SportsMonday Column: Time to turn the lights out

Sunday, April 21, 2019 - 6:49pm

We love MIKE <3.

We love MIKE <3. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Martha Persak

After a basketball game is finished, and the fans have left, some media members prefer to work in the media room.

I always try to go back to the press box, partially because I work better by myself, but mostly because there is nothing like an empty stadium. Where there was deafening noise and heart-stopping action mere hours earlier, now there is silence.

It helps my creativity for working and fuels my nostalgia when I’m done.

Over the last four years, from hockey to football, I’ve been lucky enough to walk around Joe Louis Arena, the Dean Dome, Mackey Arena, Madison Square Garden, the Alamodome, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and yes, Michigan Stadium. All empty. All magnificent.

In the basketball arenas, I think of my dad, Mike. He taught me how to shoot a jump-shot and drove me all around hell and back for tournaments and games over the years, sharing stories and advice like only a dad can do.

In the football stadiums, I think of my mom, Martha, who I remember yelling at the television on fall Saturdays and tearing up at the Michigan marching band during post-game performances when we came to games in Ann Arbor years ago. She has always been there for me, in the stands for the easy times and in the trenches for the hard ones.

I look around these stadiums and think of my parents, the role they’ve played in getting me here and how much I wish I could show them these experiences in person.

I liked to sit for a while by myself after running productions at The Daily last year, too. The posters around the room from past Managing Editors are a little like jerseys hung in rafters. I think of myself here, and how I’ve somehow found a place in the history of this 128-year-old newspaper.

Both experiences settle me down and give me the slightest sense of imposter syndrome. They are my two first thoughts when I think of my “happy place.”

The difference is that, if all goes well, more stadiums will be in my future. A silent, empty Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building at 2:00 a.m. will not.

***

From a young age, I would wake up early in the morning to watch SportsCenter. When it ended, I would watch the next episode, which was just an exact repeat of the one I had just watched.

In those days, sports were synonymous with Michigan sports to me, and I never really had a choice.

My grandpa — Gumpa, as his grandkids called him — attended Michigan, and from there, I think my fate was preordained.

So I grew up with maize and blue everything. In Sunday School as a child, I colored a picture of Jesus Christ maize and blue.

I used to play catch with Gumpa in my grandparents’ living room with a little, blue, plastic football for hours. I’d say I was Marquise Walker (the real ones will remember) or Braylon Edwards or some other Wolverines receiver, as I dove into their couches making one-handed catches.

I always thought I would be a Michigan athlete one day. Of course, that dream was dashed, because I am not close to D-1-caliber at anything, though I do hold my own on the IM courts.

Time passed, and it eventually came time to apply for college. I thought for a second that I might want to go somewhere else. I knew sports journalism was my interest and that Michigan didn’t have a journalism major.

But when I actually got accepted here, I don’t even think I had to tell my parents where I wanted to go. They probably knew I’d end up in Ann Arbor before I did.

The sports journalism aspect took care of itself, too.

At Festifall my freshman year, I was actually looking for the WCBN table — I thought I wanted to do radio or television. But I stumbled across The Daily’s table, where then-MSE Max Cohen was standing.

He asked me if he could be honest with me, and his pitch was something along the lines of, “We’re the best fucking student newspaper in the country, and we’ll get you a job.”

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was sold, and the rest is history.

Gumpa passed when I was nine. I’d give anything to tell him about the last four years.

***

Dad is a press operator, and Mom is an elementary school teacher, and we get by, but it has come with some sacrifices.

I remember taking a drive one day. My parents, my two sisters — Katie and Mary — and I packed into our car and drove about five minutes away from home, pulling down a long driveway that disappeared into the woods. At the end of it was a small house. We were moving away from my childhood home to this one — an air-condition-less, fresh-water-less place.

I know I didn’t take that change well, and I imagine my reaction didn’t make things easy on my parents. I realize now that the move was probably entirely for Katie, Mary and me.

Mom and Dad have always told us not to worry about the costs of things, because we’ll make it work.

When I wanted to play AAU basketball, they figured out a way to pay for it. When Katie decided on Western Michigan, and I decided on Michigan, they figured out a way to pay for it. When Mary gets into Harvard or Oxford or something, they’ll figure out a way to pay for it. When I got my first internship in Colorado Springs, my Dad got in my shitty, old car and drove through the night with me to Colorado to make sure I got there safe.

We figured out a way to make that house in the woods our home, and I love getting to the end of that driveway.

I don’t write any of this because I think I’m special, or for pity’s sake. I recognize there are hundreds of thousands of kids and parents who have to grind to make ends meet.

I tell these stories because I am so, incredibly lucky to have the parents I do. They deserve so much credit. Truthfully, they deserve so much more than that.

No matter how many times I’ve been down to my last dollar, scrambling to pay rent, they kept their promise. We’ve always made it work.

So I’ll repeat what I said in my Senior Goodbye.

Mom and Dad, I swear one day it will all be worth it.

***

I’ve said a fair number of goodbyes in my life, and I’ve sucked at all of them. 

The last football game I attended as a fan was Michigan’s loss to Ohio State in 2017. My friends went home before me, and when the final whistle blew, I made my way to the 50-yard line. In the shadow of the press box, I watched the marching band’s postgame show and cried.

At the end of my MSE tenure, I went home for a family wedding. I was tired. A year of this job takes something out of you. I had a long talk with Mom about school and The Daily and my own mental health, and I cried then too. I wasn’t ready to be done with The Daily, and I’m still not. I’m certainly not ready to be done with Michigan.

And that’s why this goodbye is especially painful.

Because, even if those other ones were “lasts” for specific situations, I still had time left.

For this one, I have two weeks, and then nothing will ever be the same as it was these last four years.

When I would sit at The Daily on those late nights, I would leave and walk through the silent campus. The walk was better before The Union was under construction, but it’s still pretty good.

Maybe after the stories I’ve already told, it’s a surprise I didn’t cry. Instead, I would well up with pride.

For all the hundreds of thousands of people who walked this campus, I am one of the relative few who was Managing Sports Editor of The Michigan Daily. Years from now, I will be able to walk back into 420 Maynard St. and find my bylines from my time here.

I’ll remember The Daily for being the thing that got me through the hard times. When things were at their worst, I never once dreaded walking into that building. Turning the corner from the stairs, entering the newsroom and seeing the sports staff at the first desk on the right washed away whatever else was going on in my life. For a year, that staff — the best goddamn student sports section in the world — was mine, and that means the world to me.

It was the biggest factor in the best four years of my life.

But at some point, the stadium lights go out, and you have to leave.

It is the worst part.

Persak can be reached at mdpers@umich.edu or on Twitter @MikeDPersak. He would like to thank anyone who has read any of his articles, no matter how ridiculous they may have been.