My Saturday started at 6:43 a.m. — a time I usually consider to be the middle of the night — to music blasting outside my door. It’s a familiar feeling but jarring nonetheless to be woken up by the first notes of Mo Bamba or Shipping Up to Boston. It’s a sensation I haven’t had in almost two years.
While I tried to muster the strength to get out of bed, I sat listening to the sounds outside my window — the yells, the ‘Go Blues’ and music from wake-ups in houses just like my own — and waited for the sun to come up.
Gameday is here.
By 10:00 in the morning, almost every porch on my street was dotted with tailgaters, and stray cans of Keystone sprinkled the sidewalk. As I walked around, the hallmarks of gameday started coming back to me. After the past year, the atmosphere simultaneously felt familiar and brand new.
“The tailgate’s been great,” Engineering senior Christian Marciano said. “I’ve been having a great time. It feels a little lowkey though.”
While Marciano felt the tailgates were less full than normal, it felt like business as usual to me. I walked by countless yards of boys playing beer die to the tune of songs I remember from tailgates past.
By 11:30, my roommate was dragging me down Packard St., paranoid we were going to miss the pregame James Earl Jones video. I let her run ahead without me because I wanted to take my time. The walk down State Street to Hoover might be my favorite part of gameday. I love seeing the fans on the side of the road with their tents, full flatscreen TVs set up inside; the carts set up on the sidewalk selling food or water; everyone walking to the same endpoint.
After arriving at the stadium, I met Ross junior Prat Bhola while I was standing in line. While some people were anxious to get inside, he was savoring the whole experience, line and all.
“It’s electric,” Bhola said.
Electric is a great word to describe walking into the Big House. The first time I’d ever gone to Michigan Stadium was the 2018 home-opener when I was a freshman, also against Western Michigan. I’d spent the morning walking around Ann Arbor with no sense of direction or purpose, surrounded by people I barely knew, looking for tailgates. I fell in love with the music, the dancing, the energy; it was everything I was hoping college would be.
I hadn’t grown up as a Michigan fan — or much of a college football fan at all — but walking into the Big House the first time took my breath away. It’s hard to describe exactly what happens at that moment when you see the band and then you’re walking into the student section and the fight song starts and then, oh look, there’s that kid from your math class that you really don’t know but now, for some reason, you feel like you absolutely have to go say hi.
It feels as though you’re overwhelmed by everything that Michigan is.
LSA freshman Henry Shaver had been waiting for that moment from the minute he stepped on campus. He watched his older brother James, also a Michigan student, attend tailgates and games for years, but nothing could adequately prepare him for what it was like.
“I thought I had an idea (of what it was like), but I was pretty surprised when I got here,” Shaver said. “… There’s definitely a lot more people out here than I thought.”
When I walked into the stadium on Saturday, I felt a similar rush, but it wasn’t exactly the same. In some ways, it was even more exciting. After almost two years away, not one of the 109,295 people in attendance was taking that moment for granted.
“Walking into the stadium, just being there for the first time in over a year, it was actually just an amazing experience,” junior Jack Mooney said. “The crowd, everyone was just so happy to be there. The experience was probably my favorite game day yet. It’s a big part of my college experience and it was definitely missing from my experience last year.”
But being in a crowd that large now means something different than it did two years ago.
Even though I’m vaccinated, I didn’t feel 100% confident being in that large of a group. Michigan announced in March that the stadium would have fans, long before the delta variant threatened to reverse our progress. Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases, masks were encouraged but not required in the stadium and very few students wore them, something Marciano found to be contradictory.
“It’s stupid because I’m in class with 12 people and then I’m about to be in a stadium with 110,000 people and it kind of makes no sense (that the COVID-19 restrictions are so different),” Marciano said.
Currently, 92% of students have reported their vaccination with the school, but preliminary data showed 102 new positive cases within the school community last week. To put that number in perspective, the highest number of positive cases on campus was 410 last October. It will be another couple of weeks before we’re able to determine whether the game brings that number any higher.
Still, the students I talked to weren’t concerned about the possibility of infection, and I see where they are coming from. Looking out at a crowd of over 100,000, it’s easy to forget that we’re still in the middle of a devastating pandemic.
Even though COVID-19 hasn’t disappeared, the students I talked to found it refreshing to experience “normalcy,” even if it was just for a few hours.
Mooney is a lifelong Michigan fan, but last season he felt like his heart wasn’t in it. Part of that could be the Wolverines’ dismal 2-4 record, but mostly it was being stuck at home, relegated to watching from the couch.
“I think it’s more or less just being in the stadium where you’re with 100,000 people who all have the same exact interest to you,” Mooney said. “It’s very rare in life where you’re in a place that every person around you has the exact same goal. I feel like people are very divided on a lot of different issues nowadays. I think sports in general — and especially Michigan football — is something we can all come together and just support at once, and it’s just such a really special experience to be part of that.”
Mooney left the game after Mr. Brightside was played — a song that’s become a cult favorite for Michigan fans over the past several years — and watched the rest of the game from home. For him, the game itself can be watched at home, but Mr. Brightside is a can’t-miss. It’s the traditions that define the experience.
Thirty years from now, I won’t remember that the score was 47-14. I won’t remember the Wolverines’ emphasis on the run game. I probably won’t even remember that they were playing Western Michigan. What I will remember is that this was game day in Ann Arbor.
Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Kizziahlane.