Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame.

Greg Matthews celebrates after scoring the game-winning touchdown in Michigan's upset win over Notre Dame.

Last week, I was fortunate enough to score tickets to the showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan in Ann Arbor at the Big House. I have seen a handful of games there before, but none of them had the magintude or scope of this one. Both programs were in desperate need of a signature win. On one hand, Michigan was coming off its worst season ever and an offseason full of questions and scandal, whereas Notre Dame was looking to live up to expectations after several years of top-10 recruing classes fielded a team of talented and experienced players.

The stage was set for a slug-fest of epic proportions, and the weather was forecasted to be a beautiful, sunny day in A2.

The drive from Chicago to Ann Arbor is a long one, and it was made even more ardous due to the stressful night that preceded it. After compiling a hefty happy hour bar tab at one of our local watering holes, my brother’s wife fractured her ankle later in the evening while eating risotto and dancing in the kitchen. At first thought, it looked to be nothing more than a bad sprain, but as it neared midnight, it became evident that it was something more serious. The decision was made to take Megan to the hospital to get it looked at by a trained medical doctor, rather than by the group of inebriated amateurs at the house. With that being said, my brother’s maiden voyage to Michigan Stadium was all but kuput, as leaving his wife at home by herself the night after an emergency room trip was probably not in anyone’s best interest. His duties as a husbanded superseded his love of Michigan football.

And rightfully so. For sick or poorer, for good times and bad…

In stepped my brother’s best friend, Steve-O, to scoop up the extra ticket. He called in a favor to his boss to get the day off, a mere seven hours before we were set to hit the road for the trip to Michigan. After only a handful of hours of stressed sleep time, the two of us piled into my 2003 Mitsubishi Galant, a car not suited for long hauls on the road due to lack of cruise control. As we pulled onto I-94, both Steve-O and I half-joked that we were glad there was no cruise control, because any more creature comforts in the car might put us back to sleep. At least this way, I couldn’t take a second off of paying close attention to how I was driving, hence keeping me awake. Although both of us were a bit hungover and could have used a few more hours of rest, we were both very amped and antsy during the four-plus hour drive and neither of us could hardly sit still nor wait to arrive at our destination.

We pulled into Ann Arbor at about 1:30 p.m., roughly two hours before kickoff. We found some decent parking on a Michigan fan’s lawn for a mere 15 dollars, and trekked about a mile to the stadium. As we neared the intersection of Stadium and Main, the throngs of Maize-and-Blue clad tailgaters grew thicker and thicker, each group more boisterous than the next. Michigan flags flew everywhere, shouts of “Go Blue, Wear Maize” were overheard, and the smell of beer and sausage wafted through the air.

There is nothing like college football tailgating.

After milling about and navigating through the meandering crowds outside of the stadium, we decided to enter through the gates and onto the hallowed grounds of the nation’s largest stadium. We located an M Go Blue shop soon after and each purchased a Maize shirt, unwittingly becoming a part of a larger effort to turn the whole Big House into one enormous MaizeOut. From the outside, Michigan Stadium is not an opposing structure. It only stands a few stories high, but holds over 110,000 fans on a given game day. The reason for this is nearly the entire stadium is sunk into the ground, like a giant crater surrounded by benches. And until recently, that’s all there was – benches. Now, towering on each side of the Big House are brand new private suites that not only give off an imposing image, but help trap the crowd noise in and create a more hostile environment for opposing teams.

We quickly found our seats in section 8, about 80 rows up from the field. While they were basically in the nosebleeds, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house and we actually had a pretty decent vantage point for all the action. The stadium was nearly empty, what with it being over an hour till kickoff. The special teams players were on the field warming up, and both bands were taking their respective places. I called my friend, Chris Larson, to see where he was at.¬† I had learned earlier in the week that he would be working the sidelines for ABC driving one of the cable cart. Basically, he was getting paid 25 bucks an hour to watch the game from the Michigan bench, as he put it. Sounds like a dream job to me. He had hoped to get us down on the field to watch warmups, but it was not to be. He came up to say hello anyway. It had been probably four years since I had seen him, and it was good to share a laugh with him again.

