On Michigan and Michael

Much of my time spent on Twitter — when I’m not making bad Nazi jokes and sharing long-form journalism — involves discussing football with Michigan fans. Some of them are reporters and bloggers, some of them are just obsessed, like me. I look forward to my conversations with these friends in so many ways. I need people in my life for whom having the “in the 2007 game against Penn State, we definitely should have gone for it on that third and two, right?” talk is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I’m insane.

On Monday, some of these friends and I had a long conversation about the most painful games in recent Michigan football history. The Horror. Losing to Toledo at home because we were beyond terrible. The 2007 game against Oregon. (By the way, Dennis Dixon, I still think you would have won the Heisman that year if it weren’t for that pesky ACL tear.) A litany of pain and anguish that I have done my best to forget.

Had I not been bound by both the character limits and rules of decorum expected of Twitter users who don’t suck, I might have described these games as “drive-by shootings” or “like being slowly strangled by large members of an organized crime family bent on destroying my small, family-owned business” because that’s what it felt like to watch Appalachian State rush the field after blocking that field goal, or to see the football team you, for some reason, love more than life itself flail its way to a losing season. It hurt physically and emotionally and spiritually. And if you don’t understand how losing a game can hurt your soul, then you’ve never loved college football.

***
On Sunday, a little boy named Michael, who lived in the house behind mine, disappeared. He was seven-years-old and autistic, last seen in the alley directly behind my back gate, wearing a diaper and a red t-shirt. I’ve probably seen him before. Maybe I saw him last Fourth of July when we set off fireworks in the alley and I dove behind my roommate’s car to avoid losing my eyelashes. Maybe I saw him in the mornings when I walk past the alley on my way to my Metro stop. I have probably seen him dozens of times and barely registered his existence until he was gone.

The neighborhood mobilized to look for him, even when the police seemed to be taking his disappearance in stride. Sex workers who walk the block in the mornings and kids who skateboard to Northeast Market to buy cheap ice cream sandwiches searched every nook and cranny of that alley. Community members looked for Michael, tweeted about Michael, searched out and discussed and argued about every scrap of information about Michael. It’s so hot, and he’s so little, and he just couldn’t have gotten that far — couldn’t have.

He was found at 6 p.m. yesterday. He was dead, lying in an unused Nissan Altima 40 feet away from where he was last seen. Searchers passed the car in which he was found dozens of times. Some people said that they were sure they’d looked in that car, a car I’ve seen parked behind the house next door to Michael’s almost every day.

People were angry, and still are. How did this happen? Was this an accident? How did that car not get searched more thoroughly? Why were there not more “missing child” posters in the neighborhood? Where were DC police? I watched from my kitchen table as homicide detectives and CSI units – the same people I’ve watched on network television shows for the past 15 years – sweep the alley, and I’ve never felt more useless.

I can’t stop thinking about Michael. I can’t stop thinking about the crime scene tape and the news reporters standing behind my back gate and how scared he must have been in that car and how I hope, I desperately hope that he wasn’t in pain when he died, alone, in the trunk of a car barely 10 yards away from his family. I can’t stop thinking about how he was probably dead while I was discussing whether or not I’d rather have a painful win or an exciting loss (painful win, obviously). I can’t stop thinking about how a little boy, born my sophomore year of college, is gone.

***
But eventually, I’ll forget about this. The neighborhood will forget this. The anger will dissipate into community meetings and Twitter arguments. It’ll be a road sign in our rearview mirror – “Remember when Michael disappeared?” – like how we remember 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombings or other tragedies that mark a time and place in our memories. Things will change, or nothing will change, because how can you stop a little boy from somehow climbing into a car on a 95-degree day and accidentally locking himself in? People will move into the neighborhood who won’t know about Michael. Life will go on.

In a way, I feel almost as if writing about this is like trying to graft myself onto Michael’s story when I am only tangentially connected to him, and I don’t know if that’s wrong. I saw a documentary once about a woman who claimed to lose her husband in 9/11 (but didn’t), and one of the interviewees said that 9/11 became a moment people wanted to be a part of so that they could feel like parts of a whole, even if that whole was horrific and tragic and terrible. Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.

They towed the car Michael died in last night. The car had been there for so long that not seeing it in that yard was weirdly jarring. The crime scene tape is still up. Network news outlets were parked at the end of the alley this morning, videographers running across the street to set up their shots. I watched them, and then I walked to work. 

***

My sister visited me this weekend while the hunt for Michael raged. She’s family, obviously. But so is Trinidad, and so is Michigan. I’m bound to these communities by zip code and student loan payments and rent checks and addresses and sweatshirts. I’m bound to these communities by loyalty, and by love. The sense of shared pain my neighborhood is feeling and the hour-long conversations I’ve had with my fellow Michigan fans saying only “WHAT” and “HOW” are bonds that tie me to other people, and to myself. I love Michigan because it was my first real home. I love Trinidad because it’s my first real neighborhood. I love Michigan because it shaped me, and I love Trinidad because it’s challenged me. 

Football doesn’t matter, but community does. And communities are at their best in times of trial. The crime scene tape will come down soon, and we’ll forget about the police cars and the search parties. Children are already going back to running up and down the sidewalk while parents stand on porches and talk. Communities mourn together, and then they move on, whether from the Horror or from a true tragedy.

