The “Michigan Man” in Me

On the eve of the greatest rivalry in all the land, I read Jake Butt’s, senior tight end at Michigan, story of how he went from being a lifelong Buckeye into becoming a Michigan man, as did his entire family. There are numerous stories like this from many Michigan players over the years. While I never played a down in the Big House, I too consider myself a Michigan man, and on the eve of the greatest rivalry in all of sports, I wanted to share my tale and interpretation of what it means to be a Michigan Man.

People don’t like the elitism of the Michigan Man moniker, not to mention it is a bit sexist, but I still can’t help but love it. I grew up down the road in the projects of Ypsilanti, MI, home of Eastern Michigan University, and watched Michigan every Saturday afternoon growing up. No matter how poor we were or what are social condition was at the time, which was often on the verge of having the lights cut off or being evicted, my mom and I would always gather in front of the TV on Saturday to watch the likes of Rick Leach, Mike Jolly, Anthony Carter, Jim Harbaugh, Jamie Morris, Mark Messner, Desmond Howard, Chris Hutchinson, Derrick Alexander, Tyrone Wheatley, Ty Law, Amani Toomer, and Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Years later, I would fall in love with the likes of Charles Woodson, Ian Gold (One of good friends in high school), Brian Griese, Jon Jansen, Sam Sword, Tai Streets, Tom Brady, Anthony Thomas, Larry Foote, Braylon Edwards, Jake Long, and Denard Robinson. For 3 hours every week, my mom and I got to forget about our struggles, and enjoy a football game. I have pictures going all the way back in my life, and I never wore any other colors than maize and blue. Now, my mom and I also loved some Tiger’s baseball and always watched the Lions on Thanksgiving, but there was just something special about Michigan football.  I always dreamed of one day going to Michigan, and when I got accepted to UofM-Dearborn in 1996, I felt like my dream was almost there, even if I wasn’t exactly playing quarterback at the Big House or even taking classes in Ann Arbor; however, at least I was going to receive a diploma from the University of Michigan..or at least that’s what I thought at the time.

For a variety of reasons that I won’t dive into in this post, I essentially flunked out of the University of Dearborn in 1996, after completing only one semester. I had a lot of challenges back then, which many of my students can relate to now, because they are challenges associated with being poor. On top of socio-economic challenges, I was also ill prepared to succeed at a university level, which is what my academic advisor told me in her office after she told me that I would be given no withdrawals for the semester, and would essentially have 5 Fs’ on my transcript. I left that meeting angry, hurt, and mad at the world. I hated Michigan in the subsequent weeks, but nonetheless, when the fall rolled around again, there I was glued to my TV rooting on the maize and blue as I always had my entire life; after all, I knew no other team and no other way. When you grow up poor or working class in the Rust Belt, you don’t have a whole lot of beautiful distractions in your life. At that point in my life, I was working in a factory or steel foundry, or one of the many other brutal jobs that I took back then to make it. No matter how hard the weeks and hours, I always looked forward to football Saturdays, we all did, for many of us, it got us through the week.

By the time that the summer of 2003 came around, I was seven years removed from being in college. My dreams of ever graduating from college, let alone Michigan, were fading as quickly as the long summer days. Despite not thinking much about college, I was fairly content at the time. I was working as a maintenance technician and had a steady girlfriend, whom ironically was a student at Michigan. Life was pretty good, until one day out of the blue, she told me that she couldn’t see me anymore. She said that she was struggling to see a long-term future with a maintenance man. She was from a well to do Catholic family and it probably didn’t help that I wasn’t Catholic or from a well off family. In retrospect though, she made the best decision for her life, and my heartbreak was the beginning of my transformation. Within a week or two of the break-up, I left my maintenance job and enrolled in a nearby community college for human services, a long cry from my dreams of graduating a Michigan man, but at least I was back in a classroom.

For whatever reason, I began to excel at school again, I found mentors, and hit my stride. Sometimes anger is destructive, and sometimes it is exactly what is needed to propel yourself forward in life. I went from being sorry for myself and giving up to creating a new metaphor of “me against the world”, and that metaphor still drives me today. I graduated from the community college in 2006 and from Eastern Michigan University with my BS in social work in 2007 Summa Cum Laude. I received scholarship offers from some of the most prestigious schools in the country, yet there was only one school that I wanted to hear back from, only one school that would quench more than ten years of bitterness from my tastebuds, and only one school that would help me come full circle and redeem myself. I finally got tired of waiting to hear back from Michigan and e-mailed the associate dean to plead my case one last time. Within a day, I received word back from him; Congratulations, you have been accepted to the University of Michigan Graduate Social Work Program and awarded the equivalent of a full ride scholarship. No matter how many times I read the letter, I couldn’t believe it. I would be given the privilege of a second chance, a second chance to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a Michigan man.

