Rebirth of a Rivalry

Michigan Stadium before The Game, November 2021. Photo by Andy Miller.

The last time I rushed the field at Michigan Stadium was in 1997. Charles Woodson had just shut down David Boston en route to a victory over Ohio State. When The Game ended, Michigan secured its spot in the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champs with a shot at a national championship.

I was a bright-eyed 17-year-old kid back then and a diehard Michigan fan who resided an hour north of Ann Arbor. When a guy walked into the grocery store where I worked selling two tickets in Row 2 to the upcoming game, I was intrigued. When he told me he wanted $200 for the pair, I started computing how many weeks of Minimum Wage earnings it would cost me.

The math simply didn’t work. But I never liked math, so I bought them on the spot.

It was an easy decision, really, as my fanhood had started years earlier. I’d had the great fortune to attend games at the Big House since I was in elementary school. My first game was a doozy: the Michigan vs. Ohio State game in 1991. It was a 31–3 beatdown. You know, the one where Desmond Howard makes the Heisman pose after returning a punt 92 yards for a touchdown. I didn’t even know what the Heisman was back then, but I knew I was hooked on Michigan Football.

All the kids in my neighborhood were addicted, too. Our backyard football matchups grew more exciting, as we’d rush to incorporate the latest plays into our arsenals. We took turns being Elvis Grbac tossing double-pump passes to Desmond Howard in the endzone.

Of course, there were other greats to emulate, too. Tyrone Wheatley. Anthony Thomas. Tim Biakabutuka. Mercury Hayes. Ty Law. In those days before The Avengers, these guys were our superheroes.

And then the ’97 team came on the scene. That team was special. They had Brian Griese, Chris Howard, and Jerame Tuman, Steve Hutchinson, Tai Streets, and Anthony Thomas on offense. Hell, they even had a guy on the roster named Tom Brady. And they weren’t even the stars of the show.

The defense that year — led by a guy named Charles Woodson — was dominant. Glen Steele, Sam Sword, Ron Renes, Dhani Jones. They blanketed opponents, quickly extinguishing any hopes of an upset along the way. That squad shut down running and passing games, holding opposing teams to only 26 combined points over the first five games.

My infatuation hit fever pitch. I was either at the Big House every Saturday or watching it on the big screen projection TV in my friend’s Michigan-themed basement. My wardrobe was overtaken by maize and blue, too. Each day, I’d wear a Michigan coat to school over a Michigan t-shirt or sweatshirt. I’d change into a different Michigan t-shirt and matching mesh shorts for gym class.

The team went undefeated through September and October, and knocked off Minnesota, Penn State, and Wisconsin to start November.

Down in Columbus, Ohio State was putting together a pretty good season as well. They had only lost one match — a close call against Penn State — coming into the rivalry game.

As it should, The Game would decide the season for both teams. Win and take home the Big Ten title and head off to the Rose Bowl for a shot at the National Championship. Lose and get some consolation bowl game, like the Gator, Sugar, or Citrus. They could throw whatever name they wanted on it, but we all knew the sorry truth: It was for losers.

I was filled with anxiety on the way to Ann Arbor. Could they shut down the Buckeyes? Will they live up to the hype? Can they punch their ticket to Pasadena? Will my girlfriend ever pay me back for the other ticket?

The stadium was rocking before the game kicked off. Everyone was pumped up and Michigan fans were already heckling anyone in attendance wearing scarlet and gray.

The players were understandably chippy, too. Charles Woodson and David Boston exchanged blows at the end of the first series and I settled in for what I knew was sure to be an afternoon to remember.

The Wolverines got off to quick lead and never trailed. Charles Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown and the defense effectively shut down the Buckeyes, sealing a 20–14 victory.

When the final whistle sounded, people started jumping over the wall onto the field. We were right there by the front and started to follow the crowd, but hesitated after we saw what awaited. The first few souls over the wall were rewarded for their bravery with direct blasts of pepper spray by Michigan State Police. A few were handcuffed. We stayed put.

