Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ghosts of November.

Football season has officially started for me.

The release of EA's NCAA Football video game always revs things into football mode in my mind, which is unfair, because the boys of summer are in full swing, and the Tigers are contenders. But college football is always king for me, no matter what. Michigan Wolverines football is as close to religion as a stubborn agnostic like me can come to.

These early morning hours are always time for me to reflect and muse to myself about sweet nothings, and with football on my mind, of course my mind thinks of the Maize and Blue.

Currently though, the thoughts are not pleasant, uplifting ones. Anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest Lloyd Carr fan in the world, and the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day did nothing to help those feelings, as LC and Mike DeBord failed to adjust once again, and once again the new year started with my beloved Wolverine warriors getting plowed in sunny southern California.

But that's not even what's on my mind now. What's on my mind right now are two days in the middle of November of 2006, specifically November 17th and 18th.

I awoke on Friday, November 17th with much on my mind. The annual battle between Michigan and Ohio State was only a day away, but this time in the form of Football Armageddon; no game these two blood rivals could play would ever mean more. Ohio State, 11-0, ranked #1 in the country; Michigan, 11-0, ranked #2. To the winner would go a spot in the National Championship Game; to the loser, a defeat that could never be lived down. A defeat that would be told to kin throughout generations.

On a much smaller scale, my own personal world was in a sense being turned upside down. I had spent most of the past 24 hours cleaning out a dozen years of mess and clutter in my room, paving the way for a brand new layout, punctuated by a brand new bed. I was up earlier than usual, around 11 AM. That was unusual at the time because it was a Friday, and I don't have classes on Friday, so I sleep the day away. But not today. Today I awoke and surveyed the floor of my room, which was hardly visible. A dozen large garbage bags painted the floor, each filled to the brim, either with actual refuse or magazines, newspapers, etc. to be hauled upstairs to storage. Once that was done, my old, creaky bed was removed, leaving only my computer desk and dresser behind. There was a noticeable echo - the room I had spent my entire life in was empty now. Little did I know, very soon, my heart would be empty as well.

Around 11:30, maybe 11:45, I first heard the news about Bo. He was in the hospital again with heart trouble. I was only mildly alarmed. He had suffered from heart trouble since the '70s, no biggie...but still, the day before the biggest UM-OSU game of all time? A faint dread shivered through me as I stood in my empty room. Not now, Bo. Not now.

The dread passed, however. I had work to do. I had to wash the floor of my room; a layer of filth and dust remained where my bed once was, and it had to be scrubbed before I could move my dresser, which was required to make space for the new bed. So I spent time hauling all those garbage bags out, preparing to give the floor some good ol' elbow grease, and I was just about done. And then my phone rang. The time was 12:14. I looked at the display: "Mom work". Typical, Mom heard about Bo being in the hospital and called to tell me, I thought. When it comes to sports, rarely, if ever, does my mom get a scoop before I do. I flipped my phone open and gave my usual bland "hello" greeting.

A pause on the other end.

"...Bo Schembechler died."

I opened my mouth to speak...but words were suddenly foreign. How do you respond to something like that?

"W-what?" That's what I stammered. I bolted from my room and struggled to get around my MASSIVE new mattress to turn on the TV. And there it was: "Bo Schembechler dead".

The world crumbled around me. I clutched the mattress, afraid that if I released it, I would fall into a black hole, afraid that I would vanish forever.


It is ridiculously out of character for me to cry. It's not some macho guy thing, it's just me. Rarely am I moved enough by something to actually shed tears. But in this case, it felt like someone had poked me with a live wire. I spoke briefly on the phone with my mom before hanging up, and I felt my eyes glaze over.

And then I heard my dad come upstairs.

I tried to compose myself. It became clear to me that he didn't know yet, and that's when I lost it. I had to break the news to him. I had to tell him the man he grew up watching, admiring, idolizing...I had to tell him that that man was gone.

"...Are you okay?" my dad quickly noticed I was disturbed.

"...Bo died," my voice shattered into oblivion midway through the second word. The pained expression that materialized on his face haunts me to this day, and the floodgates opened. Like a 5-year old, I wept. I sobbed without shame, all because a man I never met, a man I never saw in person, was gone.

