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There is nothing like your first game in Ann Arbor

It’s impossible not to be romantic about football.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan football returns tomorrow. Four words that felt years away even at the beginning of the week are finally ringing truer by the syllable. The tailgate, the beers, the fight song, the James Earl Jones introduction video, the long waits at the bathroom, EVERYTHING returns tomorrow.

Despite the recent money-grubbing conference realignment and the rule changes to make room for more commercials and less game action, college football remains something I cannot quit. Maybe too much passion is why the sport is being corrupted and ruined, but telling someone to be less passionate is like telling your buddy to stop loving his wife of 20+ years. Nothing beats a Saturday college game day.

I detailed the origins of my personal fandom in a piece a few years ago but never discussed my first live game experience. It was Oct. 7, 2007, when Michigan faced Eastern Michigan in the Big House.

As everyone reading this knows, that season could not have started out any worse. The Wolverines lost to Appalachian State and Oregon in consecutive weeks to begin the year, but what some forget is the rallying effort the next two weeks.

Michigan smoked Notre Dame — which always feels good — 38-0 before beating No. 10 Penn State to pull to .500. The Wolverines would travel to Evanston and beat Northwestern the week after, and head home for their final non-conference game against EMU.

But none of this leading up to the game really mattered to me at the time because I was finally going to see the Michigan Wolverines LIVE. After being an isolated fan for 3.5 years in West Virginia, my older brother was taking me to the promised land. As much as I would miss my game day morning ritual of watching College Gameday, this experience was sure to be unrivaled.

Arriving in Ann Arbor for the first time, I can still remember the sights, sounds and emotions I experienced. I ran up and down the old Michigan Stadium bleachers and watched the band rehearse in the parking lot. I screamed as Eastern cut the game to two in the second half and cheered when Mike Hart broke the all-time program rushing record.

Even at the age of 15 when most are between being too young to be a man and too cool to be a kid, I supported the maize and blue with zero insecurity or reservation; football was all that mattered. The Wolverines would triumph, 33-22, but more importantly, my fandom had been justified. When I chose this team in 2003, this was everything I had imagined it would be.

A few weeks ago, radio host Mike Valenti — a known Michigan State supporter — offered a strange warning to fans of the Wolverines after it was announced the in-state rivalry game between Michigan and the Spartans would be at night.

“That is going to be the most hostile environment this rivalry has ever had. It will be a tinder box. If I were a Michigan fan, I would never be at that game. Because there are decent odds that you’ll be eating a battery.

“And it’s not hyperbole, I’m being real with you because people are nuts. And I don’t condone what all people do but I’m just telling you. Friendly advice if you’re a Michigan fan: Don’t be there. Don’t be there… don’t bring the women and children, don’t be there. Don’t show up in your egregious butter-themed T-shirt garb. Don’t be there. It’s the equivalent of playing stupid games and winning stupid prizes.

“That is going to be arguably the most hostile environment this rivalry’s ever had. Ever. Ever… it will be a tinder box. Don’t be there. Find something else to do somewhere other than East Lansing. I would never, if I was a Michigan fan, be at that game, because there’s decent odds you’ll be eating a battery. I don’t condone it, I ain’t telling people to behave that way. But I know what Spartan fans are feeling and how that’s going to go down after what happened last year. And how MSU got railroaded. Yeah, that is not a place to be. Don’t bring the kids.”

Spoken by someone who spends too much time reading comments online, this is a take born from an overconsumption of anonymous hate and not based in reality. Not to sound like an absurd moral optimist, but stadiums and rivalry games are places for everyone regardless if they are wearing green and white, or maize and blue.

As adults we have a fiduciary responsibility to the next generations to prove we don’t suck; that we don’t always ruin the things they love. Something the NCAA and conference commissioners forgot a long time ago.

It’s impossible not to be romantic about football, especially entering the final season with some semblance of what it has always been. Regionalism and tradition have given way to increased ad revenue and bottom lines, but we as fans do not have to let the game day experience die along with it.

This weekend, the rivalry weekend in a few weeks, and every weekend this season, will be someone’s first game. The first time young fans can have their passions vindicated. The first time experiencing the intoxicating atmosphere that originally hooked us. The first time experiencing the rush that continues to bring us back every time we visit no matter how old we get.

So bring the kids, wear your colors and soak it in. Football games are one of the few places where you don’t have to worry about being too young, too cool, or somewhere in between. Football is all that matters and it returns tomorrow.

See you at the game!