The Game had been played before 2003 -- a lot of times, actually -- but that was the first one that I truly experienced. In the time before my freshman year at Michigan, I sat at home watching the game on a static-y TV set in my living room with my father and sister. The game might as well have been played on the moon. The broadcast coming through our antiquated antenna hookup -- in, gasp, standard definition -- certainly made it seem that way. It was all somewhat foreign to me. Thousands of people screaming and cheering (and little did I know it yet, asking those in front of them to sit down) for a team that existed mostly as an abstraction in my mind. There was little connection past it being a team I liked playing a team I knew I didn't like without much idea why, other than the obvious explanation that it had always been that way, and I'd be a fool to go against the grain.
Little did I know what lay ahead when I took my seats to watch The Game for the first time.
November 22nd, 2003; Ann Arbor, MI - Section 29, row 63. That was the section of the Big House that I ended up in as a freshman. It was where I watched Michigan obliterate Notre Dame early in the season, and where I was when Ohio State came to town. My college application process was done haphazardly and without any regard for the normal order of these things. I applied very late, somehow overcoming my paralysis at having to make a huge decision about my future, and got my housing assignment just weeks before school started. As it were, the ticket office doesn't go out of its way to cater to my kind, so I walked to the ticket office in the rain during down time in orientation to sign up for student tickets. I got what was left over. Section 29, Row 63 -- not bad for the last minute. The game was a triumph. The cap on a season that was all the while oh-so-close to being perfect, and I sat there with 112,117 other people, setting an attendance record and watching Chris Perry, John Navarre and the rest of the Wolverines slowly demolish Ohio State before our eyes. As the game ended students below me began to rush the field. I stared out at the mess of people from Row 63 as I soaked up the November sun. I didn't rush the field. Next time, I thought.
November 20th, 2004; Ann Arbor, MI - The next year I sat in a crowded apartment on Geddes Ave. It belonged to a group of friends, and the living room quickly reached its meager capacity. We heckled one kid from out balcony as he left his apartment early in the game to go study. "Nice backpack," my friend yelled at him. This is what passes for clever when you're charged on adrenaline and booze in the midst of the biggest game of the year. This time it was Michigan walking into the game as the favorite. Seventh in the country with a 9-1 record. Ohio State stood at just 6-4 looking to play spoiler, and as often happens in The Game, the underdog left the field victorious. Troy Smith passed for 241 yards and rushed for 145 more while Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown. In the end it wasn't even close. 37-21. My friends and I salvaged an old tube TV from the dumpster behind the apartments, took it up on the balcony, and hurled it into the parking lot. When you are a drunk sophomore in college coming off your first viscerally experienced loss at the hands of your most bitter rival, destruction is one of the few things that makes sense. It was the beginning of a long seven years for all of us.
November 19th, 2005; Ann Arbor, MI - My seats were closer that year, somewhere in the 40s, but I can't place it exactly. Memory is funny like that. Michigan had turned its season around after a 3-3 start by beating an undefeated Penn State team in the closing seconds. There was little hope of a conference title on the line in the final game (Penn State would have had to lose to a rapidly unraveling Michigan State team to set up a three way tie with a Michigan win), but the game was about more than that. It was about payback. Michigan had its chance to play spoiler against the top-10 Buckeyes. The Wolverines were almost good enough. Carrying a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Michigan's prevent defense bled yards to Smith and the Buckeye offense. Two drives, five minutes, 155 yards, and two touchdowns. My chance to rush the field would have to wait.
November 18th, 2006; Ann Arbor, MI - The Game of the Century. Two juggernauts slowly marching toward each other, destroying everything along the way, on a collision course to end the season with one of the most talked about match ups that I could remember. This was for a spot in the BCS title game and the realization of what I had dreamed of since January of 1998: another national title. Then, the unthinkable happened. Bo died. I lived in a second floor apartment directly across the street from Schembechler Hall. I watched the people come and go, leaving flowers and just lingering by. The news crews came to get reactions, to try to put his death in perspective, to memorialize. All I could do was look on through the craggy limbs of a leafless tree, sitting there on my balcony, waiting for The Game so I could think of something other than the death of the man who helped build the thing we all loved so dear.
The game finally came and we all packed into the living room of the de facto hangout house on the corner of Elm and Geddes. I spent the majority of the game a nervous wreck, nearly pulling my hair out while my girlfriend at the time -- a MSU student who thought I was batshit crazy for my devotion to Michigan football -- got way too drunk in the kitchen. Sometime around the moment when Shawn Crable laid that ill-advised hit on Troy Smith that gave the Buckeyes a chance to push the lead to 11, I think my girlfriend finally took that last shot that had about the same knockout effect -- both physically and emotionally. By the time the game ended I was calling her a cab and taking her home to sleep it off. For all I know she saved me from getting that blackout drunk myself. It was a dark time.
