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Monday, November 19, 2007

Amateur Hour In Michigan Is Finally Over

One of these three fans will be posting one very soon. Hopefully a couple.

Football fans all know someone who doesn't "get it". I'm not talking about the wife of a degenerate sports gambler who hates football because she constantly worries about her man spending the grocery money. That woman probably "gets it" all too well. I'm referring to people who never learned the game enough to reject it. It's hard to grow up in the United States a male and not learn the basics of American football. If you didn't pick it up at home sitting watching your father yell at games on the television, you probably learned about it at school during recess or while hanging out with friends. Even if you don't particularly care for it, you recognize the significance of college bowl games, the NFL playoffs, and Thanksgiving day games, and possibly even major rivalries. Even if the word "football" disgusts you, you know what "fourth and inches" means. You know what an "upset" is. You know that the Detroit Lions suck.

A girl I know doesn't "get it". She grew up in the US, but her parents were immigrants and she gravitated towards the arts (not to be confused with Art's Performance Center). Now she works in an office where everyone, she says, is obsessed with football, and this bothers her because she not only does not understand how the game is played, she doesn't understand what is so compelling about the game. With time and her attention, I am confident that I could explain the key rules and objectives to her. I think I could also explain why I find the sport compelling. She may come to understand why I love it, but there is no reason why her understanding this will make her more excited about the game.

This past Friday I flew to Detroit to go to the Michigan - Ohio State game with my dad, who flew up from Florida for the same purpose, in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

The game started well enough for Michigan as they took a 3-0 lead on a field goal in their first drive, but their offense quickly faded. I decided to record this play below for some reason, and it turned out to be the biggest gain on the ground Michigan had all day.

By the end of the first half, Michigan was down 3-7 to the Buckeyes, and while the score was close, the Buckeyes were controlling the game with their dominating defensive line. Mike Hart did not look like he had recovered from the injury that had kept him out of the previous couple of games. Neither did Chad Henne. His passes sailed over the heads of his receivers when he was able to get the ball out of his hands before getting mauled by the OSU defense.

This was tough to watch, especially standing outside in the constant steady rain with the temperature just above freezing. The sky, above Ann Arbor on November 17th, 2007, was a gray that I hadn't seen since moving to DC. It felt like the cloud line was five times lower and thicker than cloud lines are supposed to be. There wasn't fog -- just extremely dense clouds that made it feel like it was dusk, even though it was early afternoon. It was so cloudy that if you had no understanding of what the sun was, and someone next to you in Ann Arbor last Saturday was pointing up to the sky, explaining that there was a dense mass of burning gases far away in space that gave off light so bright that looking at it directly could blind you, there would be no reason to believe it. It was so gloomy that they had to have the stadium lights on for a 12:00 game. At halftime, my dad and I stood under the stands in the upper level of Michigan Stadium, drinking hot chocolate, trying to enjoy being out of the rain. This was the first time I could remember, since moving to DC, that my feet were so cold and wet that I could not move my toes inside my shoes.

The second half was far worse. While the wind and rain picked up and the temperature dropped, so did the Buckeyes' stranglehold on the game. Most of the times Michigan was able to advance the ball occurred on the rare occasion of an Ohio State player committing a penalty. Chris Wells, the OSU running back, ran for a long touchdown early in the second half and it looked like the rout would be on. Michigan hung in there though. The defense responded by shutting down the Buckeyes' offense, which was almost entirely running plays in the second half. At first I wondered why they weren't throwing on us anymore -- keeping our defense honest would have opened up more long runs by Chris Wells -- but then I realized that Jim Tressel was so confident in their defense holding the Michigan offense that he just wanted to run the clock down with the lowest possible risk of turning the ball over, which was the only way Michigan was going to come back. Each time OSU got the ball, Michigan's defense would stop them, usually in one series. Each time they punted, we were hopeful that Michigan would somehow move the ball on the Buckeye defense. And each time that hope was crushed. The only thing that changed as this series of events repeated was the hope that Michigan would find a way to score.

I have seen my share of losses to Ohio State, especially since the hiring of Jim Tressel. It's normally highly emotional walking out of the stadium, win or lose. Not last Saturday. There wasn't any "we should have won that game" thinking. The better team won. If we played Ohio State ten times, they would beat us ten times -- at least with Henne and Hart injured as they clearly were. There was no feeling of hatred towards Ohio State for what they did. They didn't run the score up. They did not commit penalties for excessive celebration. It was as if during halftime Jim Tressel told his team the following:

"Men, we are the better football team today. We all know this. What we are going to do now is dedicate the way we play this second half to the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry itself. We are going to win the game in a manner that everyone associated with the history of this rivalry will appreciate. We will win with honor. We will win in a way that not only our own fans will respect us for, but also in a way that the Michigan players, coaches, and fans will have no choice but to do so as well. We will not run up the score to impress outsiders, as the opinion of outsiders does not matter to us. The final score will not be lopsided, but anyone who watched it will recall this game as one of the most convincing wins they have ever seen."

This may sound like a miserable experience. You may imagine me being bitter for having payed to fly to Michigan just to see my team get crushed by its biggest rival in terrible weather. This, however, was not the case. I still had a great time (and no, I didn't get laid on Friday or Saturday night). The drinking with your Michigan friends, the tailgating, the masses of fans dressed up in their schools' colors outside the stadium, the crowd noise when Michigan was on defense trying to stop OSU on third down and high-fiving my dad when they succeeded, and the post game drinking, eating, and watching other games with friends all combined to make it a great weekend.

What makes people so crazy about football is not that there is something intrinsically entertaining about a football being moved up and down a field by groups of similarly dressed muscular dudes. It is the collection of past experiences associated with the game, including the events surrounding it. All of these events are more fun when your team wins, but the older I get the more I realize that they are still pretty damn good when they lose too. Or maybe I'm just getting numb to Ohio State beating us year-after-year.

I'm not sure if being a football fan is something that you can or should make an effort to become, if you're not one already. There are plenty of enriching activities to engage in out there, and along with the good things I have described, there are many unpleasant things that come with being a fan (ticket expenses, standing in long lines to go to the bathroom, obnoxious fans, etc...) that may not be worth getting used to. So if you're trying to "get" football, just stop. It's something you just "have" or don't "have". Like AIDS.

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