An outsider could never understand. Well, that's not entirely true. Alabama fans have the Bear. Ohio State fans have Woody. Notre Dame fans have Rockne. And Michigan fans have Bo. Glenn "Bo" Schembechler, the coach of the Michigan football team from 1969-1989. Bo coached with a passion that few can ever rival. He became the persona, the patron saint, of Michigan football. And it's ironic that he came to Michigan...from Ohio State. He and his mentor (and friend), Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, laid the foundations for the Michigan - Ohio State rivalry, with their legendary "Ten Year War" from 1969-1978, beginning in '69, when the new guy Schembechler stunned the nation by beating Woody's thought-to-be invincible Buckeyes 24-12 in Ann Arbor. All the moments in the Michigan-Ohio State saga - Desmond's immortal pose in 1991, the upset Michigan wins in 1995 and 1996 that ruined perfect seasons for OSU, the showdown in 1997 where #1 Michigan fought off the Buckeyes 20-14, OSU's resurgence in 2002 in which they preserved their own perfect season with a 14-9 win over Michigan, the 100th matchup between the rivals in 2003 - all of that was made possible by the legendary struggle Bo and Woody fought in the 1970s.

And now, a day before the ultimate culmination of "The Game", an epic #1 vs. #2 showdown, the last living founder of the rivalry (Woody passed away in 1987), had succumbed to the tentacles of old age. The man who had reached immortal status in Michigan, the man who was omnipresent...was gone forever.

I mustered up the strength to call a friend - ironically, a Michigan STATE student - and left a tearful voicemail telling him what had happened. He was nothing but gracious and heartfelt with his sympathies, and for that I cannot thank him enough. For the rest of the day, I carried dark clouds around with me. I cleaned the floor of my room, and after watching and listening to a day's worth of tributes and memories of Bo, the first thing I did in my new bed was collapse on it in another fit of sobbing. Nothing could be more unfair than losing the ultimate Michigan Man the day before the ultimate Michigan Game.

During the day my mind also turned to Lloyd Carr, the man I had scorned for so long. After the magical 12-0 1997 season, Lloyd Carr's tenure at Michigan had been marked by underachieving, constantly losing games that his teams shouldn't lose. Over that time I had become convinced that for Michigan to achieve ultimate nirvana again, Lloyd would have to step aside, taking his old-school style with him. You see, Lloyd was Bo's confidant, and one of his best friends. Lloyd was (and is) like Bo in so many ways - always run the ball, always play great defense, and always do it the classy way. And yet, in this twisted world, all of those attributes that Bo was lauded and celebrated for, Lloyd has been scorned for. He has been denounced as a murky old curmudgeon, whose style is outdated and ancient, and his grumpy old man demeanor does nothing to improve his image.

And now here was Lloyd Carr, already with the world on his shoulders preparing to trot out his Maize and Blue warriors into the most hostile of snakepits, seeking ultimate vindication in the court of public opinion...and he loses his best friend, the man who had always been there for him. At the time, I believed Bo's death would inspire the entire Michigan team, players and coaches alike, and they would take it from the Buckeyes. Looking back on it now, I am so goddamn proud of every single one of them. They lost the game, 42-39, but they never said die. When Ohio State threatened to blow them out, they never said die.

The lasting image from that sorrowful game came late in the 4th quarter. I believe it was right after Michigan scored their final touchdown of the game. ABC's camera went to Lloyd, and with the backdrop of the Ohio dusk and the nightlights in the stadium, the staunch, stiff upper lip, always scowling Lloyd Carr, pumped his fists and let out a yell of celebration, a grin I didn't know he had in him shining on his face. I have searched in vain for a screenshot, a picture of it somewhere on the Web, but to no avail.

It was, as previously stated, too little, too late. But after years of ridicule and 24 hours after losing Bo, Lloyd found the strength to ignite fire under his troops, and somehow he found a way to laugh and smile while doing it...and for that, I have nothing but love and respect for Lloyd Carr. I will be critical of him again, I'm sure. He'll make some coaching decisions that drive me nuts, but in the end, I see the big picture. And when the day comes that Lloyd joins Bo in Michigan Football Heaven, I will weep, just as I wept the day Bo died.

This upcoming season could very well be the last one that Lloyd Carr spends patrolling the Michigan sidelines. And if it is, I hope and pray that he goes out with a bang. The bar is always high at Michigan, and there are legit talks of a national title this upcoming campaign. If such lofty goals are not obtained, Lloyd will be decried as a failure. They'll say the game has passed him by. They'll say his departure is long overdue.

After all he's been through, and after all the hell I've given him when watching his team, and now, as the tears have dried on my keyboard, at the end of the year, whether it be a 13-0 year, 11-2, 9-4, or whatever, I know what I will say.

"Bo would be proud, Lloyd. Bo would be proud."

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