Standing on the steel bleachers of the Big House, the sun bouncing off our forearms, we the fans find ourselves in a bowled stadium of sacrifice. True, we have snaked through the gates to simply enjoy a good game, and, true, we have been drinking all morning to simply enjoy a good buzz, but on our pleasure quest we give away parts of ourselves. We give our skin to the sun, and it burns; we give our throats to passion and they grow hoarse. During a fourth quarter timeout, should we choose to sit down for the first time since halftime, we are told by fans, “Get your ass up!” Obligations educational and occupational go on hold (In the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, when Chad Henne hit Mario Manningham in the end zone to get us within a touchdown, a high-fiving guy behind me says, “Now I know I won’t make it to work by three!”).
Many of us realize, in the bleachers, that we should have slept off the cement headache, the rubbery hangover. But there’s still the game. So here we stand in screaming ritual, jangling keys, tossing bodies in the air, hollering to a crescendo during kickoffs, extending ourselves, devout as monks.
So it’s disheartening to me that despite the self-denial and flow of goodwill, we fans still do many bad things for football. I understand this pointedly because, lacking foresight, I brought a visiting friend, Mike, a Notre Dame fan, into the student section one dreamy Saturday afternoon.
“Joe, I want to wear my jersey, but I don’t want to get beat up,” he said.
“We’re in the English Department Graduate section. If you upset them, they won’t punch you, they’ll just write a poem about it,” I answered.
This was to be, after living in Ann Arbor for a year, my first game, so I did not know that the English Department Graduate section is without many English graduate students (they are writing poems and dissertations) and that an unofficial open-admission policy renders seat and row number irrelevant: in short, I did not know we would be surrounded by passionate and severe undergraduate wolverines. I wore no maize or blue to identify myself as a Wolverine, so because I was with a Fighting Irish, I was just as good as a Fighting Irish.
Before the game, though, we start on Hoover Street, pregaming at a friend’s house where Mike and his blue-and-gold, No. 3 jersey and his ND trucker hat are mocked but mocked jovially. But as the street swells with fans marching west to the Big House, the relaxed carnival mood darkens. Notre Dame fans, a smattering of green shirts in the maize-and-blue sea, pump their fists at Mike and a guy dressed like a leprechaun trumpets a horn. A cup of beer materializes in the air and hits the guy on his green shoulder. At the game, when the refs make a controversial call, fans throw bottles, cups, programs and pom-poms onto the field. Whenever Mike cheers or claps for his team – and he does so in a ball-breaking but lighthearted sort of way – he is thrown savage glares from muscular underclassmen. One time he is told by the high-fiving guy, “Buddy, you better keep it down, for your own sake.”
“Michigan fans are the most arrogant,” Matt, a young Notre Dame alum, told me at Grizzly Peak the night before the game.
“You don’t think fans are like that all over,” I said.
“No. Michigan is the worst.” Matt said
And Mike agreed, though at this point he has yet to step into the Big House.
But fans are like that all over. Does Matt know, for example, that marshmallows are banned from Notre Dame stadium because Irish fans were freezing them to stone hardness and then throwing them at the heads of opposing fans? That over the last decade baseball fans, football fans and basketball fans in cities from Detroit to Chicago to New York have thrown chairs, beer bottles, popcorn, snowballs and themselves onto the field or court?
Wolverine fans are intense but we’re not the only ones doing bad things for sports. It would be nice though, in this time of goodwill, that when we next enter the Big House, against Minnesota, we don’t threaten to tear the balls off the closest Gopher fan.
Just before Mike and I put our beers down at the gate and handed security our tickets, an older man with a calm complexion approached Mike. He wore a Michigan T-shirt.
“I just wanted to wish you guys good luck today,” he said, and he shook our hands.
“No, I go to school here,” I said. “He’s the Irishmen.”
The man puffed out a laugh. What was so funny?
“I know how you two you feel,” he said. “I went here but my daughter and my money go to Notre Dame.”
Joe wants to do The Wave during the next home football game. Tell him your favorite football traditions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.