ARLINGTON, Tex. — The Hessel family has had quite the week. They live in Houston, which was recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Luckily, they escaped relatively unscathed: their family is okay, and their house was fine.
“You can’t drive out, our street is actually a river,” said Mike Hessel. “We saw a fish in it yesterday.”
So given the circumstances, making their planned trip to Arlington, Tex. was anything but a guarantee. But Mike and his wife, Amy, are diehard Florida fans. Whenever the Gators are within five hours, they’ll travel, and a chance to take in the season opener against Michigan at AT&T Stadium was too much to pass up.
So they packed up their two children — who originally weren’t coming along — and rented a car. They drove to Arlington, dropped the kids off at a nearby Six Flags and then made their way over to the game. There, they joined over a hundred thousand other fans — a lot of whom agreed on one thing, regardless of their background or rooting interests: the neutral site matchup was great.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get a home-and-home series, so this is great,” said Jim Morrish, a Florida fan. “This is a great opportunity for both teams and all the fans, yeah, it’s great.”
His new friend, Todd Morrison, agreed. Morrison and his group hadn’t known Morrish before earlier today. But they saw the familiar blue and orange colors while walking through the parking lot, and joined the tailgate.
The game’s location was welcome for several Michigan fans, too. While Nic Sheridan didn’t like the price of a ticket, he loved “the idea of the game” and said he “got a kick out of it,” traveling all the way from Wyoming.
Meanwhile, both Kevin Palmer and Cesar Para recognized the opener as a rare chance to see their favorite team play. Both are in the Army, based around San Antonio, and aren’t normally able to see the Wolverines play.
“You can’t roadtrip to Michigan,” Para said. “I spent some years in Ann Arbor in school and came back because I’m from Texas, and I’m thinking I’m not going to see another Big House game, so for them to come this close, is like yes, absolutely, I will go to that. It’s amazing.”
Para missed the last time Michigan traveled down to Arlington — to play Alabama in the 2012 season opener — but couldn’t “say no twice.” He and Palmer, like many of their Florida counterparts, arrived early and partook in strangers’ tailgates, happy once again for football and for a chance to see their team play live.
And while it may seem surprising, both Michigan and Florida fans didn’t agree on just the merits of the neutral site — they praised Jim Harbaugh, as well.
“He’s bringing a lot of attention back to the game,” Morrish said. “They lost a lot, and he’s trying to bring up the brand, and he’s doing it with new ways. He’s pushing the limits, but that’s just the way it is.
“Do I like it? No. Do I fault him? No. It’s like a player — if he’s on your team, you love him. If he’s on the other team, you hate him. That’s just the way it is.”
Morrish’s friend, Steve Chapman, was initially harsher on Harbaugh when asked for his thoughts on Michigan’s head coach, calling him “a jerk.” But he quickly softened his tone, and compared Harbaugh to another coach who generated plenty of headlines during his tenure in Gainesville.
“People would say that about (Steve) Spurrier too,” Chapman said. “But he brings a lot to the game, so I’m okay with that.”
And for some, like Mike Hessel, the game’s worthiness was based on something simpler than its location, the experience, the tailgates or seeing Jim Harbaugh.
“The good thing,” Hessel said with a smile, “is there should be beer.”
Kevin Santo contributed to reporting.