I started back to Michigan in 20o7, the last year Lloyd Carr Coached the team. Michigan went 9-4 that year, a good year for most teams, but not for the winningest program in the country. Little did I know at the time, just as I was beginning to realize my full potential and redemption as a man, my beloved football team would begin one of the toughest stretches in school history, which included a loss to division II Appalachian State, three different coaches, and losing records. Throughout this tough stretch, I never stopped watching, I never stopped rooting every Saturday, and I dug even deeper to understand the meaning behind being a Michigan Man. I did eventually graduate from Michigan, Summa Cum Laude, and was selected to give a speech at commencements. It was the first time my mom ever saw me graduate anything, and it was one of the last steps in my redemption. I even gave a shout out to my old counselor at UofM-Dearborn, and somewhere inside me, I heard the words of my ex finally being silenced. After graduating from Michigan, I pursued and attained my doctoral degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, a school that loved basketball, and didn’t even have a football team; the irony of it all. During my time in Richmond, I connected with the Michigan Alumni Club and watched the games with them every Saturday at a sports pub in town. These were tough times to be a Michigan fan, but it was during these times that I realized that being a Michigan man wasn’t about football or sports, and it wasn’t just about winning and losing. Just as I finally rewrote my own narrative, I realized what Yost and Schembechler meant by the term Michigan Man, or at least it is what I like to believe it means. Being a Michigan man or woman means that you are loyal to your school. It means that you don’t move away and root for other college football teams. It means that in the good years and lean years, you stand by and support your team. It also means that you have integrity in how you carry yourself. Michigan football players graduate at some of the highest rates in all of college football. Michigan players major in communications, but they also major in chemistry, engineering, political science, and even social work. Michigan players spend their off days at Mott Children’s Hospital giving something back to the community. Michigan players hold each other accountable from the number one player to number 110. Michigan players always come back again and again. Michigan coaches know that they have the best job in the entire country.  In my own journey to become a Michigan man, I had to overcome adversity. I had to get knocked down and get back up again. Along the way, I had to experience some of the biggest lows in my life, but when I stood in front of the faculty and student body in 2008 to deliver my speech and later when I attained my PhD, largely because Michigan had prepared me for it, I felt on top of the world. For a poor kid who grew up 15 minutes down the road from the Big House, but thousands of miles away from the privilege of the University of Michigan, graduating from UofM was my national championship and Heisman trophy all rolled up in one. When I was asked to come back and teach after completing coursework for my doctorate, I didn’t feel like an adjunct professor, I felt like a Michigan man. During my time teaching at Michigan, I was privileged to mentor many student athletes, some of them football players. I also mentored even more first generation college students, who are now finishing their own doctoral programs and writing their own narratives of redemption.

So where is this Michigan Man now? I am a college professor at the University of Oklahoma, another big football school. Who do I root for you ask? Who do I love? Well, on football Fridays when the entire university is decked out in Sooner red, I can be found in my maize and blue. Despite people requesting that I refrain from wearing another school’s colors to faculty meetings and university events (this is a true story), I still adorn the maize and blue. You see, being a Michigan man isn’t about football or sports, nor does it have to be about some sort of brash arrogance. Being a Michigan man is about loyalty, about community, about integrity, and about getting back up again when you get knocked down. On the eve of the biggest game in 20 years for the University of Michigan, against Ohio, I am filled with anticipation. We are underdogs in the game, but for some reason, I think this makes it all the better. Michigan men aren’t defined by one game, win or lose, because if this was the case, I wouldn’t be here today nor would the Wolverines be on the brink of a national championship. Michigan men and women are made in the trenches, they are built from enduring challenges, and through it all, they never waver in their commitment and loyalty to the Michigan family or to the greatest football team in all the land. In the words of 575,000 current Michigan men and women, along with the ghosts of Yost, Fritz, Bump, and Bo, along with many more:

Hail! to the victors valiant

Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes

Hail! Hail! to Michigan

the leaders and best.

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