:30am, waking up after spending the previous night indulging my passion for stout beer, nachos, buffalo wings and an end of night compliment of bean burritos from Taco Bell. I hopped into the shower immediately to clear the cobwebs out of my head but was done in mere minutes. Taco Bell burritos and The Big Buck Brewery’s Black River Stout are a volatile combination within one’s digestive tract and by 5:45am, I was dried, dressed and stationed atop a porcelain perch waiting for my ride to Ann Arbor to arrive. He did at 6:15 but by then, both my legs had fallen asleep.

Though wobbly and racked by an intense “pins-and-needles” sensation along every inch of my body below the butt-cheeks, I managed to get into the car for the hour-long journey to Ann Arbor and the event I had been anticipating all week. My partner in this excursion, who I’ll call Werner, was a German ex-patriot I used to work with and was somewhat put out by leaving for a sporting event six hours before it started but was a good trooper about it. He drove fast and we arrived at the golf course next to the stadium in under an hour despite several wrong turns.

My in-laws are devout disciples of the Michigan Wolverines and season ticket holders. They attend every U of M home game and tailgate at the golf course every time. If you ever find yourself at a University of Michigan home game, park at the golf course and look towards the back of the field atop the hill leading to the greens. They are the group with the tallest flag pole on the grounds, topped with the Stars and Stripes and the school ensign. Tell them that Jim sent you. And bring booze. They’re liable to beat you if you don’t. Anyway, we had arranged beforehand to team up with them before departing so that I could ensure Werner would be able to experience the American tradition of the tailgate party as well as his first football game.

It was a good move. It was a brutally frigid morning but by 9am, we had enough beer in us to ward off the chill. At 9:30, the grilling was nearly done and we were rewarded with what could possibly have been the second best hot dog (the best are found on street corners within the Tijuana entertainment district) I had ever tasted in my life. I’m sure it was not the brand or cooking technique that made the dogs so enjoyable, but the fact that by 9:30 we were pretty cold and had not put anything solid into our stomachs since the night before.

Before it was time to make our way to the stadium in time for kick-off, I made a point of walking the grounds. Since Michigan was only playing Indiana, a mediocre team to be complimentary, the golf course was not nearly as full as it would be the following week when the Wolverines would take on (and tragically lose to) Ohio State. Still, there was a carnival-like feel to the place. Besides the standard revelers, there were a few going the extra mile for kicks. I spotted one group of kids lined up with beer cans balanced atop their heads while another tried to knock them off with a thrown football. Flinching was punished by being forced to slam an entire can of beer on the spot. I spotted several beer bongs in use and would have been hard pressed to count the number of beer kegs on display. It was kind of like Woodstock but with a depressing absence of wanton public nudity. It must have been the temperature.

At sometime around eleven, we made our way across the golf course to the stadium. Upon reaching the official stadium parking lot, I saw a dramatic change in the tailgating demographics. The lot closest to the stadium’s entrance is reserved for rather wealthy alumni who, in addition to being season ticket holders, make considerable contributions to the school, probably in the tens of thousands of dollars range. The cars parked there had impressive luxury brand names and the pick-up trucks seemed to always have a very well-equipped fifth-wheel recreational trailer in tow. I spotted one rather obscenely expensive motor home in the lot, custom painted in Michigan colors and insignia complete with a retractable awning and a complete patio set-up beside it that took up three parking places. I didn’t see the owner of the setup but imagined he was inside the RV, in his 60s and sprawled out drunk on the couch while his wife hovered over him in a blue and gold vinyl cheerleading outfit, dripping hot candle wax onto his exposed nipples.

It is hard to not to be impressed once one has entered the University of Michigan’s football stadium, known locally as The Big House (which also happens to be street slang for a prison in the lexicon of the American underworld in years past). It is immense and packed, rarely accommodating less than 100,000 souls during any given game. The place abounds with pageantry and ceremony both on and off of the field and possesses a charged atmosphere that is something between a southern fundamentalist Christian religious revival and one of Adolf Hitler’s Nuremburg rallies. The crowd possesses a sort of ecclesiastic fraternal solidarity at one with a higher power. The mood is undeniably celebratory but with a dark undercurrent, as if at the drop of a hat its focus and motivations could suddenly take a turn for the worse and send the entire mob rushing out of the stadium on a God given crusade to invade Poland, or at least Hamtramck.

This energy reaches a climax during the band performance of the Michigan fight song “Hail to the Victors” just before the players take the field. Everyone in the stands know the words and it seems that everyone in the stands sings them with heartfelt passion and at the top of their lungs. It is hard to appreciate if you’re not in the middle of it but it is just impossible to describe how moving it can be to hear 110,000 people singing a revered anthem. Then again, 110,000 people singing anything would probably have a similar effect, even if it was just the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle”. I have to admit, I was a little choked up and surprised when the singing of our national anthem a short while later failed to produce the same kinds of feelings. It dawned on me halfway through “The Star Spangled Banner” that it did not elicit as much emotion because there were very few people in the audience that knew all of the words to it. Luckily, 2 fighter jets streaked past at its closing to help give the crowd a little patriotic boost just before the game began.

Unfortunately, the game just could not live up to the hype that preceded it. Don’t get me wrong, Michigan played very well but Indiana just did not show up. It was over by half-time with Michigan in the lead, 41 to 7. Lacking in suspense as to what the eventual outcome of the game was going to be, we left just after halftime when the Wolverines threw their third string players onto the field just to get some practice.

Back at the golf course, we indulged ourselves with a few more hot dogs and a few more beers before taking Werner’s client out for a very good dinner at Weber’s in Ann Arbor. After that, we ended back at my place for a nightcap and a much needed full night’s worth of sleep. The following afternoon, with my head still swimming in the post-bender fog, I watched the Detroit Lions squeeze out a rare win against the Arizona Cardinals. Even though it was a victory, I could not help but wonder why the Detroit Lions, a group of men who are handsomely compensated for what it is they do, can not seem to drum up half of the drive, motivation and enthusiasm than the Michigan Wolverines, who essentially play for free.

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