We sat in our seats and watched the stadium gradually fill it up. One by one, thousand by thousands. On game day, the Big House becomes the third largest city in the state of Michigan. The last group of fans to make their way to their seats was the Michigan student section, which ended up taking up almost a quarter of the stadium. Decked to the nines in Maize, they were loud and boisterous and set the mood and tone for the game to follow. Our section was kitty corner from them, and was a liberal mix of Michigan and ND fans, old and young.  Sitting directly in front of us was a group of four Notre Dame student. They were your basic South Bend dorks but they were friendly and taking our trash talk rather well, and they dished it out back to us too. It became apparent this was going to be a fun game for the both of us.

The Irish took the field to a smattering of boos, and then the home team ran through the tunnel and under the “Go Blue M Club Supports¬† You!” banner to the standing ovation. Kickoff was near, and the atmosphere in the stadium was electrifying. Michigan won the coin toss and opted to defer, and the crowd let out a deafening roar as the ball was kicked off.

As any college football fan knows, the game that followed was a back-and-forth affair that featured momentum swings, big plays and two of the most hyped quarterbacks in the nation. Notre Dame boasted Jimmy Clausen, a junior who came into Notre Dame as a five star quarterback with an NFL-ready arm who had yet to live up to huge expectations that came with his arrival. On the other hand, Michigan fielded true freshman Tate Forcier, who shouldered the burden of running the spread option and leading the Wolverines out of last season’s miserable funk.

The Wolverines led early 14-3 after an amazing 94-yard kickoff return by Martavious Odoms. The crowd was at a fever pitch, and even though the high-octane Notre Dame offense was moving the ball, the Wolverines defense held its own. The PA announcer recited the final score from East Lansing, “Central Michigan 29, Michigan State 27,” and the crowd cheered with delight. It looked to be a great day to be a Wolverine.

But Notre Dame answered and the momentum shifted quite quickly, and the Irish led 20-14 at halftime. It could have been much worse, but holding penalties relegated ND to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns. The Irish fans around us were chirping loudly now, and the hopes of an upset looked more and more like a long shot. Notre Dame had almost double the total yards as Michigan, and other than the special teams play, the Wolverines were being outworked, outmanned and out played. Somewhere in the distance, crazy-ass Lou Holtz was smiling. Someone made note that Matt Millen, the George Bush of NFL general managers that submarined the woeful Lions franchise over the past half-decade, was commentating the game for ABC. Maybe his presence back in the state of Michigan was putting a jinx on this Wolverines squad.

The second half opened with Michigan marching down and scoring on a Forcier touchdown pass to tight end Kevin Koger. It looked like the Wolverines still had plenty of fight in them as they clawed back into it, and you could sense the momentum shift again. After the ND offense stalled again, Michigan was driving, but faced a 4th-and-1 from midfield early in the fourth quarter. Forcier took the snap, held his ground in the pocket, shifted right to elude an Irish defender, than broke through the line and scampered to the endzone right in front us. Bedlam ensued. The crowd was so loud that it drowned out the band as they played “The Victors”.

31-20 Michigan, 14:16 left in the game.

The fourth quarter provided so much excitement, I could barely stand it. Michigan held an 11-point lead, but Clausen and the Irish stormed back to draw within four points on a 21-yard touchdown pass to Golden Tate, who showed the ball to the Wolverines defense to rub it in. Irish fans (and their coach) bellyached after the game that Michigan got all the calls in their favor, but here was one of several instances were the Irish did not draw a flag on a blatant offense. Michigan was still in the lead and the fans still felt good about the situation, but Forcier committed one of his only mistakes on the ensuing drive and threw an ill-advised pass into the arms of an Irish defender. Notre Dame took over in Michigan territory and the apprehension was felt throughout the stadium. Minutes later, the Irish punched it in on a touchdown run by Armando Allen, and just like that, Notre Dame led. The Irish faithful were jubilant, and their cheers echoed over the somber and silent 100,000 Michigan faithful. Besides the chants from the ND fans, you could hear a pin drop in the Big House. As suddenly as we felt an upset brewing, the air was let out of the stadium like a deflated birthday balloon.

