In honor of fall camp starting this week, I thought I'd share this post that I wrote just last year right before the new college football season started. I'm looking forward to yet another fresh start for my favorite team, one that promises to turn out better than the last one. Hopefully.
I suppose that part of it comes down to simple things like birth and geography.
I was born in Southfield, Michigan, which is just outside Detroit. At that time, my parents lived in Farmington while my father was pastoring a church there. My family would live in two other communities around Michigan, including a stint in the Upper Peninsula, before moving...ahem...further south. My mom's side of the family lives around Dearborn, and weekend trips to see them, even after we moved out of the state, were fairly frequent while I was growing up.
So, quite simply, I'm a Michigander by birth. Those years are getting further and further away from me, and the argument can be made that after 20+ years I'm much more of an Ohioan, and on a certain level that'd be true. My knowledge of the state of Michigan are based mostly on memory, while my knowledge of Ohio happens in the here and now; has been happening for much longer.
"So why don't you just root for Ohio State?" I've actually been asked that question more than once, and it's based on stupid logic. If an Ohioan moves to Michigan, is he or she automatically going to start cheering for Michigan or, God forbid, Michigan State? I believe the vast majority of Buckeye fans would sooner chew off an arm. So why do you think I should start cheering for the other side? If you bring up recent results, you're only using the same stupid logic: the rivalry didn't start in 2001, people. But I digress.
When I was a kid, I went through a brief phase where I cheered for the Chicago White Sox. I told everybody that they were my favorite baseball team. It wasn't based on anything. I didn't know their players or their record or how far away Chicago was or anything. I just decided that I liked the White Sox. I remember going on about this at my grandparents' house in Dearborn one afternoon, and after a while I started asking everyone, "So, who's your favorite baseball team?" One after another, they all had the same answer: the Tigers, of course. I remember being so confused about this. How could it possibly be that they all happened to answer the same way? Who were these "Tigers," and why did absolutely everyone around me like them so much? The fact that they basically played just down the road from where I was sitting, along with the fact that they were the only Major League team in Michigan, were slow to come to me. I was so young, so naive. But eventually I got it.
My loyalty to University of Michigan sports came much more organically than my baseball loyalty. It was just who I always liked; just who I always cheered for. Have you ever heard the adage, "Ask a fish about the water, and the fish will reply, 'What water?'" It was like that. It's like that for most people who grow up among the fanbases of any particular team. I needed to be worked over regarding baseball a little bit, but with Michigan it just happened. I received Michigan apparel at nearly every birthday and Christmas, and even after we moved to Ohio I didn't think twice about wearing it to school. I hardly ever sat down to watch a game in those days, but I still knew who I liked, mostly because I was being bred to like them.
I do need to mention that this didn't come from just one side of the family. My father's father actually attended Michigan for a couple years before transferring out. He was a fan of the school and its teams until the day he died. I received more than one Michigan-themed gift from him as well. My family ties to fandom have been quite rich that way.
A deeper sense of loyalty, one that goes beyond "We like them, so you like them," came slowly. I did begin paying more and more attention to the goings-on of the teams. I remember reading articles about the Fab Five and their back-to-back trips to the NCAA finals in basketball. Eventually, I also got to read about Chris Webber's bone-headed timeout mistake, and later on, Ed Martin's really huge bone-headed mistakes resulting in sanctions. Still, I was understanding what it meant to be a fan.
The same was happening with football. I didn't watch many games when I was younger, but I did always watch The Game no matter what. As the 1990s wore on, I'd watch at least snippets of other games, and began to pay attention to players more and more: Howard, Woodson, Wheatley, Biakabutuka, Mercury Hayes. I was also dating an Ohio State fan at the time, so being able to trash-talk her became a priority as well (you know, in love). When Michigan outright won shared the National Championship in 1997, my fandom rose even more.
Fast forward to 2005. The football team wasn't doing well that year, but it was still a significant season for me because it was the first time I ever made a trip to Michigan Stadium, aka The Big House. The Wolverines played Eastern Michigan that day, so the outcome wasn't really in doubt before the game started. I remember it was an overcast day. My brother and I soaked up the atmosphere, the physical surroundings, the gameday traditions. Walking past the sea of tailgates made me feel like I was in a dream; part of me worried that I'd wake up any moment once again surrounded by Buckeyes.
The 2006 season took my fandom to a crazy sort of level, what one may typically call "fanaticism." As Michigan tallied win after win, it was becoming apparent that something special was brewing. By the time #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan were set to square off in The Game To End All Games, my fandom was at a fever pitch. Bo Schembechler's death added to it as well, as I took time to appreciate what he meant to the program and to the rivalry. Michigan came up 3 points short that evening, but I was still as proud as ever to be a fan. My attention was heavily invested in the team that year to a point that I'll never return from. That game and that season flipped a switch in my brain that, despite nearly everything that has happened since, has no hope of ever being switched back off.
So it began with just being born in the right location. And some may argue that Coffeeson, following logic slightly more sound than when I'm asked why I don't root for someone else, will be a Buckeye fan or at least ask why we're not. Over the years I've realized that it's about a lot more than geography. It's about the winningest program in college football. It's about the legacy of greatness left by Yost, Crisler, Bo, and Lloyd. It's about all the conference and national championships. It's about winged helmets and "The Victors." It's about the history and tradition that precedes most other teams, so rich and influential that it includes things like teaching Notre Dame how to play football and the Michigan marching band doing the script Ohio before anyone wearing scarlet and grey ever did.
Both for myself and for Coffeeson, I can point to all that and say, "That's why."