Of Legends and Echoes

 

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There's something about the Michigan Notre Dame game that stirs up the butterflies in my stomach. When the game rolls around each year, I get uneasy, giddy, and nervous; even when I shouldn't. Even though I went to Michigan for undergraduate and married a Notre Dame grad, it's not the college experience that infused this antsiness in me. It's been there a long, long time.

College football didn't enter my consciousness until around junior high school. By that point I'd moved from the heart of the middle west to Dallas, and the adjustment from adolesense to my teen years now had the added hurdle of a new town and new language (Texan). As it happened, that life change change occurred just as my saturday morning viewing preference shifted from cartoons hitting each other to people in pads hitting each other. College Football wasn't a passion, it was just something that I knew I liked and was on every fall Saturday. But as I began to learn about the game, I also started to realize what Michigan Notre Dame was about.

In Texas, you weren't getting much besides the Southwest Conference and later the Big VIII and XII. Families and friends were divided along Texas, A&M, and SMU lines. Everyone had a side because everyone went  to one of the those schools. Allegiances were clearly defined. And then there was that prime time Michigan Notre Dame game. Michigan Notre Dame was always that game that divided a room.

Because it was Texas, the fact that there were such visceral reactions to the game surprised me. Everyone had a reason to hate or cheer for one school or the other. Everyone chose sides. Everyone cheered or booed when something happened. Everyone cared who won. But nobody went  to either school.

This was the early nineties. ESPN, though in it's teens, hadn't quite impacted the nation's consciousness yet. It was still the era of the Big Network game of the week. And early in the season it was Michigan Notre Dame. The network work send their best analysts and play by play men to the game. You got into it. You hit your friend in the arm for rooting for the wrong side, even if you were just a high school freshman/sophomore/junior not yet ready to really consider where or how you'd go to college. You'd sit there, mesmerized, because whoever won the game was sitting on the fast track to a national championship. And you'd be reminded of that, constantly, by the announcers. It wasn't because they were trying to sell you on a conference contract they'd inked, it was because one of these teams would be a championship contender by virtue of a win that day.

It was watching those early match-ups that I first got it in my head that Michigan might be a place I wanted to go to school. I never wanted to go to Notre Dame. Never. Even if I was Irish Catholic. I can't explain why either. It was just a reaction. I rooted for Michigan. Always. For no reason really. My Dad went to Harvard, my mom to a tiny bible college in Kansas. The only affiliation I had with the Big Ten, let alone Michigan, was that my grandfather went to Minnesota for his undergraduate and graduate degrees. There was no reason to cheer for or against either team. But Just like everyone else, I couldn't help myself. I chose sides.

That's the power of the Michigan Notre Dame game. It makes even the uninitiated pick sides, and it's been doing it for nearly half a century. You can see the Heisman winners. You can hear the ghosts of coaches long since passed but still alive in legend. The punt returns. The diving catches. The goal line fumbles. The last second field goals. These games have shaped a rivalry and a portion of college football. Two midwestern schools that are anything but midwestern. They are national. Whether you are in Puerto Rico or Seattle, you'll watch this game and you'll pick sides.

Over the last few years things have changed. Notre Dame has parle'd its stature into a television contract that while absurd, is the envy of most of college football. Despite this, the Irish have been down since Bob Davie first put on his head set. Coaching changes. Player defections. Intense scrutiny both inside and out of the program has only increased as the Irish have stumbled the last two years. Likewise, Michigan has fallen in stature. Coming off crippling losses to Appalachian State, a coaching change and a 3-9 season all does not appear well to those outside the program. Baseless allegations of improper practices, dissension inside and out of the program, and player defections made this off season the most tumultuous in Michigan's history.

After two straight years or turnover fests and beat downs, the media is quick to say the luster is gone from the rivalry. That the teams aren't of national quality. That they'll both be lucky to beat their opening game opponents, much less make a bowl game.

Yeah. About that...

Notre Dame and Michigan crushed their opening day opponents, showing versatility on offense and defense. Where some pundits saw losses for both squads, both teams answered their doubters for a day, setting up the grudge match we've all grown accustomed to welcoming. Two good teams ready to pound on one another. The game may not have the national championship implications that it had five years ago, but it will again soon. And this year's match-up is nothing to sneeze at either. Dynamic quarterbacks in Jimmy Clausen, Tate Forcier, and Denard Robinson. Electric receivers in Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Junior Hemingway, and Martavious Odoms. Fast, aggressive defenses. Larger than life coaches. Story lines galore.

The rankings may not reflect it, but this is a great match up and should provide one of the most electric games in recent memory. Two great play callers on the sidelines. Great athletes. Big hitters. Speed galore. The Big House. A Saturday in September. The Rivalry hasn't changed much. It's still Knute and Bo. Desmond and Rocket. It's everything you remember. And on Saturday, you'll choose sides.

Even if you didn't go to either school.

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