The first thing they’ll tell you is that they aren’t technically supposed to talk to reporters. Then they’ll offer you a cookie.
They sit on two couches, with three camping chairs adjacent, under a large tent in the center of the Diag. A white-and-sky-blue flag hangs from the north end of the tent with an orange unicorn in its center. There are three students sitting watch, for now, but more will arrive soon. It’s Tuesday night, and it’s cold out.
A basketball hoop stands about 15 feet away, the front of its rim dented flat, but still usable to pass the time this week. From Sunday to Saturday, these students will sit, eat and pass time in and around this tent, waiting for a threat that may never come.
These are the men who guard the ‘M’ in the center of the Diag from vandalism. Throughout the night, appreciative students passing by will shout their thanks. At 10:08 p.m., a student approaches the tent bearing a gift — more cookies.
“That happens every once in a while,” says Brandon Lyons, a junior computer science major.
It happens again around 10:35 p.m.
Since 1999, Theta Xi fraternity has been in charge of protecting the Diag ‘M’ during Michigan State rivalry week. This year, Delta Phi Epsilon sorority has helped out during the day. Each member is required to spend eight hours throughout the week at the ‘M,’ with new pledges required to spend 18. There are six shifts available, and according to Lyons and Ben Lampert, a sophomore astronomy and astrophysics major, there has been no problem filling the shifts.
As of Tuesday, Lyons estimates he has spent six hours on guard each night, and while the primary cause is to protect the ‘M,’ the two Greek houses are also raising money for multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis through a GoFundMe page.
Lyons and Lampert are friendly, but they aren’t allowed to talk freely about the weeklong project until the Theta Xi philanthropy chair, sophomore business student Alex Tarowsky, arrives.
Lyons is studying for an exam he has to take Wednesday, and he just had one earlier Tuesday, too. But it hasn’t stopped him from spending large lumps of time on the Diag. He likes the bonding, and he is invested in protecting the ‘M.’
When Tarowsky arrives, the group can finally open up about the event.
“(It) really just started with a bunch of guys just getting sick of Michigan State, just trashing the ‘M,’ so they decided to do something about it and turn it into a big event and a fundraiser,” Tarowsky said.
Acts of vandalism between Michigan and Michigan State during rivalry week have become somewhat common. In recent years, Michigan fans have been suspected of defacing the Spartan statue in East Lansing, and sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the Magic Johnson statue outside of Michigan State’s Breslin Center was vandalized. A yellow block ‘M’ was painted on the statue’s chest, and ‘Beat State’ was written on its base.
Last year, the Diag ‘M’ was painted green, which Theta Xi says was the result of a “miscommunication” with the University — a “fluke” that won’t happen again.
And by spending the week guarding the Diag, Theta Xi can reasonably assure that the ‘M’ will remain intact this year. To pass the time, brothers can do all kinds of things.
They host events, including a free-throw shooting contest, cornhole and pie-a-Xi. They can do homework — one pledge, Michael Lee, is working on a paper in which he applies Freudian psychology to German fairytales. And, of course, they socialize. Tuesday night, they had a long dialogue about their favorite bathrooms in the house and planning how to get a TV to the Diag for the next night.
And then there’s the free food. Pizza House and the Blue Leprechaun are sponsoring the event, and students bring them food throughout the week. They’ve gotten coffee, pizza and many, many cookies. At lunchtime on Tuesday, they said a walking burrito from Get Some Burritos brought them lunch.
But all of this leaves one fairly substantial question. What happens if a would-be-vandal does show up?
“We would do whatever we could to make sure this ‘M’ isn’t painted,” Tarowsky said. “We would push these couches over it. I guess we would probably call 911. We’re gonna get water guns. I don’t know why we didn’t do it yet, but we want to get water guns.”
None of them were on the ‘M’ Sunday, but there is talk amongst them about some questionable activity.
“There were some suspicious looking guys we saw camping around,” Tarowsky said. “One of them approached us and started asking questions you would expect, like, ‘How many of you guys are going to be here all the time? What hours? Do you guys ever leave?’ I wasn’t here at the time, but apparently he motioned to his friends to leave once he was done asking the questions.”
Tarowsky eventually leaves the tent, and the night continues. Pledges show up for serenade practice and a large group of brothers plays basketball. Word has it that it’s someone’s birthday at midnight, and he’ll be spending it guarding the ‘M.’ It feels like a party already.
By 3:31 a.m., four members remain at the tent. Three are awake, all on their laptops, and one is asleep. The fun has gone. They’re simply on duty.