I’ve had a Michigan State Spartans baseball cap for several years now. Past a blur of maize and blue hats and shirts, it lies somewhere in the back of my closet and rarely do I even get a glimpse of it, let alone wear it. But I bought it, and I’m proud to own it because the Spartans have always been my second favorite college team.
I could try to explain that oddity — why a kid who grew up a stone’s throw from Ann Arbor, who first had season tickets for Michigan football in the days of Tom Brady and Tai Streets, and who attended this great university for undergraduate and law degrees would ever have anything but pure, irrepressible disdain for the Spartans. I could try to explain it, but it’s something the average student on this campus wouldn’t understand.
But I think I can explain to those of you who grew up in Michigan and stayed here through the apocalypse. Here in what’s left of Michigan, we love our own. It’s hard to explain that feeling. How exactly do you explain a feeling?
It’s the feeling I had when I drove to East Lansing on Friday, Oct. 29. The date doesn’t particularly matter, except that it was the day before the Spartan football team lost for the first time this season, and just four days before the election. You’ll understand why that mattered in a second.
I hadn’t been to the campus of that other Michigan school in nearly 15 years. Many high school friends attended MSU, and I’ve driven by that exit on the way to Lansing, Grand Rapids or Lake Michigan countless times, but never had the need to go there. A couple of weeks ago, however, law school business pushed me finally into East Lansing.
A simple college town, more rural and less matured than Ann Arbor, East Lansing is home to the eighth largest university campus in the country — but it’s not much to see. That day, however, the way I spoke of it, it may as well have been the eighth wonder of the world.
There was a reason why I madly sputtered praises in the car that day for everything having to do with that university, that city, that region and its people: I wasn’t driving alone. With me was a fellow law student — an out-of-stater, a West-Coast-to-East-Coast transplant — with little knowledge or interest in what a silly old “flyover state” like Michigan has to offer. Naturally, my instincts as a protective Michigander were highly activated. Michigan may have suffered a frighteningly unprecedented socio-economic siege in recent decades, but I’ll be damned if I can’t say enough good to efface that monumental bad.
Suddenly Tom Izzo (head basketball coach of the Spartans) wasn’t a hated rival, but instead, the greatest basketball mind to ever grace the Earth. Geoffrey Fieger (infamous trial lawyer and alumnus of what later became MSU’s law school) was no longer a self-aggrandizing sleaze, but instead, the greatest champion for the poor and oppressed that the legal world had ever seen. And my proud account of MSU’s reputation as a top-notch party school certainly didn’t stop that day to mockingly mention the instances of sexual assault and rioting on campus after sporting events.
(Hell, I barely stopped short of bragging that good old Wallace Jefferson himself was once a Spartan. Oh, yes you have heard of him — the first ever black chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court — totally a huge deal.)
My friend in the car couldn’t have cared less, but that doesn’t matter. My experience that day is what Michiganders feel everyday — the immense urge to fight back against the national decrial of what this state should be and isn’t with a louder pronouncement of everything Michigan is and can be despite the odds. We still believe that we can rise again, and we take pride in every little success.
That’s why the tears welled up the next day when I watched the Iowa Hawkeyes obliterate the Spartans’ hopes of a prestigious football national championship. That’s also why, four days later, I cheered when Michigan voters boldly embraced Republican governor-elect Rick Snyder, a maverick who promises to break the status quo and help Michigan finally get moving again.
It may be optimism, or it may be blind folly: But we were standing once, and we are ready to get up again. We’ll have new stories of greatness soon, but until then, we’ll cherish all the old ones.
Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.