Eventually, the police ran out of pepper spray and handcuffs. Feeling safe, my girlfriend and I hopped over the wall and ran out to midfield. It was mayhem. The players had retreated to the tunnel, but then started coming back onto the field. People were everywhere and the crowd swayed from side to side as everyone pushed their way to the athletes.

We high fived Jeff Backus and Aaron Shea. And then a wave of people started coming directly toward us. You could make out chants of “Heisman, Heisman!” over the crowd. Charles Woodson was walking our way with a big grin on his face and a swarm of followers.

I grabbed my disposable Kodak camera (digital cameras hadn’t been invented yet), turned the dial to align the film, and took my best shot at snapping a photo of the man of the hour. I gave him a quick high five before #2 was whisked away by the mob.

If life got better than this, I didn’t know it yet.

Charles Woodson after the 1997 Michigan vs. Ohio State game. Photo by Andy Miller. Author’s personal collection.

A few weeks later, Charles Woodson was awarded the Heisman trophy. And in January, the team beat Washington State in the Rose Bowl, securing the National Championship.

But that was twenty-four years ago. Plenty has changed since then.

To put it mildly, Michigan’s gone through a few rough patches. Fans have endured the Appalachian State upset, the Rich Rod experiment, an unlikely punt block by Michigan State, the fourth down measurement debacle, and some other pretty heartbreaking losses, including the one to MSU a few weeks back.

And, of course, we all know how the past couple of decades have gone in the matchup with Ohio State. Michigan’s only squeaked out one win against the Buckeyes in the last 16 matchups — and that one was against a 6–6 team down south. In short, The Game hasn’t lived up to the hype in recent years; it’s become a lopsided affair.

A lot of life happens in a quarter century, too. College. Jobs. Moves. Mortgages.

Since Michigan won that national championship, I married an Ohioan (and into a vocal Buckeye family), moved out of Michigan, moved back, moved out again, had a couple kids, joined Facebook, got an iPhone, and switched jobs a half dozen times.

Thankfully, I earn a smidge more than minimum wage now. A better salary — combined with a budget for entertaining clients, an inordinate amount of good luck, and friends in high places — has afforded me good seats at great games. I’ve attended hundreds of matchups, from football to baseball, basketball to hockey, and even a soccer game here and there. Playoffs, World Series, suites, field tours, and courtside seats, the works.

And you know what? None of those outings topped my experience at The Game in 1997. I was always watching somebody else’s team, cheering for someone else’s glory, touring somebody else’s cherished stadium. I’ve learned that the Wolverines are my drug of choice; Yankees & Red Sox, Tarheels & Blue Devils — regardless of how many seafood towers and free drinks are included — can’t give me the same high.

One thing that has remained constant over the years is my fanaticism for Michigan Football. I’ve been back for my share of games, taught our kids “Hail! to the Victors,” and have taken in a road game here and there. Our rec room is loaded with Michigan gear and memorabilia. All my old ticket stubs hang on the wall. And that picture of Woodson still hangs prominently in its frame.

Ticket stubs from various Michigan games. Author’s personal collection.

So when my friend called me up last Tuesday and said he had an extra ticket for Saturday’s game, I smiled like a kid on Christmas morning.

Like the ’97 matchup, The Game this year meant everything. Both teams entered the game at 10–1 and all the chips were on the table in this winner-take-all. The Big Ten Championship and potential National Championship appearance hung on the line. There was the possibility of ending the 10-year drought against Ohio State. And don’t forget the bragging rights.

At my wife’s urging, I booked a flight and used some points to snag a hotel room in Ann Arbor. I got in the night before and, out of nostalgia, made a quick stop at the stadium before driving past my old dorm. It was cold, but there was a flurry of activity in Ann Arbor. The town was buzzing with anticipation.

I went to bed hopeful, but had no idea what the next day had in store.

My Saturday got off to a pretty solid start. While I was grabbing coffee in the hotel lobby, Desmond Howard hopped off the elevator and we exchanged hellos. Judging by the police presence and line of SUVs out front, he wasn’t the only one from College Gameday staying there.

