The greatest sports day of my life and one of the greatest all-around days of my life took place during my freshman year at the University of Michigan. I was just reminded how special that day was for me by the showing of the 1997 Michigan/Ohio St. game on ESPN Classic just a few days ago. As I’m sure most UM fans and non-UM fans alike know, 1997 was a magical year for Michigan football. It had been since 1948 that Michigan had won the National Championship. In a year when Michigan started off the season ranked uncharacteristically low at #13, the stars (and the Michigan defense) aligned to give way to perfection in Ann Arbor. That season marked the last time that Michigan stood atop the summit of the college football world, and in a lot of ways, marked the end of my innocence as a sports fan.
I have no problem admitting that 1997 was the greatest year of my life sports or otherwise. During the Fall Semester of my freshman year I had never been so invincible in my life, or so I thought. I had carte blanche over every personal decision for the first time in my existence. I could stay out as late as I wanted. I could skip class if I wanted. The only limits placed upon me were due to my own lack of imagination. As if that weren’t enough, there were 10,000 other kids in the exact same situation with the exact same newly-found freedom. A feeling like that will never be duplicated again, at least not for me. My passion is sports. Those that know me in the slightest know that I have a ridiculous and possibly wasteful passion for sports. I bleed Maize and Blue. I cherish Detroit sports. To go along with my newly found autonomy, 1997 was the year to be a Detroit sports fan. The Michigan hockey team won the National Championship in 97/98. The Detroit Red Wings won back to back Stanley Cups in 97/98. The Michigan basketball team won the Big Ten tournament in 97/98 (which, of course, is the last time the team made it to the NCAA Tournament). The Detroit Lions had a running back named Barry Sanders who rushed for 2,053 yards in ’97. The Tigers won 26 more games than the year before and almost finished at .500. The Pistons won 50+ games for the first time since the Bad Boy era. While all of that stuff was great, the ride that was the 1997 Michigan football season was what truly made that period the greatest four-month span of my life. That run culminated with an improbable National Championship and an even more improbable Heisman Trophy.
My sports passion as a youth was Michigan football above all else. I loved all of the Detroit sports but Michigan football became an obsession. Michigan’s string of soul-crushing losses over the years had become lore in the minds of many fellow fans. In 1997, Michigan started getting the breaks that eluded them so many heart-breaking times in the past. The defense was dominating. The offense was methodical, if not controlling. In one season, Michigan football became everything I’d always hoped it would be. The come-from-behind win over Iowa at home was as glorious and nerve-racking as it gets. The resulting party at the “Baseball” house on State St. featuring Glen Steele, Ian Gold, Noah Parker, and Ben Huff (who was on crutches) among others was definitely a highlight. I actually talked to each individually for a few minutes. I asked Ian Gold how he felt about playing linebacker when he came in as a highly rated running back. He said, “I just want to do all I can to help the team. Whatever they ask me to do is what I’ll do. If they want me at linebacker, I have no problem with that.” Needless to say, I have always been a big Ian Gold fan. I asked Ben Huff (R.I.P Ben Huff) if he was planning on coming back for a 6th season and he said it was up in the air. I was bummed out when he didn’t return in 1998. Especially memorable that night was my attempt to break up a brewing fight involving my friend and Michigan hockey defensemen/head hunter Chris Fox and Glen Steele. I succeeded brilliantly when I told Steele that he was my favorite player (which was true!). He said, “Why thank you very much.” Conflict over! The good times continued to roll with a dominating win over #2 Penn St. on the road on Judgment Day. That was a day I’ll never forget. That was also the day that a mob of students congregated at President Lee Bollinger’s house to celebrate the magnificent victory over Mike McQueary’s overrated Penn St. club. All of this led to the biggest Michigan/Ohio St. game of my lifetime.
