In this state, Michigan and Michigan State football are religions. Their annual matchup is like a holy war. And local players were baptized in it early, sometimes from birth.
Nearly every football fan in the state bleeds either green and white or maize and blue. Many high school players imagine themselves in Ann Arbor or East Lansing, making plays that will eventually appear on the ever-expanding highlight reel of rivalry moments.
And then, when it’s time to head off to college, the rivalry inevitably becomes more personal. Some players become Wolverines. Others become Spartans.
Once a year, those players see each other again — the eyes of an entire state on them.
“This is a great game for me cause I’m from the state of Michigan,” said junior defensive back Ambry Thomas, who attended Martin Luther King High in Detroit, the same school as Michigan State linebacker Tyriq Thompson. “I know a lot of their players.”
Senior guard Michael Onwenu attended Detroit’s Cass Technical, the same high school as fellow Michigan players Donovan Peoples-Jones and Jaylen Kelly-Powell. Two Spartans went there as well, and Onwenu knows others on the roster from camps or high school rivalries.
For Onwenu, it’s easy to separate his friendships off the field with his enemies on the field. As soon as anyone puts on a Michigan State uniform, they’re just another foe to vanquish. But games against familiar faces add another layer to the matchup.
“If it’s people you know personally, it kinda goes for you,” Onwenu said. “Because you might know their tells or know their tendencies even better.”
Peoples-Jones, also an alumnus of Cass Tech, was close with Spartan defensive back Kalon Gervin in high school but said Tuesday the two haven’t spoken ahead of Saturday’s matchup. Sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson — who attended Divine Child High School in Dearborn, Mich. — has the opposite approach.
Hutchinson, one of the loudest and brashest players on the team, doesn’t shy away from the chippier aspects of “Hate Week,” and that includes lots of trash talk. Michigan State backup quarterback Theo Day also attended Divine Child and is one of Hutchinson’s best friends. And while Hutchinson listened to Day air his frustrations about the Spartans’ collapse against Illinois, he also made it known that come Saturday, he’d show no mercy.
“I don’t know if I can tell you what he said, but some words were said between us,” Hutchinson said. “He was talking a little bit about the game, but yeah, I’m just pumped to play him.”
When you consider the connections that lie in every corner of this rivalry, it’s no surprise that Michigan-Michigan State is known as one of the ugliest matchups in college football. As much as both teams sometimes downplay it — with Onwenu referring to the Spartans as “another team on the schedule we’ve gotta beat” — those born and bred on either side know this is much more than that.
For players throughout the state who grew up devout in this rivalry, whose lives are ingrained in this rivalry, this is their holy grail.
“Owning the state of Michigan is always a big thing for the two programs who battle for it every single year,” said senior guard Ben Bredeson. “There’s the Paul Bunyan Trophy involved as well. There’s a lot of pride that goes into it as well for the fanbases. It’s a cool rivalry just because you have the in-state factor of it and you get bragging rights for the year.”