Two-hundred-eighty-nine days ago, when 110,000 fans filed out of Michigan Stadium, sadness glued to their faces after yet another loss to Ohio State, they had a date circled on their calendars: September 12, 2020.
That was the date when many of those 110,000 would come back to the corner of Main and Stadium, ready to do it all over again. They would come from fraternity tailgates and house parties, brunch buffets and golf course cookouts, but their final destination would be the same: the home of this great tradition that’s spanned 137 consecutive falls in Ann Arbor.
It’s one of those traditions that’s marked less by what happens on the field than off it. It’s the sights and sounds, not the wins and losses, that bring those 110,000 coming back year after year.
Instead, on Saturday afternoon, the sight was emptiness and the sound was silence.
The Wolverines were still there, practicing inside Michigan Stadium for a season that may never come. This week, there are murmurs that it might, but such rumors have come and gone with remarkable consistency since the Big Ten canceled football on Aug. 11.
So for now, all we have on these typically-hallowed fall Saturdays are closed-door practices. And yet, somehow, that’s the most normal part.
The first strange thing on Saturday morning was that I woke up to my alarm. Normally, in my house across the street from East Quad, such an accessory would be superfluous, so long as I wanted to wake up after 6 a.m.
On this Saturday, though, silence was the defining feature. It enveloped the air on Hill Street, where thousands of would-be tailgaters took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in. A handful of frat houses picked up the remains of illicit parties from the night before, but for the most part, there was little sign of life.
Where sheets would typically hang from house windows and porches, taunting poor Ball State with creative messages, there was only one. “Rush club lax,” it read. Behind it, a maize-and-blue Michigan flag sat inside, unused until further notice.
Unused, too, were the steps to Revelli Hall, where the drum line typically performs, entertaining thousands as they walk to the stadium. Across the street, Elbel Field was fully populated by soccer players and frisbee throwers. On Saturday, they were the only people I saw, save for a family of three that stopped at the stadium gates to snap a picture, reveling in their own sadness. But even the populated locales are a strange sight. Typically, Elbel Field would be closed to everyone but marching band families — no one’s playing soccer on a football Saturday.
It’s strange what you notice without the crowds.
Next to the railroad tracks along Hoover Street, where that one tailgate with the big-screen TVs sets up on fall Saturdays, there’s a parking lot and a white brick warehouse. In dozens of walks down this street when football beckoned, I never noticed either. The warehouse is an electrical supply store, according to Google. Next door, a sign says the Physical Properties Building sits. Before this weekend, it would have been ‘the building where t-shirt vendors set up’ if you had asked me.
At the end of Keech Avenue, Michigan Stadium is still there, but in concept only. It is, to everyone except players and team personnel, indefinitely inaccessible. There’s a peeling sign outside the northwest entrance that lists prohibited items. This year, it can be updated to include fans, even if football returns. Their absence allows for some new discoveries at the stadium, too. The student section entrance, apparently, is called Alumni Plaza — dedicated in 2001. All four corners of the stadium have their own plazas — Wolverine, Champions and Varsity, if you’re curious.
The most important discovery, though, was everything that we missed. We missed the debates over who should start at quarterback and if Jim Harbaugh should lose his job if Michigan can’t beat Ohio State. We missed the smell of spilled Natty Light and burgers on the grill. But most of all, we missed our friends and family and the memories we would have made together.
Because at the center of it all, Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor missed the people.
Mackie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @theo_mackie.