On Aug. 26, the University of Michigan turned 200 years old.
One week later, Robert “Pete” Piotrowski celebrated his 100th birthday.
Yes, Piotrowski has been around for half of the university’s existence. Yes, he has seen and heard it all.
When he was a child, he listened to the famous sports broadcaster Ty Tyson give play-by-play of Michigan football games on the radio. Piotrowski later rode the same train as Tyson and the rest of the team as they traveled to games.
When he was in seventh grade, Piotrowski would play football with his classmates during recess and pretend he was Bennie Oosterbaan, one of the greatest athletes in Michigan history. And when Piotrowski came to Ann Arbor, there was Oosterbaan, serving as an assistant coach.
When he was a reserve on the varsity team, Piotrowski came across halfback Tom Harmon. At the time, Harmon was a freshman not allowed to play on varsity; his star had yet to be born. One day, Piotrowski lined up against Harmon in a tackling drill.
A lot of people can say they’ve tackled a Heisman Trophy winner. Not many still around can say the same about Harmon.
“You knew who (Harmon) was,” Piotrowski recalled in an interview this week at his retirement home in Novi. “They brought him in, and they knew he was going to be good. You saw him sometimes during drills, in tackling drills or something. You’d tackle him if he happened to be in one of the lines.
“It was just a guy coming down the line and you’d tackle him. Wasn’t a big deal.”
It may not have been a big deal at the time, but looking back, it is. That’s the story of Piotrowski’s Michigan legacy — his career may have never got far off the ground, but his experiences provide a window through nearly a century of Michigan history.
As hard as it may be to believe now, Michigan went 77 years without a gymnasium on its campus.
According to a report from the Bentley Historical Library, regents had discussed a facility “as early as 1870,” but the state legislature was in dire financial straits and couldn’t fund the project. In 1891, though, a generous donation from Joshua W. Waterman kickstarted a spirited fundraising effort from the University. By 1894, Waterman Gymnasium stood at 930 North University Avenue.
The Waterman gym was a work of art. It was 150 feet tall and had an appearance more befitting of a castle than a recreational facility.
Piotrowski was a frequent visitor to the gym — both Waterman and other facilities — when he enrolled at Michigan in the fall of 1935. In fact, that was where he earned a spot on the Michigan football team during the winter of his freshman year.
“(Assistant coach) Wally Weber called me,” Piotrowski said, “and asked me to meet him at the gym.”
Earlier, Weber and head coach Harry Kipke had visited schools up north looking for players to recruit. When they reached Piotrowski’s high school, his old coach told them there was already a player in Ann Arbor that could make the team.
So Piotrowski went to the gym after the phone call. There, he met Kipke, Weber and “a couple linemen.”
Piotrowski was never a large man, even in his youth. He says he weighed 167 pounds during his playing career. Yet that day he displayed an unnatural amount of strength.
“They had one of the exercise machines that you push with your shoulders, two guys,” Piotrowski said. “And I did pretty well, I could do a little better than the linemen did. (Kipke) must’ve been impressed, anyways. So I ended up on the Michigan football team.”
Piotrowski didn’t pick Michigan because of its football team. He did so for a more practical reason — he wanted to attend pharmacy school.
And though he was on the team, being a football player was neither the glamorous nor time-consuming job that it is now. No one stopped him on the street for photos. There was no stipend from the athletic department to pay for room and board. Piotrowski paid for living costs by working as a dishwasher and waiter at a dental fraternity “way up Hill Street.”
Eventually, he joined a fraternity, Kappa Sigma, and lived there for the rest of his time on campus. That was how he met his wife.
“It was a blind date,” Piotrowski recalled. “One of my fraternity brothers had a girl over there he knew and I guess I didn’t have a date, and he fixed up a date with my wife, Jean. And we went together after that, since my sophomore year.”