November 17th, 2007; Ann Arbor, MI - An ugly game all around. The weather was brutal, cold and rainy with a slate gray sky that football writers fawn about as being "Big Ten football weather" because they spend the game in the press box sipping coffee and eating from a buffet table. In the stands the crowd stood hushed and miserable as Michigan's battered offense repeatedly failed to gain any traction despite the fact that the surface was field turf and not grass. Had it been grass I imagine the players would have been ankle deep in mud by the second quarter. I got to watch loss number four of my five year college career from under the hood of a cheap rain jacket, blowing warm breath on my fingers every so often so I could feel them while I clapped along with the band, trying fruitlessly to snap the team to life through song and school spirit. Ohio State ended up winning 14-3, but that understates just how dominant the Buckeyes were that day. Beanie Wells rushed for 222 yards and two touchdowns while Michigan's offense only mustered 91 yards. Long before Vernon Gholston went belly up in the league he crushed Michigan's last hope of a Rose Bowl for Lloyd Carr. Because of a string of upsets Ohio State would make the BCS title game for a second straight year (and get housed by an SEC team for the second straight year) while Michigan would go on to the Capital One bowl, get healthy, and beat Florida and the Heisman winning Tim Tebow to send Carr to retirement in style. It was a painful reminder of the heightened expectations of the season, and just how low things got in the end of November.
November 22nd, 2008; East Lansing, MI - My first year out of college was spent living in a house just a stone's throw from Michigan State's campus, biding my time looking for jobs and living like the locals (i.e. drinking a lot). I spent the fall tailgating in the mornings and trudging back to the house by myself past throngs of MSU students and alumni so that I could witness another futile effort by the hapless 2008 Michigan team. In 2008 The Game, for the first time in years, was simply an afterthought. Michigan came in nursing a 3-8 record and the most hapless offense in the conference. Ohio State was one win away from its fourth straight double-digit win season, Big Ten championship, and BCS bowl berth. You knew it was going to get ugly when Michigan couldn't even gain positive yards after forcing a turnover deep in Ohio State territory. I sat in my room in the basement drinking whiskey and listening to my friends -- all Michigan State fans -- cheer every Michigan failure. I would get a small slice of revenge as the Spartans would then go on to lose convincingly to Penn State in the afternoon game. The loss didn't hurt; I was already numb from a season spent floundering against bad teams and losing spectacularly vs. good teams. In the end, the fact that it didn't hurt was the worst part. It wasn't a rivalry game any longer -- it was a coup de'grace.
November 21st, 2009; Byron, MI - This season found new ways in which to torture Michigan fans. The team started out hot in the beginning of the year but October and November were filled with more and more losses. Close ones against Michigan State, Iowa, and Purdue, lopsided ones against Penn State and Wisconsin, and a complete collapse against Illinois. The Game would follow the script. Michigan kept it close through the early going but mistake after mistake turned into missed opportunities. Tate Forcier literally threw the game away time after time just as it seemed Michigan had begun to gain any positive momentum. Tressel pulled back on the reins, and it almost felt for fleeting moments that he did it out of pity. Maybe he did. Maybe Michigan in 2009 had grown so pathetic that, like a cat playing with a caught mouse, the Buckeyes quickly lost interest once every sign of life was gone. I watched the game alone in my room at home with my parents. They watched downstairs. I wanted to be alone.
November 27th, 2010; Dearborn, MI - You could write a book trying to find the low point of Rich Rodriguez's career at Michigan (John U. Bacon did, probably without trying), but it would be hard to find a more convincing choice than Michigan's trip to Ohio Stadium in 2010. Rich Rodriguez was for all intents and purposes a lame duck coach, having led Michigan to a second dismal collapse through the Big Ten season. The Wolverines would make a bowl which would ultimately prove to be Rodriguez's last dance, or maybe it was a death march, I quit seriously watching that abomination sometime during the second quarter.
Michigan, a program with a proud defensive tradition, was fielding something that Indiana fans were used to seeing. It was arguably the worst defense in the BCS that year, and unquestionably the worst defense Michigan has ever put on the field. I sat with my college roommate of three years in his house in Dearborn. We didn't even really know each other the last time Michigan had won The Game. He had, in a drunken stupor the night before the 2003 Notre Dame game, come down the hall to encourage me to keep drinking (it was 3am) and plow through to the start of ESPN's College Gameday in a few hours. He also introduced himself with his roommate at the time's name, which became a point of confusion over the next few months as I tried to figure out which one of them was which. I wouldn't do that until midway through the next semester when we became friends, bonded in a large group over freshman antics and marathon sessions of Super Smash Bros. for Gamecube.
