I declared journalism for my major during the fall term of my sophomore year at Grand Valley. I had been thinking about it since the previous spring, the tail end of my freshman year in the cramped Copeland Hall dorm room. I considered other, similar alternatives. An English degree, but that required too much literary analysis and criticism, too much fun taken out of reading. And even as a collegiate sophomore I knew a creative writing degree wouldn’t do my career aspirations any favors. So, in the fall of 2003, journalism with a focus in print it was.
Traditional journalism never did anything for me. The last thing I wanted was to be a cops and courts beat reporter, or a pestering, sniveling little shit trying to pry answers out of politicians polished to a glossy shine. Nah, man. I want to be a rock journalist. Interview bands, review albums, write profiles of up and coming geniuses and past-their-prime elder statesmen still dragging a guitar onstage twenty-five years after their careers started in some dingy garage on the bad side of town. The kind of career that exists in the minds of high schoolers and college underclassmen, and nowhere else.
Because I was all of nineteen years old, my imagined professional path went something like: freelance through college, work for the school paper in the hours I didn’t have class. Get a job with a small or midsized daily after graduation, weasel my way into the A&E section of the paper. Eventually take over that section, get an offer for a larger daily to manage their A&E, and on and on until I would be a full-time staffer with Rolling Stone by the ripe old age of, oh, call it thirty.
I love a sport played by these same idiot nineteen year olds. Never forget this.
The patron saint of college kids with pie in the sky dreams like mine was, and is, Hunter S. Thompson. I stopped short of idolizing the man but as an early hero he was right up my alley. Exactly the kind of irreverent maniac a kid who grew up in the relative middle of nowhere fashioned himself to be. Rock band t-shirts, baggy jeans, jelly bracelets, and a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I was that cliche, too. (I maintain “We were somewhere around Barstow at the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” is a fantastic way to start a book, I don’t care who you are.) If you can look at your early heroes and remain unembarrassed, you’re a better man or woman than me.
Thompson pointed a loaded gun at his head and pulled the trigger in February 2005, right around my twenty-first birthday. We talked about it in my Wednesday evening article writing class, taught by a full-time features writer for theGrand Rapids Press. I was the only person in the class who knew more than Thompson’s name—goddamn philistines!—so we spent no more than ten minutes talking about the man’s work.
Thompson’s suicide note, written to his wife, was titled, “Football Season is Over.” Throughout his life he was a football fan, and in particular a college football fan. In his work, both fiction and nonfiction, I remember he wrote more than once about watching the machine of a Georgia Tech team running the triple option or the wishbone to perfection. (Seem familiar?) With football season over in February, Thompson pulled the trigger. When his family and the police found his body in the room, they also found a sheet of paper in his typewriter, with a single word typed on the page: “counselor.”
Around the world and home again, that’s the sailor’s way. Christmas travel does its best to kill me every year. Mom lives in Louisville, Kentucky; dad lives near Medina, Ohio, due south of Cleveland. I lived in lower Michigan and now Chicago. Plot the three locations on a map and it forms a Bermuda Triangle over a large swath of the Midwest—appropriate, since things that go into the wastelands of central Indiana and Ohio never seem to come out.
For a few years I tried to do both parents in the same year over the course of about a week, give or take a few days. In 2008 a series of snowstorms hit Chicago, through which I had connecting flights at Midway, leaving me stranded in the far reaches of the city overnight. 2010 would be the last year of the attempt. Picture this: beat-ass exhausted on Christmas Eve after the start of A Thing, driving about five hours through Ohio from Michigan to Kentucky, tired enough to fall asleep at the wheel south of Dayton (I even remember the song that was playing!). Christmas with mom for a few days, with all of the attendant love and frustration. Then, at your most exhausted, on your very last nerve, packing up your car, driving five and a half hours through Ohio, and starting the whole process again with dad’s side of the family. Then, after a few more days, three and a half more hours on the road to get back to your drafty apartment in a half-dead college town.
I love you, mom and dad. Never again.
Turns out being able to fly direct out of Chicago makes the travel all the more tolerable. In the years since I’ve become acquainted with the airports in Louisville, Cleveland, and Akron-Canton. Cute as a button, all, in contrast to the labyrinthine monstrosities here. Flight delayed? Ain’t a big deal. I’ll cool my heels at the Great Lakes Brewing Co. bar and monitor flight status from my phone.
Since the dad genes express themselves with every gray hair on my head, I tend to get to airports way, way earlier than I need to. I’d rather sit around and wait than be one of those motherfuckers in a rush, all but leaping bodily through the security scanners. Ninety minutes to kill? Time enough for a pint of whatever and to watch whoever in whichever bowl game playing on the overpriced, overcrowded airport bars. (Ah, the timelessness of airports, encouraging beer breakfasts since the Wright Brothers themselves.) On my outbound flight to Louisville, a group of poor bastards trying to get to Atlanta found themselves delayed for something like twelve hours. One of them, a man about dad’s age, put his credit card down and requested production line of Miller Lite from the bar to his gullet.
