I couldn't believe it when I saw the text message.
Since June 2012, when it was announced that Michigan would travel to Salt Lake City to open the 2015 season against Utah, I knew I needed to be there. The timing could not have been more perfect. I was preparing to begin my first year of law school that August, and, if everything went according to plan, I would graduate and sit for the California bar examination by the end of July 2015. And almost every lawyer to whom I talked instructed me to take time off afterwards because, once you start your career, you'll never get time off like that again until you retire. My classmates heard the same advice. Some went across the Atlantic and city-hopped around Spain. Others went to Hawaii.
Me? I wanted to watch Michigan football. In person.
And that desire multiplied by 100 on December 30, 2014, when Michigan announced Jim Harbaugh as its new head football coach. It dawned on me that the stars had aligned for me to witness Harbaugh's Michigan coaching debut. I could not pass this chance up.
The problem, though, was that I was far from the only person that did not want to pass this chance up. Demand to attend Michigan-Utah shot through the roof, and, because Rice-Eccles Stadium holds only 45,017 seats, ticket prices did, too. As I scoured the secondary market for tickets in early August, the cheapest ones I could find were in the top row of the corners for around $225. This price would continue to only climb. So much so, in fact, that, by the date of the game, Michigan-Utah had become the second-most expensive college football ticket of the weekend -- a factoid that about 15 separate Utah fans would later inform me as if it had been the opening line of the Sunday sacrament meeting at the Salt Lake Temple earlier in the week. I was just in law school for three years. I didn't have the disposable income to afford game tickets, last-minute round-trip airfare, and two nights of hotel lodging. It seemed it just wasn't meant to be.
And, then, on August 18th, I received this text message from my friend, Kendall:
Kendall is a former professional basketball player whom Utah just added to its women's basketball staff. One of the perks of her job is that she receives two free tickets to each of Utah's football home games. And, because she knew I am a Michigan alumnus -- I'm not exactly shy about my affiliation with Michigan -- she offered me her extra ticket and a place to sleep on her couch in her apartment while I was in town. After I confirmed that this was indeed a real offer and not some cruel, elaborate prank, I accepted on the spot, thanked Kendall profusely, booked my flight to and from Utah, and celebrated almost as awkwardly as Chad Henne after he completed a comeback win over MSU in 2007.
Like when Michigan hired Harbaugh, I couldn't believe this was happening.
And, when Wednesday, September 2nd -- the day when I would fly to Salt Lake City -- arrived, I hardly could contain my excitement. Sleeping the night before had been an exercise in futility. I spent the night watching YouTube clips of past Michigan football games that WolverineHistorian has archived for us -- I get through the dog days of summer only because of WolverineHistorian's channel. When I arrived at the Delta terminal at LAX, I had my Michigan duffel bag to bring with me on the plane, and, as I stood in the line for security, I noticed I wasn't the only Michigan fan in the group:
There were five people in the security line at the Delta terminal at LAX just now rocking Michigan gear. I wonder where they're headed...— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 2, 2015
Michigan alumnus and Twitter pal Scott Bell came to the rescue with an answer:
@DrewCHallett probably Utah— Scott Bell (@sbell021) September 2, 2015
After a two-hour flight, during which I tried -- and failed -- to be cool like all of the Michigan players that take selfies when their plane departs for road games ...
... I was in Salt Lake City, Utah.
For the rest of the afternoon, Kendall gave me a walking tour of Utah's campus ...
... snuck me into Rice-Eccles Stadium for a quick peek before gameday ...
... and took me to see the Utah State Capitol and the Salt Lake Temple.
Afterwards, we continued to walk around downtown Salt Lake City until we reached our dinner destination, Squatters Pubs and Beers. As we did so, I could not help but notice how quiet it was. There was no buzz in the air like there would be in Ann Arbor the day before a Michigan home football game -- there wasn't one on the Utah campus either -- and we passed few people in the streets. Maybe it was because Salt Lake City is not a college town like Ann Arbor. Maybe it was because it was a Wednesday rather than a Friday, and people were waiting to come into town until the next day. Maybe it was just because Utah fans approach football games different than Michigan fans -- we are insane.
But the most buzz I felt was when I walked into Squatters. Why? The place was packed with Michigan fans. Most of the patrons were wearing Maize and Blue. The Harbros were seated in the back corner of the restaurant, still wearing their Harbaugh costumes as they had for each day the past two weeks -- god, I hope the Harbus had a washer and dryer on it. Michigan professor, historian, and author John U. Bacon strolled in while I was seated at my table. It was like Squatters had become a mini-Ann Arbor, and, hence, the atmosphere had a nervous energy to it as all of us Wolverines were anticipating the following day: when Harbaugh would finally step onto that sideline in his khakis and all.
