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Thursday, November 16, 2006
Life, death and Michigan football

By Amy Nelson
Special to Page 2

I always knew the signs. The loud chatter, the special-ordered cake with a big M inscribed in the middle, and the smell of chili con queso. Of all the parties my family threw, the Michigan ones went unrivaled. You don't bleed until you bleed blue, or so I was always told. And when there's a big game?

It's time to party.

Always wanting a part of the action, I'd sneak down the 200-year-old steps of my childhood New England home, and spy on all the adults drinking the night away. I'd eavesdrop and inevitably hear all the old college tales from my parents. One of those, of course, was bequeathed to me right out of the womb: Ohio State is the Antichrist.

Hating Ohio State was my birthright as a child and granddaughter of Michigan alums. My mother recently told me that no matter how well Michigan played, there was always nervousness heading into the rival game. "Never were we smug in anticipation of the Ohio State game," she said.

This weekend will be a big one in my family, just as it will be for thousands of others. Of course, Michigan-Ohio State always is an event.

Growing up it seemed there always was a Michigan party to throw and a Michigan story to tell. My parents met at Michigan, so did my great aunt and great uncle. My grandfather attended Michigan just after World War II and did his best to pass the Wolverines gene on to his children. But my brother and I didn't attend Michigan, and I've never even been to Ann Arbor.

I was jealous as sin about six years ago when my little brother got a chance to visit The Big House, on a college recruiting trip. Me? I was stuck covering a Boston College football game for work, and was peppered with cell phone updates from my family as I sat in the BC pressbox, envious that my brother could experience what I had been brainwashed since birth to believe, that Ann Arbor is the most majestic place for a sporting event anywhere.

I instead settled for pressbox clam chowder while my brother -- who by the way, went through a rebellious phase around age 11 when he thought it cool to wear an Ohio State hat; this was not funny, and he's lucky to have survived -- was initiated into part of the family lore.

When people ask me if I was a sports fan as a kid, Michigan is my first answer. Michigan memorabilia scored when giving gifts; they were always a winner and bound to illicit a large, proud smile. (Perhaps the best was the Maize 'N Blue cereal I purchased for my dad a few years ago.) The favorite item in my closest is my mother's faded blue Michigan T-shirt, dating to the early '70s, with paint stains from the '80s and holes worn in from the '90s. It has survived.

So has my grandfather, who will be watching his 59th straight Michigan-Ohio State game this weekend. The son of a Wisconsin running back, my grandfather attended Michigan during 1947-52. He went to law school there and said in all his years as a student, he can never remember missing a game at home. Back in those days, he told me, they'd listen to away games on the radio.

He remembers on game day walking with the masses, five to six abreast, down the street, "where no traffic could maneuver through the flow and river of people," he said. As a member of the ROTC, my grandfather would walk the flag out onto the field at the beginning of the games. He'd sometimes stay there for the duration of the game, and said he remembers how the ground would shake as the players fell after a tackle.

"These behemoths would be barreling at us and the impact they made would literally shake the ground," he said, laughing at the memory.

His best memory was not an Ohio State game, but a win against Minnesota in 1949. Michigan had lost to Army and then Northwestern, and the newspapers had been extremely critical leading up to the game against Minnesota. The Wolverines were expected to lose to the best team in the Big Ten. And so when they stopped Minnesota on its first play of the game, my grandfather said there was a small roar, as everyone stood on their feet. The next play, he recalled, was for a loss, eliciting an even larger cry. And when Michigan stopped Minnesota on downs, my grandfather said it was unlike anything he had experienced, with everyone standing and yelling.

"It is the most exciting football memory I have," he said.

The next day one of the linemen, a roommate, asked my grandfather for a ride to the physical therapy building so he could get in a whirlpool and get some treatment. The two hopped on a friend's motorcycle for a quick ride across campus.

When Wisconsin earned a Rose Bowl berth in 1953, my great-grandfather made a Styrofoam replica Rose Bowl with goal posts. It was passed on to my grandfather for his first Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 1970, Michigan against USC. My mother, the eldest of four children, recalled dressing up with her sister for the event.

The invitations to the party my grandparents threw arrived in the form of tickets to the game, and my grandfather ordered advance copies of the game program. He set up bleachers in the living room where the guests sat, and, according to my mother, bought another color TV, in a day when a family was lucky to have even one.

All four children were dressed in maize and blue, and my mother and her sister were the de facto cheerleaders, passing out food and singing Michigan songs during halftime in white go-go boots. The party even had a mascot: Annie, the Newfoundland-Labrador mutt, was designated the Wolverine.

"I guess the girls served as sort of cheerleaders, refreshment passers, and animal trainers," my grandfather said. "Everything went fine, except that Michigan lost."

The party tradition never skipped a generation.

My parents used to buy bottles of the always-classy Boone's Farm wine before each game, and then along with everyone else, passed their empty bottles up to the top of the stadium, where they were thrown out onto the pavement. The green glass glistening was a distinct memory for my mother, as was the cute women who would wade up to the top, just like the Boone's bottles.

These family football traditions have warped me, for sure, but they are in my blood; though I'm proud to say I've never tasted Boone's and haven't been tossed like a doll in a crowd. But I have developed a passion for sport, especially Michigan, and have been told that if I'm not in front of the TV on Saturday, I will be booed out of the family and left out of the will.

"I never knew when I took you to the ballet," my mom said to me on Wednesday, "that all along your deepest passions were subversively being given to sports when we made you wear Michigan T-shirts and gave Rose Bowl parties!"

Neither did I, Mom.


Amy K. Nelson is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine. She can be reached at