You warned me I couldn’t major in football spectating, but you must have realized during one of the dozens of surgeries in Ann Arbor that nothing would keep me from the University of Michigan.
We would walk down State Street before doctor’s appointments, and I would sprint from store to store pointing at the winged helmets and block ‘M’s in the windows. You’d eventually give an exasperated sigh at my unbridled enthusiasm and usher me away to the hospital.
You must have known how much this place meant to me. On the worst day of my life, you sang me to sleep with “The Victors” as the anesthesia dripped like shards of ice into my arm.
During the month that followed, when the discomfort meant I’d spend entire days in bed, you helped me struggle up a flight of stairs to watch Michigan’s bowl game. The Wolverines won, and then they carried Lloyd Carr off on their shoulders. A picture of that moment still hangs on my wall.
It was my freshman year of high school, but I knew then I wanted to go to school here. And I’m not sure what drew me to Michigan over Michigan State or anywhere else, but thank you for helping make this possible.
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My story begins outside my grandparents’ tin-roofed home in Orotina, Costa Rica. My cousin and I would play fútbol until abuela called us in for lunch, and we’d scarf down our meal and scurry back out until it became too dark to see the ball. When we outgrew the backyard, we’d play on the streets. The fence would be the goal, the birds our crowd, our scrapes and bruises the reward for a day well spent.
My story wears the red and white of Albion High School. We cared so much about fielding a squad each year that several of us would host foreign exchange students — on the condition they joined the team. Opponents called us the Albion Internationals, and I was voted captain twice. Our mix of Black, white and every color in between represented the very best of sports.
My story is a soccer field in Pader, a city in northern Uganda which was devastated by a terrorist group around the turn of the century. I stood between the wooden goal posts that had been erected behind an elementary school and joined 21 other men as we played odilo. They didn’t understand my English, and I couldn’t translate their Acholi, but we spoke with our feet. They called me Alex Andrew, and I was their goalkeeper.
My story involves the passion of the Michigan Ultras. One night during welcome week my sophomore year, I stood at a match next to a freshman who didn’t know any of the cheers. For the next 90 minutes, I taught her. Michigan lost, but I got the girl.
And this story will end next week at the Big House, where 100,000 people recently came to watch soccer.
Somehow, that’s fitting.
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Sports provide people the outlet to reach immortality, where flesh, blood and tears may fade — but not the memories. They offer a place that fosters extraordinary moments, where someone can shatter the conventional boundaries that restrict us and achieve the spectacular.
Denard Robinson demonstrated that when he lost his shoes and kept running straight into Michigan lore. So did Trey Burke with his dagger 3-pointer against Kansas. Their emotions were my emotions, their accomplishments mine. Maybe we all yearn for that freedom to be a part of something unforgettable.
There were instances that transcended the sports realm, too, like when Austin Hatch tallied his first point or when Devin Gardner comforted an Ohio State player after a season-ending injury, reminding everyone how, at the core of athletic competitions, we’re all human. In those moments, the result became secondary to remarkable displays of humanity.
But sports have always meant more to me than a score.
The days I spent with a tube strapped to my leg helped me appreciate my ability to walk, run and play soccer. I’m appreciative every day for those opportunities. Thank you, Dr. Bloom and Dr. Malaeb, for making me better.
Thank you to Costa Rica for the 2014 World Cup. You allowed a nation to believe in the impossible.
Dad, thank you for your stories. Thank you for Spanish and for Costa Rica — for opening those doors in my world.
You warned me I couldn’t major in football spectating, Mom. But here I am. I’ve majored in football spectating, fútbol spectating, basketball spectating and hockey spectating. Thank you for recognizing how happy it makes me. Thank you for realizing it makes me feel free.
Thank you, Michigan. You were my best four years.
Zúñiga would like to thank everyone who has influenced his life — especially Greg, Dan, David and Amrutha, who have become like family. Saludos a las tías en Orotina, who are family.
He’ll be covering the Tigers this season for MLB.com, and can be reached at ByAZuniga@gmail.com and on Twitter @ByAZuniga.
Thank you for reading and supporting The Michigan Daily. It has meant so much.