Michigan needed to beat #4 Ohio St. to go to the Rose Bowl to play for the National Championship. While the game was the story, there was a subplot going on behind the scenes in college football. Two candidates had pulled away from the pack in the race for the Heisman Trophy. Amazingly, one of those candidates was a defensive player. Michigan’s Charles Woodson had been the best all-around player in college football but a defensive player had never won the Trophy. Peyton Manning had the gaudy offensive statistics and the storied pedigree to go with them. He was all but given the award entering the season. Woodson needed a strong showing against Ohio St. to keep Manning from walking away with the Trophy. What transpired on that cold, November day was everything that Michigan football can be. There may never again be a day like it where every conceivable aspect of the storied program was running on all cylinders. Michigan football was perfection that day.
The defense was dominating. Nary a Buckeye running back made it to the line of scrimmage without first being hit by a Michigan lineman--a trend that has all but disappeared in Ann Arbor. The Ohio St. duo of Joe Germaine and Stanley Jackson were stalked all day long by a litany of motivated Wolverines. And when Germaine and Jackson did get a pass off, the swarming Maize and Blue secondary was relentlessly ball-hawking at will. For some inexplicable reason, Michigan’s defense has never been the same. Perhaps holding other defensive units to the 1997 standard allows for the perception that Michigan’s defense has fallen off significantly. However, I don’t think that there’s much of an argument to the contrary. There is no question that the ferocity that had become synonymous with Michigan’s defense has been missing for close to a decade making that 1997 “D” that much more memorable.
Never in my lifetime had the stakes been higher for the Michigan football program. Michigan Stadium was packed to the brim. The crowd was as stoked as any Michigan crowd I had ever seen. The weather was perfect for a fall college football game. I couldn’t draw up the scene better if I had years to plan it. In the most important game in a half a century, Michigan was up for the challenge. The Wolverines dispatched of the Buckeyes and Charles Woodson had the game of his life. Michigan was headed for a National Championship and Woodson was headed for the Heisman Trophy. The season that I had hoped for and predicted so many times in my youth had finally come to fruition.
There are a lot of factors that were at play in my early years as a sports fan that were altered after the 1997 season. First and foremost, that was the last year that every player on the Michigan roster was older than me. Ever since I could remember, I looked up to these players for being not only bigger and stronger but also older and wiser. That was part of the allure of being a fan. 1997 was the last year that this would be true. That’s not to say that I stopped liking Michigan. It’s just that I started to look at everything for what it was. I started to see players in the classroom. I started to see that these people weren’t perfect. I heard stories about players and their work ethics. These were things that I wasn’t privy to before 1997. I no longer had all of these grand allusions about the players. Whereas they were icons to me before, they became peers and equals after 1997. Unfortunately, the humanizing of heroes is an inevitability of time’s work.
I vividly remember specific instances when a player in one of my classes was cocky and disrespectful to teachers and students. These were things that never entered my mind as a 15 year old kid. During my sophomore year, Dave Petruziello and Larry Foote were in one of my classes. It was a small class so we got to know each other pretty well. It was such a weird feeling knowing that these guys were actually a year behind me. As much as I didn’t want it to, that realization had an effect on the way I watched games. Petruziello was roommates with Drew Henson during their freshmen year. I had a group project with “Petro” so we met at his room where he enlisted Henson to drive us to the library in his brand new SUV featuring heated seats courtesy of the New York Yankees. Henson was a nice guy but he drove like a maniac. I can safely say that when I was cheering for Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, and Brian Griese, I never had to deal with the knowledge that they played rap music ridiculously loud and had less-than-desirable driving abilities.
