To tell the truth, I thought that sneaking into the Northwestern student section at the Michigan-Northwestern football game on Saturday would be a friendly experience. I expected their fans to be intellectuals, to discuss the trajectory of kickoffs and devise clever cheers.
Instead, I got called an “asshole” several dozen times and was mildly assaulted at halftime.
I should have expected it. That’s college football. Notre Dame and Ohio State fans who sit in our student section get the same treatment.
But through it all, Northwestern fans engaged in a “we’re-smarter-and-richer-than-you” sort of heckling that made me understand, for the first time, why people hate Michigan fans so passionately.
I have nothing against Northwestern. In fact, it’s my second-favorite college in the Big Ten after Michigan. Northwestern’s a great school, where students are worried about more than just football, and their perennial haplessness on the gridiron has turned them into the underdog that’s easy to love.
So when last week rolled around, I figured I would visit my best friend, who goes to Northwestern. She borrowed a student ID from one of her friends so I could sit in the student section with her. Because a WildCARD (Northwestern’s equivalent of an MCard) gets students into Northwestern football games for free, it was the easiest and cheapest way for me to do it.
My friend and I made it to Ryan Field at about 10 a.m., an hour before game time. We walked to the third row, where a friend of mine from Michigan was holding a couple seats for us.
She flashed a Michigan jersey hidden beneath a Northwestern T-shirt; I wore this year’s official maize fan shirt under a black sweatshirt, zipped to the neck.
We had a plan – once the game began, we’d take off the outer garments. The fans, we thought, would be too distracted by the game to heckle us. Besides, they’re Northwestern fans. They did well on their SATs. What could they possibly do?
After Michigan scored its first touchdown, making the score 7-3, my friend and I stripped down to our Michigan gear. The booing and shouting began instantly.
“This is the Northwestern student section,” one student cried incredulously. “Why would you wear a Michigan shirt? Why would you do that?”
Fair enough. But then the heckling started. Hundreds of fans pointed fingers at me, yelling the word “asshole” to the same two notes one would cheer “air ball” at basketball games. I was the butt of the chant (pun intended) at least a dozen times throughout the game, standing cross-armed with a sheepish smile.
Early in the first quarter, I shouted ‘”scoreboard” while Michigan was winning. It was a mistake; we promptly lost the lead.
The taunting got worse. Every time Michigan was forced to punt or Northwestern’s offense made a large gain, the jeers restarted. They became more obscene and personal after Northwestern’s lead grew to 9.
Maybe I deserved it for invading the student section. Because students must swipe their IDs to get into the stadium, only a few Michigan fans were able to get in, and there I was in the third row, my yellow shirt undermining their section’s color-coordination on the television broadcast.
One small student with a painted face, who reeked of alcohol, walked up to me, grabbed my shirt and tried his hardest to push me off the bench. Although he failed to move me, my friend from Northwestern told me, after the game, that she feared for my life. I think she was serious.
Another student, standing behind my right shoulder, shouted in my ear every time Michigan had the ball and rattled her keys next to my head during kickoffs. My friend from Northwestern told me that Northwestern fans shake their keys to imply that the other team’s fans will one day pump their gas.
The student section also cheered “state school” to taunt the maize-and-blue contingent across the field. What does that imply when you’re playing one of the country’s best public universities? Is it that Northwestern is somehow superior because it costs more?
We Michigan fans are often accused of the same sort of elitism, and for good reason. We sing “If you can’t get into college, go to State” to visiting Michigan State fans and cheer “safety school” when Eastern Michigan is in town.
I know we’re the leaders and best. Our fight song says so. Do we have to constantly remind everyone?
One Northwestern fan told a pair of Michigan fans walking next to us that Michigan’s victory was irrelevant because Northwestern students were smarter. She cited standardized test scores as proof.
Another Northwestern fan told her not to force the issue.
“Don’t worry about it,” the second fan said. “You can fire him when he’s working for you.”
I don’t mean to say that all Northwestern fans are cruel and cocky. During the game, one nearby Northwestern fan told his fellow students that they had gone too far. To avoid seeming sympathetic, he made sure to point out that I was still an asshole.
After the game, as the rest of the fans left dejected, he and I shook hands. He apologized for the way I was treated. I apologized for invading his section.
It was lucky Michigan won the game, I thought. Rather than sticking around to give me grief, the Northwestern fans went home, possibly to do their homework or study for a test. Those kids have a lot to learn if they want to be our bosses someday.
– Gabe Nelson is an asssociate news editor.