Michigan’s next drive ended in a three-and-out and the Irish took over with just over two minutes left deep into Michigan territory. And here is were the game turned. Instead of running the ball to wind the clock down and make the Wolverines burn their timeouts, the Irish decided to throw on first and second down, both attempts failing to acheive their goal of just a single first down. Notre Dame was forced to punt, and Michigan received one more chance to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

Michigan moved the ball with relative ease, and Forcier overthrew a wide open receiver on the right side side of the field on second down. If the receiver hauls it in, its a touchdown. Game over. See ya. But the ball goes just over his head and falls out of bounds incomplete. The Wolverine drive resumes though, as Forcier brushes it off, and leads Michigan to a first and goal inside the Notre Dame ten-yard line. A field goal ties, a touchdown wins. I am so nervous, I can barely watch. Only seconds remain on the clock, yet it seems like an eternity.

On first down, Forcier finds another wide-open reciever in the end zone, but LaTerryal Savoy drops the pass, the ball fumbled around his hands on onto the turf. A collective yelp from the fans, all on edge, followed by groans of exasperation. 15 seconds left, second down. Savoy blew it, and he knows it. He is instantly pulled to the side lines. The Wolverines run the exact same play and Forcier’s toss finds Greg Matthews in the exact same position.

Except this time, the result is different.

TOUCHDOWN MICHIGAN!!!!

The stadium erupts in a deafening cheer. Strangers are hugging, high-fives are being dealt out like playing cards in Vegas. I am jumping up and down so vigorously that both my camera and my cell phone fall out of my pockets. The sheer delight is beyond words. 38-34 Michigan. Upset is only seconds away. After the ensuing kickoff goes out of the back of the end zone, Notre Dame’s last gasp at the equalizer falls considerably short and the clock strikes zero. The Michigan bench rushes the field and the celebration begins. The dejected Irish trudge off the field, their fans make their way towards the exits with their heads down.

“Bye, thanks for coming!”…”Have a nice drive back to South Bend!”, I say to the Notre Dame faithful. In front of us, the Irish students sit, stunned, heads held in hands. We shake hands, a classy move from both sides. The Michigan team sprints over to the student section and begins a rousing rendition of “The Victors”. The game has been over for 15 minutes, yet no one in Maize and Blue wants to leave yet. Everyone wants to savor the moment. This might be the most important home win for the program since the 2003 victory over Ohio State that sealed the last outright Big Ten title for Michigan. And its another giant step for Michigan’s return to national relevance.

After soaking up the good vibes for a few more minutes, I race down closer to the field to take one final picture of the scoreboard. An ear-to-ear grin stretches across my face as we leave the Big House. Chants and cheers surround us, and I almost feel bad for the remaing Notre Dame fans as the exit the stadium grounds.

Almost.

The game could not have gone any better. I got to see a Michigan game, I got to see them play a nationally-ranked arch-rival, it was a great game all the way around, and it ended with a last-second victory for the good guys.

Needless to say, the drive home seemed a lot easier than the drive there.

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Big Ern

September 5, 2009

Ernie Harwell: A living legend

Ernie Harwell: A living legend

When one thinks of Detroit Tigers baseball, one name always comes to mind.

Ernie Harwell.

Sad news came out of Motown today about reports of the 91-year old former broadcaster being diagnosed with an incurable cancer. He was the voice of the Tigers for over four decades, and was a well-known man in the community as well. Some of my earliest and fondest sports memories have his imprints all over them. I can remember one early evening in 1990 listening to Harwell call the game when Cecil Fielder broke the 50-homerun barrier. I was grounded to my room for some surely absurd reason, so I sat there listening to the game while playing with Legos. I can recall the moment when Fielder hit the towering shot to propel him into MLB stardom that day, and Ernie was there for the call…it was before the luster of the long ball was tarnished by the Steroid Era, and it was the first time a slugger hit over 50 home runs in 17 years.

He symbolized everything that was right with the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan. He was warm, endearing, a man with a wealth of knowledge that would just assume to recant with a total stranger about the heydays of the majors as he would want to talk about local news. He was famous for naming the “small town” from which a player was from, a testament to his love for the man from a small town. His smile could light up a room, and his knowledge for the history and the intimacies of the game were second to none.

