Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fanaticism and Football

I was bouncing back and forth on mgoblog yesterday for about the thousandth time in the past week when I came across Zone Left's belated response to Brian's conclusion of his 2010 team preview.  The final piece of the preview dealt with an email that had been floating around his inbox for months from a wayward philosophy student at Trinity College who was trying to come to terms with his love of Notre Dame football in relation to "urrybody else."  Both Zone Left and Brian go over the great pains that their fandom has put them through, and ultimately come to admittedly insufficient conclusions about why this team means as much to them as it does.

Probably the first player I ever really remember.
I feel compelled then to take a stab at this question as well, if only to in some way justify to myself the inordinate amount of time I spend thinking or reading about Michigan football to the detriment of almost everything else in my life.  It is either that or I shrug it off, mutter "fuck it", and go back to worrying that Bowling Green's backup quarterback will be an effective replacement on Saturday, Ezeh will play passive at MLB, and Mouton will continue his regression to 2009 levels of linebacker play.  I would like to think asking myself why I would spend all day worrying about this is more productive than simply worrying about it.


It wasn't always like this.  I have been a Michigan fan pretty much my whole life but never to the extent that I am now.  On the most basic level I was born into it.  My father was a graduate and devoted fan of the Wolverines which exposed me to the team long before I could ever really have any perspective on what I was seeing.  I remember being aware of Tim Biakabutuka   probably the first UM player I ever knew of   but I was only 10 at the time and my understanding and interest in football were still in the developmental stages.  I cheered along when he wracked up ridiculous yards and scored jaw dropping touchdowns, but it was more reflexive to what I saw around me.  I learned how to be a fan in the earliest stages by mimicking the fan behavior of my father.  When he cheered, I cheered.  When he stood up and yelled obscenities at the TV, I did too.  Father son bonding at it's finest.

It wasn't hard to get excited about Charles Woodson.
The first time the team went from being something that my father had a rooting interest in to something that I had a rooting interest in was the 1997 National Championship team.  I remember honestly believing that Charles Woodson was a revolutionary force in college football   and eventually being proven right by Heisman voters.  I remember listening to the Penn State game on the radio as my family spent all of that Saturday doing yardwork outside.  I remember the division in school being firmly entrenched as the majority of kids rooted for MSU (I went to school a mere half hour from East Lansing, in farm country, and was lucky to escape) which only strengthened my devotion to the Wolverines.  I remember watching the OSU game and then the Rose Bowl, all the while trying to find reasons to discount Nebraska's claim to the title.  When Brian asks himself why the team started to take a hold of him, only to answer with, "I turned twelve," I can relate.  It may be a reductive answer, but it certainly encapsulates where I was at the time.

High school saw my Michigan fandom grow as my appreciation for the game grew.  Much to the disappointment of my mother, I tried out for the freshman football team and made it by the grace of god and an utter lack of players   with eligibility problems we would usually go into games with thirteen players dressed. My football career continued through graduation with significantly less fanfare, but my appreciation and understanding of the game were on a whole new level.  Now I understood the action on the field because it translated to what I learned during the week at practice.  The game became less a jumbled mass of bodies and more an intricate choreography that when executed to perfection was breathtakingly beautiful.

I won't soon forget Braylon-fest.  Neither will
my friends from MSU.
By the time college came I had my mind made up.  It was Michigan or bust, so much so that I didn't even fill out any other college applications.  Being a habitual procrastinator, I didn't do this until almost March of my senior year, which sent everything into chaos.  I got in, but didn't get my dorm assignment until two weeks before school began.  I had to walk to the ticket office during orientation to order my student tickets (which worked out for the best when I got better seats than all of my friends).  No matter.  I was on my way to Ann Arbor.  The next four and a half years are a blur of college life and all that it entailed.  Classes, parties, dorm food, disgusting community bathrooms, bars, exam weeks, and most of all football season.  I lived for football, spending the mornings of game day drinking beer in my room and watching ESPN to prepare myself for the day.  Everything about college football spoke to me on a deep level.  The passion, the pagentry, and the program that I sincerely felt was the greatest in the country.  There were up and down seasons, 2003 and 2006 were great, 2004 was good, 2007 was a roller coaster of emotion, and 2005 was largely disappointment packed tightly around one of the greatest games I have ever been to.

I graduated from school at the same time Rich Rodriguez was hired and rather than move home with my parents to a small town that was twenty minutes from everything, I moved in with friends in East Lansing and proceeded to live like the locals and halfassedly search for jobs.  I was fortunate to first find Wolverine Liberation Army, then Varsity Blue, and finally mgoblog to help me argue with and keep my sanity amongst a sea of MSU fans.


