I should start by pointing out that despite my best efforts to remain unbiased in the games I visit, unbiased reporting was not an option on Saturday. My grandparents met at Michigan. My Dad and his four brothers went there. My brother and eight of my cousins have gone there. I grew up singing “The Victors” and always assumed I would spend my college days in Ann Arbor. Though I ended up at a small school in Massachusetts, my Michigan fandom remains as strong as ever.
“Wait, do you even go here?” a senior girl who I’d been standing next to for the entirety of the fourth quarter asked me. My cover was blown. For the past two hours I’d endured a fan’s worst nightmare; standing in your rival’s student section while your team absolutely implodes. All in all, I thought I had done a pretty good job of hiding my misery. As the game wore on, the students around me got rowdier and rowdier. The fourth quarter was basically the pre-game to the night’s festivities. The Notre Dame band moved away from their traditional marches and began playing sing-a-longs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Every Time We Touch” by Cascada. The students posed for pictures during plays on the field. They danced and hugged and discussed plans for the evening. Throughout, I had managed a few smiles and even croaked out a few lines of song.
Now, I couldn’t bear it any longer. One of the greatest traditions at Notre Dame occurs after the game. Win or lose, after shaking hands with their opponent, the team walks to the Northwest corner of the field to the student section. Together, 100 or so players and 10,000 or so students put their arms around one another and sing the Alma Mater. Around the stadium, the vast majority of the 80,000+ crowd joins in as well.
I tried to avoid the moment – to make myself invisible. Standing exactly in the middle of the senior class section, however, I had no real choice but to put one arm around the girl standing next to me and awkwardly sway ever so slightly as the music played on. At some point in the song, the girl looked up at me. My jaw was set and my eyes were narrowed and pointed straight ahead. I must have looked like I was fighting back tears, which I suppose wasn’t far from the case.
For the past ten years, I can think back to where I was for Michigan’s first loss of the season. In college, after watching Michigan lose an overtime game to Michigan State, I promptly turned the TV off, left my friends without a word, and went on a ten-mile run. Another time, I had to watch a game on tape delay because I was competing in my own sporting event during game time. The only place to play VHS cassettes was in the library, so I staked out the video room as soon as I got back. When the game ended, with Michigan on the wrong side of a tight game, I snapped the cassette in two, chucked it in the trash, and stalked out of the library. Bewildered students watched me go.
The Notre Dame – Michigan rivalry ended on Saturday. Or at least, ceased to be an annual tradition. It ended in heartbreaking fashion for Wolverine fans. Michigan was shutout for the first time since the Reagan administration. Notre Dame seized control of the all-time highest winning percentage. Two key Michigan starters left the game with injuries. I had probably the worst seat in the house for a Michigan fan to watch. But in a way, that pain symbolized what this rivalry is all about.
For most of my lifetime, Michigan and Notre Dame have met in early September. The game is the first real test for both teams. In an environment where one loss basically eliminates you from national championship consideration, the game takes on added importance. The winner not only gets bragging rights and a boost in the national polls, they get the chance to dream. For at least another week, they get to think about what it would be like to go undefeated.
Walking out of the stadium on Saturday night, the pain I felt was an acknowledgement that only a week into the college football season, my hope was gone. Sure, Michigan could rally to win the Big Ten title. The Wolverines could beat Michigan State and that team from Ohio. But, at the end of the day, when your team loses a game, the rest of the season is not as much fun. If that first loss comes in November, you should consider yourself lucky because you got two months of dreaming. If that loss comes in September, a little piece of you is already looking towards next year.
More than anything it’s that pressure, the threat of altering your season so close to its inception, that makes the Notre Dame – Michigan rivalry so great. It’s that pressure that I’ll miss.