It’s noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you listen closely you can hear the sound of football. There’s the play-by-play and the color commentary, crowd noise and the backseat refereeing. Occasionally the sound of a cheer shouted or swear muttered interrupts my thinking and makes me smile. I’m sitting at the table of my in-law’s house where my husband and his mother are garbed in their respective colors: maize and blue for him, scarlet and gray for her.
They love each other, but they are still fighting the Michigan Ohio war.
One day a year my hometown becomes ground zero for one of college football’s biggest rivalries. They brainwashed us early, telling us in elementary school that we needed to pick a side. I remember two things about being a kid heading into Thanksgiving: learning to draw a turkey by tracing my hand and celebrating Michigan / Ohio State day. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t describe the difference between a quarterback and a quarter pounder or that I wasn’t a fan of either team, it was crystal clear that neutrality wasn’t an option.
My husband is a Michigan fan who had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the border to a family that all supports Ohio State. I could never explain how it happened, how he managed to buck the trend and become a loyal and devoted fan of “that team up North.” But recently I watched a documentary called Michigan vs. Ohio State – The Rivalry and it all became clear. The man I love was a two-month old baby when Bo Schembechler took the helm of Michigan in 1969 and beat Ohio State, an undefeated juggernaut defending their national championship from the year before.
He has always loved a great win and his loyalty once gained doesn’t falter; mystery solved.
For someone who has been a begrudging participant in this particular tradition, Michigan football has become a big part of my life. Saturdays in the fall have a force field around them, the three or four hours of the game walled off from any other activities. I knew that I was destined to get married in the summertime, because even our wedding wouldn’t take precedence over a game. Our daughter was born in Ann Arbor on a football Saturday, arriving after a sleepless night and ten hours of labor. Exhausted, we watched the game on a tiny tv while our newborn daughter slept in a plexiglass bassinet next to us. Ask him about the day and he will share his still fresh disappointment that Tyrone Wheatley dropped the ball and cost Michigan the game in the last minutes. Ask me and I’ll bristle, reminding him that it was the best day of his life.
If you’re from the borderland, you have friends and family on each side. My best friend and her husband are Buckeyes while my husband is a Wolverine. The first fall after our daughters were born we drove to their home to watch the game with my daughter dressed up in a Michigan cheerleader outfit. A young woman that I know just had her first child and her infant son spent today wearing a Michigan shirt and an Ohio State pair of pants. When we bought our first house, I remember my husband’s feeling of relief to be living in Michigan. He was ecstatic to be in friendly territory until our neighbor hung an Ohio State flag.
In this strip of land, you never know where the loyalties lie.
I’ve spent most of my life in the borderland and this rivalry has been a part of my life for a long as I can remember. This year’s game will be over soon and it will be just another data point in a long tradition. The people I know and love will head back into their lives, some victorious and others defeated, while I sit on the sidelines wondering yet again why I am not wired to care as deeply as they do. Instead, I’ll hit “publish” on this post and head off to dinner completely unimpaired by the outcome. And, I’ll remind the people I love that there is one great thing about rivalries.
It will always be there next year.