Today I am to the point where I spend entirely too much time consuming Michigan football news.  I have thrown myself so far down the rabbit hole that I started this blog to try and find a positive channel for all my thoughts and research on the team.  I am in a word, obsessed.  Last weekend after the game I had a few people ask me how Michigan did that day.  Not only did I spout off the score but a full recap of what went wrong with the defense, the continuing woes of the special teams unit, and complete offensive stat lines which I recited verbatim.  I am to the point where the UFR recaps on mgoblog are the highlight of my week.  From what I read on the mgoboard, I'm not the only one.

Kovacs embodies the new era Wolverines:
young, inexperienced, but a great work ethic.
There are a lot of things in my life that I am struggling with right now.  I am three years removed from college and still lacking anything approaching a direction in life.  I have worked jobs that I enjoyed, but nothing has really grabbed my attention.  I love to write but struggle to see it as a legitimate career move.  I am admittedly a work in progress.

This Michigan program is much the same.  Coming off years of sustained success the program was thrown out into the wild with the arrival of Rich Rodriguez.  Just like my academic career, it seemed all the Wolverines needed to do was show up in the fall and they were guaranteed a certain level of success.  Now just showing up in the fall is no longer enough.

I hesitate to try and draw too many parallels between my life and the current state of the football team.  I'm not quite that vain, and the two are really too complex to break down side by side.  It's not like comparing apples and oranges.  More like apples and something much more complex that a whole lot of people actually care about.  However, the one thing I keep coming back to is that both my life and Michigan football are currently in a state of extreme flux, where for the first time ever failure seems like a distinct possibility, and that scares the hell out of me.

I used to root for the old Wolverines.  The team that won games year after year with an almost unwaivering consistency.  Because of this I felt entitled to a certain amount of success.  I have grown past that now.  There is nothing guaranteeing 10 wins a year just like it isn't written in stone that someone will pay me handsomely for the next thirty-five years.  You have to earn everything.  It is a scary thought at first, but comforting to realize that ultimately I have much more agency over my direction in life than I really ever considered.

I root for this team in a different way than I used to.  I read the team previews and the reports from spring and fall camp and get to know the players.  When the games come I root for success on an individual level as much as I do on a team level.  I get excited when Jonas Mouton makes the kind of great play at linebacker that I always felt he was capable of.  I cheer when Mike Martin beats a double team to rack up another TFL because I want him to prove the skeptics wrong that said, "Brandon Graham was your whole offensive line last year."  And I smile wide at the development of Denard Robinson, a guy no one wanted as a quarterback at the college level who none the less busted his ass to win the starting job despite the doubters and the skeptics, and is now the most exciting force (not) lacing up his cleats on Saturdays.  The childish love of the maize and blue is still there, it is just tightly wrapped in the cold logic of an adult who wants more than anything to see his team succeed so in some way he can justify his own time spent wandering lost in the woods as merely a temporary stop on the path to greatness.


It feels anticlimactic to go all this way and not really come up with an answer.  I guess in the end my fandom is simply greater than the sum of its parts.  My father's love for the team, my long history of rooting for Michigan, my time spent in Ann Arbor as an undergrad, my connection with the mgoblog community, and the uncertainty this team faces going forward have all come together to make Michigan football more than just something that I pass time with on Saturday afternoons.  If it is cliche to say that Michigan football is life, then I suppose I will have to accept it for what it is.

Few moments were better than this.
This team has driven me to the lowest depths of sadness and depression and some of the most exuberant moments of joy I have ever felt.  I support this team like I support a close friend who I have known most of my life.  We have grown up together, shared good times and bad, and are trying to make our way in a new world where failure seems as probable as ever.  It comforts me when Michigan succeeds, brings me the kind of joy that many people don't understand.  I have friends who went to school with me that still don't understand my obsession with the team.  They never had student tickets, never read scouting reports, or followed recruiting classes online.  All I can say to them is that they wouldn't understand.  This team has been a part of my life for so long that I couldn't walk away now even if I wanted to.

I like it this way.  It gives me something to look forward to, and a way to disconnect from my own reality.  Michigan football long ago ceased to be just a game that was played twelve Saturdays a year.  Now it is an old friend. who's success I am heavily invested in.

At the end of the day, that is a good enough explanation for me.  I imagine if you are reading this you probably feel the same way.


  1. Well stated. We should see you at the UM-MSU tailgate... maybe Indiana?

  2. I am much older than you. I remember Bo and Mo...Gordy Bell, Ty Law, Jarrod Bunch and so many players and teams over the years. Teams that I took for granted. Like you, I have become more obsessed with this team since Rich Rod took over. I live and breathe Michigan football and find myself drawn to any little piece of information I can get about the Wolverines. I can't explain it, but like any addiction it controls my Saturdays and dictates my thoughts and behavior throughout the week. All I can do is embrace it. I often wonder if we get back to winning consistently again in the years to come if this "grip" will slowly loosen. Until then I am hooked and take comfort in knowing others share this crazy passion.