When Jeff Holzhausen was a student at Michigan 20 years ago, he had ritual to start and end each semester.
He’d make his way to Forrest Hill Cemetery and visit the graves of important figures in Michigan football history: Fielding Yost, the first football coach, and Bob Ufer, the legendary announcer. He loved Michigan football, he loved the tradition. Coming there just seemed like the right thing to do.
There, on a fall afternoon, from the highest point in Ann Arbor, he’d take in the autumn foliage. He could hear the marching band practice all the way from Elbel Field. Surrounded by history, Holzhausen gathered his thoughts and emotions.
Twenty years later, he still makes the same pilgrimage. But this time, it’s under the cover of night in late November instead of a warm September afternoon. This time, he makes the trek with friends and strangers, instead of by himself. This time, it’s not just to find focus before another academic year, but to pay homage to the biggest week in the Michigan football schedule: The Game.
The gathering begins Tuesday night, under Burton Bell Tower.
Holzhausen advertised the event on his Twitter, and the message also got posted on Michigan blog sites. But with the way the 2013 season has played out, Holzhausen expected a relatively small affair, with handful of people at best. But now, as the clock strikes 6 p.m., 25 people are already in attendance. And more join as the group makes the walk to the cemetery.
The cemetery grounds cover 65 acres, but by this point, Holzhausen knows the route by heart. The first stop is at Bo Schembechler’s grave. Already, Michigan baseball hats, maize towels with block ‘Ms’ and “Beat Ohio” buttons adorn the ground around the tombstone. Holzhausen presses play on his iPod and speakers. Schembechler’s voice fills the silence.
No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team. The Team, The Team, The Team
Holzhausen gets emotional just hearing the former coach’s famous speech from 1983. He says a few words, reminiscing about the 1995 game, the last time the Wolverines won as the underdogs at home. Holzhausen’s friend, Michael Fahmie, fills in when Holzhausen gets lost for words.
“We know how it’s been since the man left us,” Fahmie says. “We know the road we get back. Let’s get it back sooner. Let’s get it back to what he built, to what these guys built. The greatness that their legacy left, that they deserve.”
One by one, Holzhausen and the rest of the fans lay maize and blue roses at Schembechler’s grave. A member of the marching band leads the group in a chorus of “The Victors.”
“Don’t concede anything to the sons of bitches,” Holzhausen concludes.
It takes a couple minutes to walk up the hill to find Bob Ufer. Once again, Holzhausen has his iPod poised and ready to go, this time with Ufer’s historic call in Michigan’s 1979 win over Indiana.
I have never seen anything like this in all my 40 years of covering Michigan football. Anthony Carter, the human torpedo. Bo Schembechler is looking up at Fielding H. Yost in football’s Valhalla, and Bo Schembechler says, “Thank you Fielding Yost! Thank you Fielding Yost for that one!”
Holzhausen is at his most emotional now. In fact, it seems like his eyes are glistening with tears as he tries to sum up what Ufer means to him.
“I know a lot of who I am. … It all started with Ufer,” he says. “Bo, Yost, Ufer, they’re all unique. Talk about pure Michigan, they’re pure Michigan.”
And with that, Holzhausen turns on his heels and faces the grave on the other side of the sidewalk, the grave of Fielding Yost, also decorated with Michigan apparel.
The group places the remaining roses on the stone. Putting their arms around each other’s shoulders, they sway with the winter wind quietly singing “The Yellow and Blue.” After one last singing of “The Victors,” Holzhausen thanks everybody for coming. In groups of twos and threes, the small company parts ways, leaving each other with optimistic words of encouragement for Saturday.
“I wouldn’t have paid $300 a ticket on Saturday if I didn’t think it could happen,” says one man.
Holzhausen nods in approval.
Holzhausen had the chance to meet Schembechler when he was a student. He planned to use opportunity to tell the coach exactly what he meant to him, about how he impacted his life, about all the feelings he had surrounding Michigan football.
And when he told Schembechler all this, Schembechler just smiled.
“That’s the great thing about Michigan football,” Schembechler told him. “It transcends beyond the guys that play the game.”
Those words are why Holzhausen continues the graveyard walk. It’s why he’s not surprised when students and alumni spanning multiple generations showed up on Tuesday.
Margaret Anderson lives in New Hampshire. A graduate of the class of 1970 — and witness to the first meeting between Schembechler and former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes in 1969 — Anderson came on the walk with her grand nephew, a current student.
David Lectka, a freshmen, received a text from his father (“The biggest Michigan fan I know,” according to Lectka) that morning, encouraging him to check out the scene after seeing a post about it online.
There’s no agenda for the fans in attendance. In Forrest Hill Cemetery on Tuesday night, none of the media backlash or social media talk mattered. All anyone cared about was honoring the history. Respecting the past, Holzhausen said, “is the dollar that Dave Brandon can’t get from us.”
“Part of it is you hope, as silly as it sounds, you come out here and you connect with these guys and what they built, you hope maybe that that spirit spreads,” Fahmie said. “You hope that this is something that reminds people that if you stand behind the team, this team will always come back.”
Holzhausen will come back. He always does.