Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took the podium on Monday of “Hate Week” and insisted that he treats every game the same way, despite embracing and enjoying the Ohio State rivalry at the same time.
The Michigan football players who would address the media next spoke a little more freely. Four of the six hail from the state of Ohio, and for three of them, this would be their last crack at beating the Buckeyes.
The game on Saturday is important to them. Add in the fact that it would give Michigan a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis (a feat that hasn’t occurred since its inception in 2011), which alone would be enough for the team to approach this week with a greater sense of urgency.
But the state line often casts enough drama the week of “The Game.”
The Ohio State-Michigan border has caused confusion in the football faithful for years. Players raised in one state will take their talents to the other, and the predicament is a common problem on both sides of the rivalry. The Buckeyes’ leading running back, Mike Weber, is a Detroit native and Cass Tech graduate. On the flip side, senior running back De’Veon Smith leads the Wolverines in rushing yards and is from Warren, Ohio.
Even Harbaugh’s roots are in Ohio. He was born in Perrysburg, just outside of Toledo, in the same hospital as Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Harbaugh confirmed that the two have talked about it. It provides another similarity between the two successful Big Ten coaches.
“We lived there for about a year of my life, but I’ve always just taken great pride in being from Toledo, being from Perrysburg,” Harbaugh said. “It’s where you were born. ‘Hey, where were you born?’ I was born in Toledo, Ohio. … My dad was a high school football coach at Perrysburg High School, and he’s coached at all those spots that I just mentioned. He was always for his team and take pride in being from there. I have commonality with people that are from there. That’s something that has always given us joy.”
The ties between the two schools blur state lines and become points of pride. Fifth-year senior defensive lineman Chris Wormley is also from Toledo. He was recruited by both Ohio State and Michigan, but ultimately committed to the Wolverines after growing up a fan just five miles south of the Michigan border.
Wormley, a co-captain of the Wolverines, logged a career-high seven tackles against the Buckeyes last season. He attributed part of his dominance in that game to being born into the middle of the rivalry.
“Coach Harbaugh and I have a lot of football talks, but maybe sometime this week we’ll talk about being from Toledo, and what it means being right in the middle of Ann Arbor and Columbus,” Wormley said. “It’s something that, growing up, you watch, you have Michigan-Ohio State parties, you dress up for school in your favorite team colors. So it’s something that’s been with me for a while.”
If you travel south from Toledo, you’ll eventually land in Trotwood, a city just 80 miles west of Columbus and the hometown of redshirt junior Mike McCray.
It would be an understatement to say that McCray is a little more connected to the rivalry than some of his teammates. His father, Mike McCray Sr., was a linebacker and captain at Ohio State, but McCray Sr. hasn’t allowed it to affect his relationship with his son. Despite his playing days in scarlet and gray, he’ll be rooting on his namesake this Saturday.
McCray’s family isn’t the only one suffering from a mixed identity. Senior tight end Jake Butt, Wormley’s co-captain, mentioned that his family would likely be dealing with a bit of “trash talking” this week. Butt is from Pickerington, which is situated just 20 miles east of Ohio Stadium. He even remembers growing up a Buckeyes fan and cheering on No. 1 Ohio State in its 2006 matchup with No. 2 Michigan with his friends.
Things have changed for Butt since then. This week, he’ll be trying to get his hands on any extra tickets he can for friends and family from Ohio. Understandably, tickets are hard to come by among the Wolverines, and even teammates slightly more detached from the matchup won’t part with them easily. Thanks to geography, they know what the rivalry means, and they have more leverage because of it.