Football, it appears, was simply there in Piotrowski’s life, and nothing more. He had never thought he would make it on the team and was certainly glad for the opportunity. But it didn’t rule his life. Playing professionally wasn’t an option and he didn’t want to be a football or basketball coach, which he says was the reason many players were on the team.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, were in the midst of a brutal four-year stretch. Through Piotrowski’s sophomore and junior seasons in 1936 and 1937, Michigan went a combined 5-12. By the end of the 1937 season, Kipke’s tenure was near its end.
“Kipke was already let know that he wasn’t going to be rehired,” Piotrowski said. “But none of us knew, nobody knew that. Kipke wanted to hold onto his job, he had Tom Harmon coming up as a freshman then.”
That transitory period — and Kipke’s efforts to hold onto his job — seem to have cost Piotrowski his only chance at becoming a starter.
According to Piotrowski, he had appeared in several games throughout his career, playing halfback most of the time while occasionally being employed as a tackler. Then, on the suggestion of the trainer, he had tried out for fullback, and “did pretty well at that.”
He expected to start at Penn during the second-to-last week of the 1937 season, which would have earned him a varsity letter. But that never happened.
“Someone didn’t want me in there, or wanted someone else to start,” Piotrowski recalled. “So I was kinda shut out. It was the team before the Ohio State game. But Kipke came to me the following Monday at practice and apologized for not playing me.
“I was only a kid then, I didn’t say anything. He says, ‘I couldn’t play you.’ I think he was hanging onto his job.”
The next year, Piotrowski quit the team. It happened just as easily — and naturally — as him joining. He wanted to continue courting Jean, and he didn’t see a long-term future in the sport.
Losing out on the chance to start was tough for Piotrowski to swallow at the time, and his brow furrowed slightly when recalling the incident 80 years later. But he says he was alright with the decision, and he’s moved on.
“Some little things you remember,” Piotrowski said, “but you just forgive and you forget. … I can kind of forget things like that pretty fast.
“There’s a lot going on at Michigan. (My) last year, I went to the gym a lot.”
In 1977, Waterman Gymnasium was demolished to make room for an expansion of the Chemistry Building.
To expect Michigan’s campus to remain mostly unchanged since Piotrowski’s matriculation would be irrational. Many of the experiences he described are a glance into a sepia-toned past.
Piotrowski loved to bowl at the Union with friends. Once, he earned a t-shirt as the bowler of the week. There is no bowling in the Union anymore, but there is a Wendy’s.
He used to buy a sweet roll and coffee for breakfast at a price of just 15 cents. Tuition per semester was $50.
He found success at fullback at the cradle of college football weighing just 167 pounds. Khalid Hill and Henry Poggi weigh 263 and 257 pounds, respectively.
Piotrowski estimates he was 85 the last time he attended a game in Ann Arbor. He says he’d get lost if he tried walking around campus nowadays.
Yes, some things have changed since Robert Piotrowski attended classes at Michigan. But the spirit of it all — that remains unchanged.
Piotrowski remembers the weekends spent downtown drinking beer with his fraternity brothers. He remembers frantically cramming late at night for tests. He remembers the pride of walking onto the field in front of a sold-out crowd at Michigan Stadium, only a couple years after playing in front of sparsely-populated bleachers in Manistee.
And he still remembers why he went to Michigan in the first place, and what it gave him.
“I’m glad I went to Michigan because you learn some of the finer things,” Piotrowski said. “Classical music. Go to concerts, which you wouldn’t do if you lived in a small town. They didn’t have anything like that. … I’d go back (home) to visit quite often, of course. But there’s more opportunities (in Ann Arbor), things you learn going to school, in a fraternity.
“Sometimes you lie in bed and Ann Arbor comes up to you. These little things that you never thought of for years come up. I’m glad I went to a bigger school. Otherwise I would’ve ended up back in Manistee and I don’t know what I’d be doing.”
Later in his life, long after graduation, Piotrowski traveled the world with Jean. He went to China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and South America. Those trips, he says, wouldn’t have happened without Michigan. The university “enabled” him to think about all the possibilities — such as traveling the world — that he never would have thought about in Manistee.
“I was looking for something more,” Piotrowski said, “which I got at Michigan.”