The day would only get better.

Before the game, I got to shake hands with Charles Woodson again. While I clearly remembered our initial meeting 24 years ago, Mr. Woodson didn’t appear to recognize me.

It’s understandable. While I’ve spent our hiatus toiling away in middle management, mastering the art of lowering my cable bill, and perfecting my dad bod, he’s been busy. Maybe his 11 Pro Bowls, Super Bowl Championship, NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, and Hall of Fame induction clouded his memory.

Meeting Charles Woodson again 24 years after our first meeting. Photo by Andy Miller.

The excitement grew as we neared the stadium. It seemed like everyone was shutting down their tailgates to get to their seats for the kickoff. I’m guessing most people thought the game would be decided before halftime. The Buckeyes were 8-point favorites heading into the game, but most people in their right minds had them winning by at least two touchdowns. Everybody had plans for leaving the stadium early to beat traffic — when Ohio State took too much of a lead. Nobody predicted a victory for Michigan.

Even the former Wolverines player brought in to address our tailgate could only muster a weak statement. “I can promise you this. The game will go into the fourth quarter.” Talk about a motivational speech.

Once we got into the Big House, it felt different. Adrenaline was coursing through the stands during warmups. Fans were high fiving each other before the game. A guy named DJ Skee had been brought in to keep the place jumping.

That intensity picked up when Michigan scored on the first drive. Nobody took a seat.

When Michigan went on to lead 14–13 at halftime, it started feeling real. It felt like they had a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. But you didn’t dare share that sentiment out loud, for fear of jinxing it. After all, if you’ve been a Michigan fan over the past 20 years, you’ve come to realize that no lead is safe. No game is over until the clock reads 0:00. Nothing is guaranteed.

But they never let up. The Wolverines came out swinging in the second half. They punched the Buckeyes in the mouth on both sides of the ball and took a two-score lead. They ran all over OSU’s defense in the third quarter while holding their offense scoreless. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard the Big House.

The scene from the Big House after Haskins 5th touchdown. Video by Andy Miller.

The Buckeyes came back within a touchdown a couple of times in the 4th quarter. When Haskins scored his 5th touchdown of the game that put Michigan up with 2:17 left to go, I finally mustered the courage to mention the win.

“Are we rushing the field if they hold on?” I asked my friend.

“Hell yes!” came his quick reply.

As those final minutes ticked by, I exhaled in a tremendous sigh of relief. It was as if all the tension that accumulated from those past heartaches was leaving my body.

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.” I said as I punched the air with my fists.

The last play for Ohio State at the Big House in 2021. Video by Andy Miller.

As the clock ran out, I felt like a kid again. We raced down toward the field and jumped the wall. The State Police weren’t pepper spraying or arresting any of the jumpers this time around. When we got to the field, high fives were everywhere. Fans were crying. People were making snow angels in the end zone. Hell, I was hugging strangers.

We made our way to the players and the mobs surrounding them, where we celebrated with some of the team Seniors. We caught glimpses of Jake Moody and Vincent Gray between helmet slaps, fist bumps, high fives, and selfies. As I snapped a photo of Aidan Hutchinson, I couldn’t help but think how these kids — these modern-day sports heroes — weren’t even born the last time this game meant so much for so many.

As I was walking to midfield, I passed a young boy on his dad’s shoulders. “Take it all in, kid! You’re going to remember this the rest of your life!” I shouted, knowing full well that he couldn’t possibly grasp the significance of the moment.

Victory tastes sweeter this time around. I’m no longer that naïve 17-year-old who thought winning seasons and Big Ten championships were a birthright. I’ve watched in frustration as past teams and coaches have struggled mightily to exorcise their demons. And I’ve lived through decades of relentless heckling of friends, colleagues, and family in Ohio.

Now, the monkey is off Michigan’s back. The rivalry has been restored. And I’m damn sure enjoying this one.

Forever Go Blue.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store