Before it became my job to attend Michigan football games, I spent one season as a fan in the student section. Just my luck, it happened to be 2017 — unquestionably the most forgettable year of the Harbaugh era. I attended every home game that season from my seats in the 20th row in the end zone, but if you asked me anything about any of those games beyond which team won, I wouldn’t be able to tell you much.

Except for one.

Before the Michigan-Michigan State game three years ago Wednesday, students were given maize rally towels that read, “Beat State.” In the top corner of mine, blue bled into the maize from when the towel was so wet the colors ran. 

The Wolverines did not, in fact, beat Michigan State. It was an objectively terrible game, one that featured five turnovers and a lot of incompletions. The 2017 Michigan-Michigan State game was the most disappointing loss in the most disappointing season of the Harbaugh era. In many ways, it was a turning point of the way people perceived Harbaugh’s tenure, the beginning of the narrative of a coach that can’t beat his rivals or win big games.

Yet, of all the games I attended that year, it’s the one I remember. In particular, singing Mr. Brightside while soaking wet, as rain came down in sheets, stuck with me. I’d sung the song before, of course, but I had never been a part of something the way I was that night.

Afterwards I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who felt that way. Why did I have such positive memories of a terrible game? Turns out, many fans face the same dichotomy.

That game was the best and worst of Michigan fandom. I had a feeling throughout the beginning of the season that this team just wasn’t that good. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did that night — proof that despite hiring a prodigal son in Harbaugh, the Wolverines were still a long way away from where they wanted to be. 

But many who attended that game mark it as among their most memorable experiences and remember Mr. Brightside distinctly, a lasting vestige of a drag of a season.

As Terra Schroeder, a Michigan alum who attended the game her senior year, put it: “That was just one of those college memories that I’ll always have.”

***

Six years after “Under the Lights,” night games at Michigan Stadium were still a novelty in 2017. The Paul Bunyan game was just the fourth night game ever at the Big House, and Harbaugh’s first. (That number has since doubled thanks to a Big Ten TV deal that allows the networks to dictate which games will be held at night.)

When the game kicked off at 7:43 p.m., the temperature was in the high 70s and partly cloudy — perfect football weather. The stadium was packed.

Michigan started the game off poorly, falling behind 14-3, but this was a version of the Spartans coming off a 3-9 season. Hope still filled the air, hitting its apex when the Wolverines finally scored a touchdown early in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 14-10.

Shortly afterward, the rain started: a drizzle at first, then a full-on monsoon. The Michigan Stadium aisles became rivers. Schroeder remembers puddles in her shoes for weeks afterward.

Ryan Olthoff, at the time a career coordinator in the sport management department who was sitting in the student section with his brother, remembers the rain energizing everyone after a lackluster first half. But the energy began to dampen.

I just knew,” Schroeder said. “I’ve watched enough football in my life, you knew whoever was up when the weather started was probably who was gonna win the game.”

By that night in 2017, it was an established tradition to play Mr. Brightside between the third and fourth quarters. Most big football schools have a song like that — Zombie Nation at Penn State, Jump Around at Wisconsin, Sweet Caroline at Iowa State and Pitt. The song always got the student section hyped up, but never like this. For some fans who attended the game, it was the first time they remembered hearing it.

Michigan alum Alejandro Zúñiga sat in the lower bowl next to the north end zone, opposite the student section about 30 rows up. He spent most of the third quarter trying to get a good photo of the way the Michigan Stadium lights illuminated the rain coming down. With his phone already out, he anticipated Mr. Brightside coming and figured the student section would sing along, so he hit record to see what happened.

I don’t remember Mr. Brightside ever being that exciting before or since. As The Killers’ refrain boomed through the stadium, everyone let loose. They shouted the words along, jumped up and down, twirled their soaked rally towels. At one point, the music cut out and the crowd just kept on singing all the way up until a whistle signalled the start of the fourth quarter. The end of the song could even be heard on the broadcast, with announcer Chris Fowler remarking, “A spirited sing-along here as we get set for the final quarter.”

The hope and the hype both dissipated soon after as it became clear that neither team was able to move the ball. O’Korn was intercepted on three straight drives spanning the third and fourth quarters and it was clear then that whatever momentum Michigan may have had after its third-quarter touchdown was gone.

“It was one of those games that if Michigan wins that game it’s the greatest moment of your life,” LSA senior Alex Drain, a freshman at the time of the game, said. “It’s the best experience. Because you don’t care about the rain, you’re just happy, and instead, the rain just had a dampening effect, especially as the game went along where by the time you got to the final eight minutes of that game and it really started to look grimmer at that point it was like, ‘Oh damn, are we gonna lose this game and get wet?’ ”

Finally, the game ended when O’Korn’s Hail Mary pass fell incomplete in the end zone. Soaked and disappointed, fans were left to make their way back to their houses or cars wondering what happened. In those moments, there was nothing positive to take away.

But the next day, Zúñiga went back through his photos from the game and found the Mr. Brightside video. He debated if he wanted to post it because, as he put it, “Michigan lost and everything was awful.” But he felt his video captured the moment and maybe people would want to see it, so he posted it to Twitter. Today, the video has nearly 10,000 retweets and nearly 30,000 likes.

Three years later, that memory, for many, sticks more than anything that happened in the game itself.

“Would I want to revisit that? Not really,” Drain said. “ … But it’s a fun memory, and it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember the most, especially from that year, from the college athletic experience overall.”

***

So why has that game stuck with me? It’s the same reason so many Michigan fans retweeted that video, proud of their school despite what happened on the field. It’s why my friends sent me the video, asked if I was there and paid no mind to the fact that the team lost.

LSA senior Rachel Moloney, a freshman at the time, didn’t consider herself a “football person,” but when the game began to go south, she was the one who convinced her friends to stay a little while longer in hopes of being able to experience a comeback. Though she regretted that decision in the immediate aftermath, Moloney remembers the friends she made at the game, people with whom she later purchased season tickets.

“I fell in love with football that day,” she said in an email to The Daily.

Many fans still have mixed feelings about the game. One rendition of Mr. Brightside doesn’t change that the Wolverines lost, or the way in which they lost. Schroeder, Drain and Olthoff all had mostly negative memories of the game overall, but the memory of Mr. Brightside keeps it from being a soul-crushing experience like the “trouble with the snap” game two years earlier.

In many ways, Michigan football was never the same afterwards. Harbaugh came under increasing scrutiny, with critics still wondering if he’ll ever get the Wolverines over the hump. Night games at the Big House are now routine. But Michigan’s fanbase is as strong as ever, and it’s thanks in part to moments like these. 

Because more than some knee-jerk hot take about Harbaugh’s future or Michigan’s status as a blue-blood, if that night taught me one thing, it’s this:

It doesn’t need to be a good game to be a good story.

Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu or on Twitter @aria_gerson.

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