So we’ll be okay. Not today. Or tomorrow. But we’ll be okay.

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Football Is Joy

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This post is in response to this article.

I was not always obsessed with football. There was a time in my life when Saturdays and Sundays were just days.

I grew up in Cincinnati during the 90s, when the Bengals were about as terrible as terrible can be (seriously, look up the Bengals Wikipedia page. It’s a litany of sad.) My dad spent most games doing something else – during particularly bad seasons, he’d do home improvement projects. My parents have two decks and two ponds. That’s a lot of Sunday despair put to good use.

In addition, my dad went to Northwestern (which just won the only bowl game they’ve ever won during my dad’s lifetime) and my mom went to Carleton, so I grew up in a college football-free home.

As an incredibly awkward (fat, braces, unkempt hair, an inability to not use giant words in everyday conversation, definitely not heterosexual) kid, sports were a no-go for me. I was part of that generation of kids where either you were spectacular at sports – select soccer, AAU basketball – or you avoided them like the plague. I read a lot. I thought a lot. Maybe too much. I was very lonely, and I thought about being lonely all the time. In high school, all of this thinking would go to a very bad place and end with me spending some not-so-fun times at Children’s Hospital.

When I got to college, I wasn’t concerned about college football. I was 18, and finally out of Ohio, and I was ready to start my life over again. No one at Michigan knew me. They didn’t have to know about the time I wore a cape around school or how uncomfortable I could be around other people or how long I spent staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, hoping to not wake up the next day.

Michigan football was shitty my freshman year.  After barely losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl the year before, and despite having future NFL standouts like Leon Hall, Jason Avant, and Lamarr Woodley on the team, Michigan decided to find out what it would be like to be unable to hold onto a lead or maintain a drive for longer than four plays (those four plays: run left, run left, incomplete pass, punt.) We lost to Minnesota. We lost to Notre Dame. The season would eventually end with a nearly successful multiple lateral play in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska.

That doesn’t matter. Just know that it was a season, and not a great one.

I went to one game. It was my first time at Michigan Stadium. It ended with this:

Complete chaos.

Chaos cannot be controlled. You can’t defend chaos. There’s no nickel package that can combat chaos. That chaos is why some coaches sleep in their offices.

The entire empire of college football media, from recruiting rankings to Mark May and Lou Fucking Holtz, is built on trying to make chaos into order, trying to tell you and themselves that if this 4* QB goes to this school and learns under this system, he will throw to this receiver and there will be this touchdown. This team will win, this team will lose, and this can all be borne out in statistical analysis explained to you by Jesse Palmer. But that’s bullshit, and once or twice a year, we learn that lesson.

The moment that the ball is snapped, there are so many possibilities and permutations of what might or could happen that it’s almost inconceivable that any play works as designed.  If you’re a good enough team, you can create enough plays that work that you can almost overrule chaos – a fumbled handoff, the QB dropping the ball (heh, Tommy Rees, heh), a sack and strip of the running back. But that chaos is always there, watching and waiting.

In my life, I hate chaos. I like certainty. Order. Rhythm. But I crave football chaos. Football chaos leads to upsets and plays that you don’t even believe are real while they’re happening. I lie on the floor and I tweet and I have panic attacks and I scream and I jump around and I totally lose my mind from that chaos. Football chaos creates joy.

Joy is elation. Joy is ephemeral. Joy is like getting thrown into the air and exploding into tiny  shiny pieces. Joy is the moment that Chad Henne threw that ball to Mario Manningham on a 4th and 1 with 1 second left on the clock against an undefeated Nittany Lion squad in front of 108,000 people. Joy is like getting kicked in the face by magic.

There’s just a second right before the ball is snapped when time stops. The center looks up, looks back, looks up, snaps. In that moment, nothing matters and everything matters. Anything is possible. You hang in this moment, and then that moment is gone. The play is run, the whistle is blown, and it’s over.

I’d give everything I have to always live in that moment.

I love football because it makes me useless. History is useless. ESPN and CBS and ABC are useless. Everything is useless but that moment, that breath before the play. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing I can be can make Michigan win. I can leave my head and exist in that moment, that play, that catch, that tackle.

I love football because nothing on earth makes me happier. College football has given me moments that have held me, safe and content, through some of the most difficult moments of my life. When my mom was in a coma my sophomore year of college, I watched the 2006 Michigan-Notre Dame game so often that I can quote large sections of the color commentary. Sometimes, my anxiety makes me feel so alone and so scared and the weight of it on my chest makes it difficult to breathe. But then I watch Courtney Avery intercept Braxton Miller’s 4th down pass at the end of the 2011 game against OSU and for a moment, just for a moment, I’m free.

I don’t know if other women feel this way. I bet they do, but again, I don’t know. I don’t know why it matters to some GQ writer who doesn’t even like football. I don’t know why women aren’t allowed to like things without becoming ‘a woman who likes a thing’.

I don’t know very much of anything. Uncertainty – about myself, my life, my future – is fairly standard for me. Perhaps the only things I am certain about are about football. I know that I love Michigan football. I know that I will always love Michigan football. And for now, that’s enough.