In November of 2010 he was married to a girl he had also met after Michigan had last beaten Ohio State (the first night of sophomore year in 2004, but that's another story entirely), they owned a house, and he was successfully employed and thinking about getting his MBA -- a long way from the drunk kid staggering down the hall at 3am trying to keep the party going. We sat together on his couch, like we had for countless Michigan games before, and we watched the grisly events unfold. A scoreless first quarter led into a quick field goal and then three touchdowns (two short drives and one kickoff return). By halftime the game was essentially out of reach, but another three scores (a touchdown and two field goals) would ensure an easy victory. It was a low point that we couldn't have imagined years before. We kept watching until the end, We didn't talk much. There wasn't anything to say.
We all know how the story ends. Or continues. It doesn't really end, this long saga of clashes and trash talk and posturing that culminates in The Game year in and year out, the thing that will inevitably continue as long as the sport does, or at least until Jim Delany sells the Big Ten to the Saudis in 2025 for 100 billion dollars, which he will invest in a private island with a bed made to look exactly like a miniature version of the Rose Bowl. It will be in that bed that Jim Delany, the cold, calculating businessman, will first experience the pangs of emotion that we call love and he calls "weakness". He will shed a single tear. Then he will get out of bed and find some progress somewhere else to stand in the way of, in favor of his own interests. Old habits die hard. But I digress.
Michigan beat Ohio State and did it for the first time since I was a freshman in college. You don't know me very well, but rest assured when I tell you that I was a much different person then. We all were. I've reached countless milestones in my life since that November day when I sat in the stands and decided not to rush the field. All the while the dark cloud of The Streak hung over me. Over a quarter of my life passed from that moment until the one on November 26th, when I sat in my living room in Virginia Beach and watched Courtney Avery tip and catch that last interception, sealing the game. Ending the streak.
This game that we all love so much, the reason why you are reading this and I am writing it, isn't really important in the grand scheme of things. It isn't really important until it is. A few weeks ago Ted Glover wrote about his experience with The Game and his service for our country (if you haven't read it yet, do that right now and you'll be glad you did). Now I can't even begin to compare my meandering 20's, spent in a dangerous and irresponsible combination of drunk, jobless, and broke, to anything that Ted and thousands of others have done as members of our nation's armed forces, but something Ted said about sports and our relationship to them stuck with me:
It was important to win The Game, but sports, almost as much as a phone call or letter from a loved one, connected me to home in a way that is more powerful than I can put into words. Everyone who deploys in a war zone and gets shot at has that 'why the fuck am I doing this?' epiphany at some point, or I'd like to at least I think they do. And I'd had that moment in relation to my family long ago. Don't get me wrong, sports is really secondary in my list of priorities compared to missing countless birthdays, anniversaries, recitals and holidays, but I never really saw the macro world view of 'why' until I was watching a football game. Over 100,000 people were cheering, safe and secure, with the chance of harm coming to them by a foreign enemy almost zero.
Sports are a distraction. Kid games that we have built up to have deeper meaning in our lives. We invest time in them and reap the rewards or feel the pain, but ultimately it is the time and energy that we put in that are important, that imbue the events with meaning. As Ted said so well, there are so many other things, real things, that are much more important to our lives as a whole. Family, relationships, and in some cases military service greatly outweigh things like a football game between Michigan and Ohio State. Rationally, there is no comparison.
But sports aren't rational. While I write this I'm watching the Ukraine try and beat Sweden in the Euro 2012. A stadium full of people united by a love for their country and the sport of soccer. Millions around the world watching out of curiosity and community (seriously, check out twitter during a big game in any sport anymore). Ted mentions the 100,000 cheering fans at The Game, united by a love of college football and their team. Thousands of rational people, all wrapped up in a bunch of man-children moving a ball around a field, united together by a love for sport. You get out what you put in.
I have loved Michigan most all of my life. I was indoctrinated when I was too young to know anything different and I have loved the team both rationally (in a serious, blogger-type detachment sorta way) and irrationally (in a "I can't sit down, the game is on the line" pacing around the living room way) ever since. I lived through a seven year streak that felt like a burden on my soul, one that those around me, those not afflicted with It -- hopeless, childlike reverence for a damn football team -- couldn't possibly hope to understand. I loved one team, hated the other, and watched things go wrong, hilariously wrong, heartbreakingly wrong, year after year until I almost couldn't take it any more. I'd run out of ways to watch my team lose.
On the afternoon of November 26th I walked out onto my back deck after The Game. The sun was shining and it was warm with a slight breeze, as it still manages to be in late November in southeast Virginia. I looked out over the trees toward the ocean and smiled before taking a deep breath. Nothing had changed, but everything had.
That's what beating Ohio State means to me.
(Zach also writes for SBNation's Michigan site Maize n Brew, and he tweets here.)