Cameron Cafmeyer got a house for his senior year that was 20 minutes closer to Michigan Stadium than he’d been before. After spending his junior year in the 11th row of the student section, the Engineering senior was sure that he’d be in the fifth row for 2020 — if not closer.
Now, Cafmeyer, along with thousands of other Michigan seniors, is staring down a fall without the sport that’s defined much of his time in college.
“For me, the fall is college football and college football Saturdays, that’s all I do in the fall is just watch college football,” Cafmeyer said. “Not just Michigan but that’s all day I’m just watching games. So just to not have that is gonna be kind of weird this fall.”
Hayley Russell, a Kinesiology senior from Texas, came to Michigan largely because of its football culture. She loved the moments when the fans yelled so loud they could barely hear themselves. When Russell heard the news that the Big Ten had postponed its football season, she was with her mom, driving up to help her sister move in at Oklahoma State.
Russell had already been stressed about the things every current Michigan senior has to grapple with: online classes, roommates, graduate school applications. But on that fateful drive, Russell learned that she had lost one of the outlets she had long used to deal with the stresses of college.
“That was just a tipping point for me of, ‘Of course. Of course this would happen,’” Russell said. “And I just remember being so upset and my mom was just like, ‘It’s gonna be OK,’ and I was quiet for the rest of the ride. I had to come to terms with it.”
For Russell and Business senior Zack Schwartz, seeing the ACC, SEC and Big 12 press on without the Big Ten was frustrating. If those conferences are gonna give it a try, they thought, why can’t we? Others felt that, as sad as it was, it was the right decision. Kinesiology senior Barrett Bongiorno said that losing one year of football was something he could live with if it meant avoiding long-term health effects for all involved. Nursing senior Nick Similuk is in favor of a season if it’s safe, but he’s skeptical given that many colleges don’t have the resources to create a “bubble” in the same way as pro leagues.
Bongiorno, who attended the first night of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis before it was canceled, didn’t immediately think football was in jeopardy. But as the summer progressed, he felt the athletic directors didn’t have a plan beyond hoping the coronavirus subsided. He thinks the conference made the right decision, though he wishes there was better communication between the league’s presidents and its athletes.
“I was disappointed,” Bongiorno said. “ … But I think as it became more clear that there was no plan, I didn’t see (football) happening.”
Now, as the reality of losing their senior season has set in, these seniors have found other ways to fill the void. For Cafmeyer, that’s by watching the NBA and NHL. Bongiorno’s family has planned a Thanksgiving getaway to California, something they’d never do otherwise — after all, that’s Ohio State weekend. Russell has gotten closer to her roommates, who don’t enjoy football as much as she does. During the all-consuming football seasons, she said, she didn’t realize how little time she spent with them.
But others, like Schwartz, haven’t been able to find anything that scratches the same itch. For those who love it, college football isn’t just about a game. It’s a whole day of festivities, from tailgates to stadiums to dinners to watching other games on TV afterwards. It’s almost a way of life.
“I’m just praying I get some semblance of a season because it’s my senior year and it’s gonna be a lot harder for me to go to games after this season given that I’m not gonna be living in Michigan after graduation,” Schwartz said. “So I wouldn’t wish someone’s senior football season being taken away on my worst enemy.”
Even if the Big Ten ends up playing later in the year, the seniors agreed it wouldn’t be the same. Fan capacity would likely be limited, if fans were allowed at all. The games might not be held on campus. Many star players would opt out. College football would have to share the stage with other sports, like basketball, baseball and softball.
That has left many seniors to grapple with a devastating fact: They might not ever get to go to a Michigan game as they knew it again. Their last time in the student section, at a fraternity tailgate with friends or making the trek to and from the Big House every Saturday may have already come and gone.
Cafmeyer is staying at Michigan next year for a master’s program, a decision that was influenced by the fact that it could get him back in the student section. Similuk is glad to leave with three years of memories. He’d rather that, he said, than come in as a freshman with no football and no certainty as to whether he’d get that experience.
But many other seniors have already had their last shot. If Russell had been a freshman, she would’ve been armed with the knowledge that she potentially had three more years to go to a game. Now, she’ll be leaving Michigan without a proper ending to four years of football fandom.
“I had my last time in the Big House and I didn’t even know it, as a student,” Russell said. “And that’s kind of hard sometimes.”