Nov. 16, 2010
By Barbara Cary Sessions, LSA '83
So what is a tradition anyway? My daughter came home from school not long ago with an assignment to answer this very question. She asked if our family had any traditions. Hmmmm, I had to think. I wonder if an addiction to football can be a family tradition. It has been 91 years since the men in my family began their addiction to Michigan football. My grandfather played for Coach Yost from 1915 to 1919. Number 35 wasn't a starter, but this Grand Rapids boy loved Michigan football. He saved all of the clippings from every game -- ticket stubs, programs, everything.
Whatever love he developed for Michigan football on that field, he carried with him throughout his life. He handed it down to his two sons, John and Bob, along with the memorabilia, and of course, the football tickets. Up until last year, my dad, John Jr., hadn't missed a home football game in 39 years -- not one! The addiction is so complete in fact, my father extracted a promise from both my sister and me that he would pay for our weddings if we didn't get married on a home football Saturday.
Growing up with a 'rabid Michigan football fan man' this seemed normal and acceptable to us. However, there is still some disagreement in the family about whether he meant away games too. Both my sister and I made the fatal mistake of scheduling weddings in the fall. In retrospect, the away games weren't such a great idea either. It was quite an event to see my mother in her long dress yelling at my father to turn off the radio and get out of the car so he could walk my sister down the aisle.
When my mother-in-law's friends were gracious enough to throw a black tie formal dinner party in honor of my husband's and my engagement on a Saturday night back in 1987, my mother-in-law was appalled to hear that the father of the bride was likely to be a no-show. It wasn't because he disliked dancing or black tie parties, but rather, well, you know, you can't leave the stadium until it's over. Even I know that much. It didn't surprise me that he was still in Ann Arbor when the party started. Thankfully, I wasn't marrying my mother-in-law.
As for my husband, he didn't even start out as a fan. His mother went to Purdue; his father to UCLA. He grew up in Lansing (Spartan country) and he went to Northwestern. What kind of start to a tradition is that? How could I have known I was marrying my father?
I don't know exactly when it started -- whether it was the Michigan Law School experience, or just a pill one of the other boys in my family slipped into his drink at a family gathering, but he has become a 'rabid Michigan football fan man' just like my father. He knows he's a nutcase, which is good, but he's still a nutcase.
I'm sure no one else in the state of Michigan has ever experienced this kind of behavior. Certainly other football fans don't behave this way. But when the Wolverine Magazine arrives at the beginning of the sports season, he devours it like a steak; almost as if he's learning these particulars for the first time. When the very same magazine arrives the week after a crushing loss, he simply tosses it into the trash without so much as a glance -- as if ignoring it will wipe away the loss. When he's at work I know he sits in his high-powered lawyer's chair with the large screen computer silently screaming at him to turn around and read what's happening on Wolverinefan.com.
In casual conversation, I often get the, "big day today" from him, which I used to think was some sort of new client opportunity, or better yet, a surprise lottery ticket. But no, such a statement merely refers to when the best young player to ever come out of the state of 'wherever' has just committed to Michigan. I give him my, "Wow honey, that's great!" which he knows is my code for "who cares." But, of course, I know who cares -- he cares, deeply, just as my father does, and thousands of other Michigan fans just like them.
Imagine a typical game day for me -- like the 2004 Michigan-Michigan State game. I was instructed by my husband to "TIVO" the game. Can you believe it? He was AT THE GAME. TIVO, as I understand it, was designed for people who are missing their favorite show, not missing it because they're there watching it live in the stadium. I will admit that I was jumping up and down in the middle of the family room at the end of the game when the telephone rang. I figured it was my husband calling from the stadium to make sure I didn't miss the last Braylon Edwards touchdown for the win. As it turned out, on the other end of the phone line was just over 110,000 people calling me -- he simply had the phone raised over his head like a lighter flipped on at the end of a great concert. Michigan Stadium was roaring like it had never roared before and he knew I couldn't hear him (he had lost his voice anyway), but he knew I was listening, and so were our kids.
So what is a tradition? I went back to my daughter's question. She asked if our family had any traditions. Hmmmm ... let me think. I wonder if it counts when your grandfather sits in the same seat every football Saturday for 39 years, just as his father had done for years before him. I wonder if it is a family tradition to be flanked by your brother, your wife and your nutcase of a son-in-law singing the Victors every Saturday in Ann Arbor. I wonder if it counts when the family and their friends caravan to the same location, season after season, wearing loud paneled pants and pom pom hats of maize and blue. I wonder if it counts when the sheer frustration your father feels after a bad call (at a critical moment, mind you), sends the channel changer flying across the room. (Oh, I forgot, I was instructed that this never happened). I wonder if it counts when a loss, by men they don't know personally who are half their age and double their size, leads to unspeakable grief and agony. I wonder, could this possibly be a family tradition?
Let me think ... yep, sure could be. In fact, I know it is. My parents, my aunt and uncle, and their friends have been tireless fans and regulars at the stadium for such a long time. Although a smaller group now that they're in their 80s, they still walk arm-in-arm up those formidable, but prestigious stairs to enter the stadium.
In August, my uncle was diagnosed with cancer. He told his family he wanted to go to one last football game, so they loaded him into the car for the Connecticut game, transferred him to a wheelchair, and rolled him into the newly refurbished stadium with some 113,000 screaming fans. He was flanked by his daughters, wife and grandson. And I am sure that on that crisp, Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor he felt like a young man again, frozen in time, as if it could have been any one of the many happy Saturdays he spent cheering in Michigan Stadium.
How many people over the years considered it a tradition to file through those gates, I wondered? It left an indelible mark on my brain and a warm spot in my heart. My Uncle Bob died 13 days after his last visit to Michigan Stadium.
So, how has this place created such a tradition? How does Michigan football engender this kind of love and devotion? Isn't it just a simple game? As the Grinch Who Stole Christmas might say, "For 90 some years we've put up with it now, we must stop the constant 'Go Blue' thing, but how?" Still, in my heart I know it can't be stopped. And really, why would I want it to? I think all I can do is ask Coach Rodriguez to make sure his boys play their hearts out every game. Because this Michigan football thing isn't just any old tradition; it's our tradition. It belongs to all of us who let it infect our spirit, capture our hearts and become part of our lives.
I guess I'll just have to tell my daughter to get married in June. She lives in a family full of tradition. I'm sure she'll understand.