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When Craig Barker’s son, Franklin, saw Michigan’s original 2020 schedule, he instantly knew what game he wanted to go to.

Nine-year-old Franklin, who has been to at least one Michigan game every year since he was born, claimed the Wisconsin game. Three years ago, Franklin played on a flag football team coached by a high schooler in their neighborhood of Milan. Now, that coach — Mike Furtney — plays offensive line for the Badgers, and Franklin wanted to see him play.

When the Big Ten announced it would not allow fans in stands, it erased any hope of Franklin getting to see his former coach play. In part because of that, Barker purchased a cardboard cutout of Franklin to be placed in the stands at Michigan Stadium. On Saturday, when the Wolverines play Michigan State, Barker will look out for Franklin’s cutout. If he can locate it, he plans to talk to Furtney’s mom and tell her where her son should look when his team comes to Ann Arbor.

“He still wants to be in the stands for Mike,” Barker said.

In October, shortly after the Big Ten had announced it would only allow fans who were immediate family members of players or staff, Michigan announced that it would be selling cardboard cutouts at Michigan Stadium, following the lead of several MLB and NFL teams. For $70 (discounted to $50 for season ticket holders and $35 for students), fans can have a cutout of themselves placed in one of the end zones for every home game. Those who purchase a cutout are also given the option to have it shipped back to them after the season for $25 extra. For many fans, these cutouts afford them the opportunity to further engage with their team despite not being in the stadium.

Caroline Winograd, who attended Michigan both for undergrad and for her master’s program, purchased a cutout partially because it gave her a way to continue her streak of 20 straight years attending a game and partly because she wanted to support the athletic department.

When I was in undergrad and grad school I worked in the athletic department and I worked in athletic communications and I’ve already seen some of my favorite people that I worked with for four years get laid off,” Winograd said. “So it’s something that we could do our part with this at least to get, help out a little bit.”

Winograd was originally weirded out by the idea of seeing herself in the stadium, instead wanting to use a picture of her cat, but when her dad purchased one, she felt FOMO and found a picture of herself at a sorority tailgate to submit. Eventually, Winograd and her dad convinced her aunt and two uncles — who have season tickets with them — to buy cutouts, too.

John Schultz, a Michigan alum and Ann Arbor local, usually attends about one or two games a year. His wife attempted to get several other wives with whom the couple attend games to purchase cutouts for their husbands, but didn’t find any takers. Instead, his wife ordered one just for him.

“I don’t feel bad about this because we would’ve easily spent four or five times this much on tickets for the two of us if we went to a single game,” Schultz said. “ … It was like, ‘Wow, that’s cheap for a whole season’s worth of games.’ ”

Every Big Ten school except Rutgers and Northwestern is offering fan cutouts in 2020. The cheapest cutouts range from $50 at Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Ohio State to $85 at Penn State, and several schools also offer a more expensive package with extra perks like a coach’s autograph or a better location in the stands. (Nebraska’s cheapest cutout option is $100, but it comes in a package with a collector’s item and four raffle tickets.) Like Michigan, most schools also give discounts to season ticket holders and students and offer the option to have cutouts shipped at the end of the season for an extra fee.

Both Winograd and Schultz plan to get their cutouts shipped back to them. Winograd just purchased a house, and she has a room she calls her “Michigan room.” She plans to put her family’s cutouts there so she never has to watch another game alone. Schultz, too, has somewhat of a shrine to Michigan football in his basement where he’s keeping the cutout.

Barker, Schultz and Winograd all live in or near Ann Arbor. But for other fans, purchasing a cutout can be a way to stay connected to the team from afar. Gabriela Carroll was raised in a Michigan family, with a great-grandfather who attended the school and a father raised in Toledo, Ohio. Carroll currently lives in New York City and is a sophomore at Northwestern but still attends 1-2 games a year. Last year on gamedays, Carroll called her dad as she watched the game on her computer and him on his TV.

Carroll and her dad previously talked about how cool fan cutouts were when they saw them at MLB games. When Carroll heard that Michigan was offering them, she texted her dad: “We’re doing this, right?” Sure enough, her dad was on board and purchased cutouts for himself, Carroll and her younger brother. Carroll said that if Northwestern offered fan cutouts, she would purchase one there, too, so she could be in two places at once.

Though Rick Bartus lives locally, his daughter, Kristin — a Michigan alum — and grandson, Lincoln, now reside in Eugene, Ore. They’ve picked up Oregon as a rooting interest, but they’ve also stayed true to their Michigan fandom. Rick remembers Lincoln walking under the tables in a Michigan Stadium suite when he was just one year old.

Lincoln’s 11th birthday is on Nov. 11, so Bartus decided to order him a cutout as a birthday and Halloween surprise.

“Unfortunately because of COVID we won’t be out visiting Lincoln,” Bartus said. “So we thought, we’ll bring Lincoln out to Michigan Stadium and send them the fan cutout when the season’s done.”

For both Bartus and Barker, it will be a silver lining in the COVID-shortened season to have the knowledge that a family member will be in the stands — even in cardboard.

Barker, who was not convinced that college football should even be played this year, originally questioned whether buying a cutout was the right idea. But for Franklin, who has had nearly everything else taken away from him this year, the opportunity to have a fan cutout brought a small slice of normalcy.

“I think it’s just the idea of, in a time where nothing seems normal, is this a little piece of pretending like it’s normal? Yeah,” Barker said. “And I could live with pretending like it’s normal for the sake of a nine-year-old.”

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