To every kid 18 and younger, Henson was just like Grbac and company were to me. It wasn’t Henson’s fault. He was just a kid himself. Some punk freshman in 1993 probably had the same “growing up” moment with Grbac or Collins. My time to “grow up” had come. Just one of the many instances that humanized Michigan football players to me was an email from one football player in particular sent to one of his professors. Said player must have accidentally hit the “reply to all” button as his email was sent out to a class of 200 people. The fact that the email was mistakenly sent wasn’t as memorable as the words themselves. I still have said email which is something in itself. Particularly memorable about the email was the longest punctuation-less sentence I have ever read. The sentence featured 50 words with no commas or semicolons. I’m not taking anything away from this guy but when I was 15 years old rooting for Timmy B to run for 300+ yards against the Buckeyes, I never had to consider his use of commas and/or semicolons. Don’t get me wrong, everybody makes grammar mistakes. I was just used to seeing them made by “mortals” and not “heroes”.
The change took place so suddenly. In 1996, I was still looking up to Michigan football players as larger-than-life icons. In 1998, I knew as much about them personally as I did about their on the field accolades. As far back as I could remember before 1997, I would take a look at Michigan’s schedule and conclude that Michigan should win every game. I used to waste time in high school by coming up with my pre-season Top 25. I’d always try to force myself to rank Michigan lower than I wanted but I inevitably ended up convincing myself that they would go undefeated. More times than not, I’d end up ranking them #1. The fact that Michigan seemingly lost every game by a ridiculous combination of circumstances (i.e., every Notre Dame game, Colorado ’94, Miami ’88) only encouraged my belief that Michigan had as good of a chance as anyone to win every game. After the 1997 season, that all changed. I started looking at things as they were instead of as they “should” be. I was able to see first hand that the players were just 18 and 19 year old kids with dual focus on football and girls. I started to see that expecting perfection from people that are just finding there way in the world is akin to expecting your four year old to never pee the bed. More times than not, Junior is going to succeed but there will always be slip ups. There will always be off-the-field distractions and mental lapses. At 14 years old, this idea was foreign to me. At 19 years old, it was as obvious as the Great Wall of China. The disappointing ’98 season jump-started my life as a skeptical sports fan. I shed my role as a naïve sports fan for one of realistic expectations. I started to take into consideration the mental lapses and the odds of reoccurrence rather than simply attributing them to fluke performances. I started to look at game plans and coaching philosophies. I started to compare Michigan to other programs. I don’t want to short change my younger self. I always was a skeptic. I could recognize bad decisions. Gary Moeller’s disappointing Michigan teams enraged me. I could recognize bad play calls. It’s just that every player on the roster became human to me for the first time. I couldn’t rely on a miracle anymore. My hopes and dreams were no longer in the hands of “heroes” rather they were in the hands of mortals with the same problems and vices that I had. Obviously, that takes some of the allure away from being a sports fan.
Some sports fans never change. They choose to root and root some more regardless of the situation. For many of these people, criticizing the home team is a sin. For me, being a sports fan is a constant transformation. In the same way that I don’t look at Christmas morning in the same way as I did when I was 12, I don’t look at sports in the same way. I give sports the same scrutiny as I give politicians and musicians. If something deserves to be criticized, I criticize. If a team is relatively weak, I don’t expect much. If a team is good, I expect more. Some sports fans use sports as an excuse to devoid themselves of having to use logic. My whole sports world is presently based on logic. I consider “odds”, “chances” and rationality in virtually every situation. Some might argue that this takes away from the fun but to that I ask why every adult doesn’t still believe in Santa Claus. Wouldn’t Christmas be more fun with Santa Claus? Of course. In the same manner, sports would be inherently more fun without logic. I am a sports fan in the same way that I take on every aspect of life. I gather all of the information that I can and form the best possible point of view. To do otherwise would be a disservice to myself.
The previous paragraph is why The Greatest Sports Day of my life is and always will be in 1997. It is also the same reason why the greatest Christmas in my life is stuck somewhere in the 1980’s. Things change. People get smarter and priorities change. Michigan football was perfect on November 22, 1997. While another perfect season would undoubtedly provide thousands of other people with the Greatest Sports Day of their lives, that distinction for me is forever locked into that November Saturday in 1997. That is, of course, until my son gets his first hit in tee-ball.