A foreign experience: Football Saturday through the eyes of a French native

BY NASTASIA PETEUIL

Published October 3, 2010

When I walk in the streets of Ann Arbor, I think to myself what a quiet place it is to live. The city is actually quite large, yet the nature is omnipresent. I am always astonished by the sight of all the baby squirrels in the city, and the forestry of Nichols Arboretum surrounds one in calm and serenity despite its setting in an American city.

But one day, I went to a Saturday football game.

American football is a real cultural phenomenon here in the States, especially at the collegiate level. Each university has its team, and just as I'd heard from American students back in France, Michigan is particularly obsessed with its football team. Every Saturday the pre-game begins before you're out of bed, then comes the game and then the post-game for the still able-bodied few. Every Saturday, game after game.

In my short time in Ann Arbor, I went to two football games. And what I found was that Americans love to play games. The most famous seems to be beer pong. It's really a game of skill. You make your opponent drink by tossing your ping-pong ball into his or her cup of beer. A special game for football pre-games is the ice luge game. This is a special way to drink fast and freshly. Plenty of other games exist, some sillier than others. The wet umbrella, for example: you pour your beer on the umbrella and a friend tries to trap the liquid in his mouth. The dangerous beer thrown in the air: I never understood the purpose except that you take a cold beer shower. The ski: a game of solidarity where you help your friends to drink as fast as possible. The crazy reverse wine: you try once, not twice.

They sure love drinking games here in Ann Arbor.

Another American specialty is what I will call sidewalk drinker hunting. This is where the campus police watch for people drinking on the sidewalk, looking to write as many tickets as possible. This whole open container law is pretty foreign to me, and it can be very costly if you don't follow it, especially if you are clueless and French. This whole underage drinking thing is pretty funny as well.

Half an hour before the game starts comes the exodus: thousands of spectators flock to Michigan Stadium. Did I know how to get there? Of course not. But I bet most freshman or foreigners do the same thing I did my first game. You don’t have to know how to go, you simply follow the others going to the game like a herd of sheep.

Michigan stadium is the biggest in the USA. For the first game, the stadium set a new record: 113,090 people! The colors of the team — maize and blue — fill the overheated stadium to capacity. I wondered what the whole fascination was around these two colors. Everyone in this town seems to want everything about Michigan and football to have these colors. I caught a lot of scorn when I decided to buy a beautiful plastic fashion bracelet with the block 'M’ — a red 'M'. When I proudly wore it to the first game, everybody seemed astonished at me: “What! It isn’t blue?!” Nope, it wasn't blue.

Once you're inside the Big House, you have to support your team, and your voice becomes a real weapon. Each song occupies a special niche. For example, the famous fight song, “The Victors,” dates back to 1898 and serves as the song I'll remember most. The song is known everywhere as the fight song of Michigan and everybody knows it by heart and sings it passionately as a collective group.

My favorite song is a different one, though. I'll simply call it, “You Suck.” The lyrics are really easy for a foreigner like me to remember, unlike the fight song. “You Suck” is more aggressive, and I think not very friendly. The University band actually supports this with their instruments. Michigan students apparently love that.

Indeed, it's also interesting to see how much everyone loves the band here at Michigan. Everyone loves the band and thinks it's cool. Back in France, musicians are seen as arrogant or lost souls. The way the college band operates is different from anything I've ever seen; they even get to play during the games and at halftime.

The game is also very special. Of course, there is the part of American football where you're just waiting around all the time for the game to start, stop, then start again. When you're watching the game, it's actually a bit of a game in and of itself to figure things out. You have to follow the ball. At moments you're wondering where the ball is: Who got the ball? Why did he run and not throw? What is he doing with the ball? All of these questions are racing through your head looking to be answered.

But the most magical moment of all is that split second that feels like an eternity where the quarterback heaves the ball way up into the air and time stands still. The stadium goes silent and everyone follows the flight of the ball through the air until that fateful moment when the catch is made and an explosion of joy rocks the entire stadium. Or if he misses the ball, the entire stadium lets loose a collective sigh. It must be a tough life for someone after missing a catch to hear the disappointed sounds directly at him from 110,000 people.