During one similar delay, after the Christmas tour with dad in 2014, I got the news Michigan fans had been obsessing about for weeks. Jim Harbaugh would be named the head coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines football team. By then I was a couple of pints deep into some Christmas Ale and working on a third—get fucked with your three-hour delays on a day with a clear blue sky, United—when the news hit. Well, hot damn. Michigan hadn’t even the courtesy of a meaningless exhibition bowl to go to, after the bludgeoning at the hands of Ohio State once again. Didn’t matter, not then. That I got the good news about Michigan football when I was stuck in Ohio wasn’t lost on me. Harbaugh New Year, everybody. Now let’s get this plane in the air already. I’m tired and I want to go home.
I can count the ghosts of New Years past by whether or not Michigan was playing in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Rose Bowl or Bust. Any game not on New Year’s Day was called the Toilet Bowl in our house, because who cared? Orange Bowl? Great! Outback Bowl? Get the hell outta here. Oh, we watched all the same, all the while lamenting the abject failure, the humiliation, of a four-loss season. Never mind Michigan being blown out by a Pac-8/10/12 team in Pasadena is as strong of a tradition as the Block M, but hey.
New Year’s Day comes in one color in Michigan: gray. Doesn’t matter if the temperature is 3 or 53 degrees F, whether we got dumped by a foot of snow (seemed to happen more often than not) or a light dusting (too cold to snow? January, you’re a real bitch). Chicago’s the same latitude with much the same result. Patches of blue sky like window panes, and that’s all. Back to your bunkers, everybody. False alarm. We blew the All Clear signal too soon.
The last time Michigan played Florida in a January 1 bowl game, I was digging my car out from under more than a foot of snow we got all through New Year’s Eve and overnight. I crashed on the floor of an apartment after the festivities, went out for our traditional hungover breakfast at Denny’s or wherever the hell. The roads remained unplowed, ruts from tires carving a kind of calligraphy into the gray-white Midwestern hellscape. “Don’t you usually watch this?” they asked me, the nether region between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor showing the Capital One Bowl on television. I’d try to catch what I could, I said.
What I made it in time for was the fourth quarter of Lloyd Carr’s last game as head coach. With a healthy roster for the first time since the Appalachian State game, he said to hell with it. Michigan came out on offense in a shotgun spread formation, Chad Henne’s guns a-blazing. Mike Hart ran on draw plays and zone stretches from the ‘gun. Everything Urban Meyer’s Florida could do on offense, Michigan could do better. My god, that game. Hungover, headache well settled behind my eyes, Michigan was beating the pants off of an SEC opponent in a New Year’s Day bowl game.
The more college football changes, the more it stays the same. Eight years to the day later, same schools, same state. This time it was the Citrus Bowl. Two first-year head coaches with better-than-expected first seasons, despite blowout losses to rivals. Older, grayer, a couple more pounds on me than I had in 2008. Such is the way of things. But Michigan, Michigan, you magnificent bastards, you leaders and best, rung in the new year in the best way for your fans. Jake Rudock put on a clinic. The defense stifled. Florida, for its part, looked uninterested after the first half of the first quarter. I didn’t care. More touchdowns. More points. Be on the other end of a bowl game blowout for a change. When things to wrong they go really, really wrong, and when they go right they’re fantastic.
ABC showed the final score on the screen. The sideline reporter tried to get some coherent words out of Rudock at the conclusion of his final collegiate game. Farewells from the broadcast team, bumper music, back to the studio, and on to the next bowl game of the afternoon. It’s here. It’s always here. College football season is over.
Eight months in the wilderness. The space between the last game of the regular season Thanksgiving weekend and the bowl game, should teams be fortunate enough to be invited, a preview of that wilderness. A sense of restlessness on a Saturday afternoon, at least three hours of which had been filled since the beginning of September, suddenly free. Simultaneously the digging and the filling of a hole. Aw, man, no college football on today? Wait, that means I can do . . . anything! Anything else. Go see a movie, go out to eat at two in the afternoon, go away.
And yet. The national championship game, such that it is, looms. The NFL still has another week of regular season play, then the wild card games, then the playoffs proper, then the fucking Super Bowl. I’ll casually pay attention—some football is better than no football—but with curiosity, not passion. What do I care about a potential Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl? Beyond an excuse to make chili and whatever else I might make for the occasion. Tom Brady? I remember watching him at Michigan, remember the calls to bench his ass in favor of Drew Henson. That was, Jesus, fifteen years ago now?
College football season is over. College football season is always ending. My Lakers, seeded sixth in the Division II playoffs, made it all the way to the semifinal game and lost a close on, 34-32, against Shepherdsville, a No. 1 seed. Two losses in the regular seasons against GLIAC opponents avenged, on the road, no less. And Michigan, with its ten wins and its coach who had known what he’d been doing at every place he’d coached before returning to Ann Arbor. God, am I spoiled.
Now. Get off the couch, stretch the legs, get outside for some fresh winter air. Eventually the end of February will come around and the weather will start to turn, little by little, a day at a time, two steps forward, one back. Everything starts to turn blue in February; sky, snow, and lake. And after the championships, after the Super Bowl, after the everybody takes a moment to breathe, start the countdown clock. Oh, there’s a lot to do in the interim. Too much. College football season is over? Only eight more months to go.
Final score: Michigan 41, Florida 7. Final 2015 season record: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten).
Originally published January 4, 2016.