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Taking us back in time and moving us forward: Memories, Northwestern, and "The Tip"

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Our memory is made up of a lot of little moments that have stood the test of time. Things that through the years grow larger and take on added importance as layers of context and circumstance are laid down to amplify things previously overlooked, as narratives are assembled from those moments and they take on meaning and significance not just because of how this or that led to something else, but more importantly how the whole thing makes us feel as we look back on it.

US Presswire-Rick Osentoski

(This started out as my Freep column for the week, but when I realized what direction it was taking -- and that my editors, bless their hearts, probably wouldn't be down with me embedding a Weezer video -- I figured I would keep it over here.)

History in all but the most academic sense is less the objective record of Things That Happened and more the subjective hearkening back to the moments that stand at the forefront of our mind years later, the ones that leap off the page. It is those moments that grow like shadows as the sun falls in our waning years and plasters those few big events of our life against the horizon, darkening all the rest that have fallen away.

It can be history we experienced or the tales spun by elders recounting a past that unfolded long before us. It all flows together to become the story of not just how things came to be in our time, but where things are going -- the walls of circumstance that box the future in and lead it through a maze like a mouse to a wedge of cheese.

Michigan football is in many ways great because of the history of the team and the palpable sense that this whole experience of watching a meaningless game does in the long run offer something bigger and more important than what it realistically should: that it is a shared experience of emotional frustration and catharsis; a bunch of people just caring so damn much about something which serves to sort of make that something greater than it could be on its own.

The team calls itself "Team 133" and we fawn because many of us remember bits and pieces of some of those teams that have come before. Whether you've been watching for the last 50 years or got a crash course in fandom back in September as many freshmen inevitably do each year, the thing that ultimately sticks with you -- the reason you say you "love" this team or were "blue from birth" -- are the moments from the past where emotions ran high, be they exhilarating victories or crushing defeats, and left you crumpled up in a heap asking yourself, "what just happened?". Then, days or weeks or years later, the way those remembrances make you feel as you are sitting on your couch drinking beer and idly watching some meaningless MAC game on a Wednesday night, or chatting with an old roommates on the phone in the dead of winter.

I have a lot of those moments, and while they are made up of the same events -- the concrete Things That Happened; the minutiae that years later is shaped and stripped away with the ebbing tide of time and the warm glow of nostalgia -- they are different than yours in all sorts of subtle ways that happen because so much of what we remember is an amalgamation of the events as they happened with some smell or feeling or song that was in the background doing funny things to your mood at the moment. When I think about Michigan-Northwestern games past, the first thing that comes to mind is Anthony Thomas's fumble in the 2000 game. I was riding back from somewhere I don't even remember, in the back of my parents minivan. It was dark outside and I leaned as close as I could toward the radio while still wearing my seat belt, almost as if the closer I got the closer I was to crawling inside the radio and taking a seat at Ryan field for those last few minutes. He fumbled the ball. I was crushed. The whole ordeal still literally stinks of the smell of a car in winter. Cold and mud and moisture seeping into upholstery.


Saturday's game had its moments. There were the bad moments, the ones that like the Thomas fumble of years ago might leave us bitter for years. Trevor Siemian twice coming off the bench cold to lead Northwestern on touchdown drives. Mike Trumpy's two long third-down conversions in the third quarter to push the Wildcats up ten. Kain Colter and Venric Mark tearing off for the edges repeatedly in a flurry of speed options and stretch plays.

Like many games that end immortalized by fans, this one was greater than the sum of its parts for Michigan. The Wolverine rush offense once again floundered for long stretches. The long run on the day -- a 50 yard scamper by Fitzgerald Toussaint inside the Northwestern red zone -- ended with a fumble. A few Devin Gardner passes slid just out of the hands of Northwestern defenders, with one landing squarely in a pair of Wildcat hands. Meanwhile, the Michigan defense that had just about announced itself as the premiere defense in the conference was gashed repeatedly by the quick spread option attack of Northwestern. Third-and-longs turned into hideous flashbacks to times better left unmentioned.

But Michigan continued to hang around. A touchdown to close the third quarter and another one minutes into the fourth reestablished a tenuous lead for the Wolverines, and Northwestern set about making moments of its own. Colter moved the chains and then Siemian stepped in and took it home. This time it was Kenny Demens on the wrong side of history, grasping in vain for the go-ahead touchdown pass that sailed just past his outstretched hands. What followed were more moments; moments that end like my sitting dejected on the edge of a bench seat in my parents now long out-of-service minivan. An interception. A fourth-down conversion. The slow passage of time toward the inevitable 0:00.

In many, many years -- assuming I make it that far in life -- when I talk football with someone who could be a close friend and fellow Wolverine sympathizer or maybe just be someone seated next to me on a plane, the subject of Northwestern-Michigan might come up (a longshot, but bear with me). I'll talk about the pesky Wildcats, the confounding spread option offense, and probably even get in a few justNorthwestern cracks in. I'll gloss over big wins like the 2004 or 2011 editions of the game; I won't talk about the crushing sense of dread that deepened as Northwestern beat Michigan on a cold afternoon in 2008. But if all of this does come up, I won't fail to talk about sitting in my parent's minivan that night back in 2000, and the crackling voice delivering the news over an AM radio feed that Thomas fumbled the ball. And as of Saturday there will be one more moment that won't go unmentioned.

One play that survives the rest. The tip.

The sands of time eventually wash away most of the little stuff, and even some of the bigger stuff. Jeremy Gallon's punt return past a handful of Northwestern players to set up the hail mary may fade as just a prelude; Brendan Gibbon's cool-as-ice kick to send the game to overtime a mere formality. The curl route to Roundtree that set up first and goal will be jumbled with the rest of overtime, just as the bootleg and go ahead score will. And the back to back thumps on third- and fourth-down, delivered by none other than Kenny Demens, will sit unnoticed like the period at the end of this sentence.

We love Michigan football because of the history that envelopes each and every game we watch, how this pass or that tackle takes us back to a better -- or worse -- time when we laughed or cried or beat our hands against the wall in frustration. But that isn't why we keep coming back. We come back to sit on the edge of our seat and wait for the next moment that will outlast the rest.

We love Michigan football not for the history that has already been laid down, but the history we have yet to witness. The stuff still waiting to be written.

On Saturday we witnessed another chapter.