I didn't need to worry about a lack of a buzz on Thursday. With these beauties in hand ...
... I walked into a sea of red, and it took only four minutes for this to happen:
And I just received my first "F*ck Michigan." IT'S OFFICIALLY GAMEDAY.— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 3, 2015
God, I love college football.
The next two hours were spent walking around Salt Lake City to grab the necessities for our tailgate. I made my first ever visit to a Utah state-operated liquor store ...
... where I proceeded to meet an Ohio State fan because, even in Utah, you have more trouble avoiding Buckeye fans than Indiana Hoosiers football does with losing seasons:
At the state liquor store, I just met an Ohio State fan who's in SLC for the game b/c his daughter attends Utah. He's my mortal enemy today.— Drew Hallett (@DrewCHallett) September 3, 2015
After he became the millionth Buckeye to tell me that Michigan needs to pick up the slack in the rivalry -- thanks for the tip -- Kendall and I made our way up to Rice-Eccles Stadium for our tailgate. Of course, along the way, we were playfully chided by Utah fans for our attire -- I was wearing a Michigan polo while Kendall wore a Utah t-shirt:
Those Utah fans presumed that Kendall and I are dating -- we're not -- and were curious as to how a Wolverine and a Ute had met. Or maybe they were just surprised when we told them that we weren't dating because I'm pretty sure it's illegal to be single in the state of Utah once you're older than the age of 24 years old. No? You sure? If you say so.
We made it to the north side of the stadium where the rest of the Utah women's basketball staff and other Utah athletic department officials were tailgating. Kendall introduced me to them -- one of which was a manager for John Beilein at West Virginia, so we talked a great deal about Michigan basketball -- and, after some natural ribbing for my shirt, we all had a great time. Though, I would have fit in at this tailgate a bit more:
I had a chance to walk around the central nervous system of the Utah tailgating scene, and the Utes impressed. Their lot was packed, and red tents were set up everywhere. Even one of the spaces was occupied by a classic red fire engine that was customized with a Utah Utes design. I wish I had grabbed a photo. But this was my favorite part:
The Utes certainly were ready to vanquish the khaki'd man himself.
And I was ready to see him run out of that tunnel onto that field.
After Kendall and I finished our drinks, which I needed because I was nervous and forgot what it's like to have ACTUAL FEELINGS about Michigan football again, we walked down the hill to Rice-Eccles Stadium, where we had pre-game access to be on the field:
I tried to get to the side of the field where Michigan was warming up ...
... but security intercepted me like defenses have done to Michigan for years: easily.
So Kendall and I climbed to our seats, which were on the 45-yard line ...
... and waited for Harbaugh and the Wolverines to take the field for the first time.
And, when they did, I had the chills. I had the chills because it was the first time that it had set in that Harbaugh was Michigan's head football coach. Yes, Harbaugh had officially been Michigan's coach for eight months and had dominated the headlines for all eight of those months, but it still felt surreal -- like a vivid dream too good to be true.
Until he ran out in his Schembechler-style Michigan hat, blue shirt, and -- duh -- khakis.
No, the outcome was not what I desired. Michigan lost to the Utes in a manner that I had expected -- with a defense that was stout up front but an offense that would have trouble moving the football. However, Michigan still had a shot to put the pressure on the Utes and tie the game at 17 apiece in the fourth quarter. I had butterflies in my stomach on that 3rd and 3 near midfield, but, as soon as Jake Rudock released the ball, everything became slo-motion. You could see that Justin Thomas had anticipated Grant Perry's out route and jumped it. You could see that Thomas had a clear path to the end zone if he picked it. I could only hope that the ball would slip through his hands. It didn't. Game.
Rice-Eccles Stadium erupted around me, with the ground shaking violently, as I stood there in silence and frustration. Frustration. It's a feeling to which I have become accustomed in recent seasons. But I know it's a feeling that will pass in the near future. Maybe even as near as the end of this year. Unlike 2014, Michigan looked like it was playing the correct sport on Thursday, and, with more time under Harbaugh's guidance, Michigan will excel at the correct sport and rejoin the upper tiers of college football.
I knew that as I walked out of Rice-Eccles Stadium with Kendall and tens of thousands of raucous Utes fans on Thursday night. I knew that this was just the beginning, and that Rome was not built in a day. And I also knew that, the next time I received a text from a friend offering me a ticket to a Michigan game, I'd likely be celebrating at the end of it.
Thanks to Kendall for the ticket! Thanks to Utah fans for being such gracious hosts!