I know I come off as a guy that knew a lot about Ernie, which is not the case. But this is a tribute to a living legend in Tiger lore, and that’s the most important thing. Before his time on this earth is up, he plans on finishing his fourth book since his retirement. Here’s to hoping he accomplishes that goal before the end.

At 91, he’s lived a life that only most people can dream. And he knows this all to well. In a interview with the Detroit Free Press, Harwell stated: “It could be a year, it could be much less than a year, much less than half a year. Who knows? Whatever’s in store, I’m ready for a new adventure. That’s the way I look at it.”

And to his fans and his followers: “I’d like to thank them for their loyalty and support over the years. And their affection, which I don’t know whether I deserve or not, but I accept it.”

Pure class and humility from a living legend and a man that casts his long shadow over the entire sports world over.

To read his inception speech from his Hall of Fame induction, click on the link below

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/hof/Ernie_Harwell_HOF_Induction.shtml

Tim Hiller looks to shock the world and the Wolverines this Saturday in Ann Arbor

Tim Hiller and Western Michigan look to upset the Wolverines this Saturday

Rarely does a sports fan have a conflict of interest in a singular game. Everyone has their favorite team that they root for with a diehard vengeance. A team, where if they lose on a given day, it will crush your spirit, ruin your day and make you punch a wall or kick the dog…Relax, I’d never do the latter, but the other three? Guilty as charged.

It’s no secret my love for the Maize and Blue. I grew up a Michigan fan since the day I can remember. Saturdays in the Fall you won’t find me anywhere but planted on a couch or a bar stool watching my beloved Wolverines take the field in hopes of acheiving eternal greatness, or at least pulling out a big win.

But, as most of you know, I did not attend the university. I applied to two schools – Michigan and Western Michigan. There was no other choice. Like I was going to go to school in East Lansing. Please…

Option A, or Option B.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite smart enough and not nearly wealthy enough for the tastes of Ann Arbor. It was a tough day for me when I received that letter of denial, but I carried on and attended WMU. Kalamazoo treated me just fine and I enjoyed my time there and believe that I acquired myself a a pretty decent education. And while enrolled at Kalamazoo, I became a pretty big fan of Bronco athletics as well. But it never trumped my love for the Wolverines. I followed both closely, and could spout of facts, history and rhetoric about both athletic programs (well, mostly football and basketball, those are really the only college sports that count.) Let’s face it though. Michigan is just that much more of a premier program and even though WMU has a special place in my heart, I will always be a Wolverine first.

Which brings me to the reason I am writing tonight. Who do I cheer for this weekend in the matchup between the Wolverines and the Broncos at the Big House? I have been to a couple games there before between the two schools. I sat in the WMU student section, sang the fight song, cheered with my fellow students and had a great time. But when Michigan ended up on the winning side of things, I was of course cheerful on the inside. Both times I attended, the Wolverines were a preseason top-10 team with Big Ten title aspirations and a great chance of making noise in the national picture. A loss to Western would have erased all those hopes. It would have been a great win for the Broncos if things had gone differently, but in the grand scheme of things, it would not have mattered all that much as the season progressed.

This weekend presents a different angle on the whole quandry. Michigan’s season starts off with more questions than answers. No one expects them to do too well this year, and just qualifying for a bowl game with six victories seems like a daunting task right now. It’s totally possible, but then again, it’s also not. A win for the Wolverines is expected and will give them a boost of confidence that is sorely needed for a team whose locker room is as divided as its fan base. But what about the Broncos? Some preseason publications have them ranked HIGER than their opening-weekend opponent. When was the last time that happened? My hunch, without doing any research, is never.

Never ever.

So the question is: Is this game bigger for U of M or WMU? In past seasons, Western has beaten Iowa, Purdue and Illinois all away from the friendly confines of Waldo. A road win against the (once) mighty Wolverines would be the biggest win in program history bar none. It can be done. The Broncos are led by one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Tim Hiller, who isn’t as heralded as some other signal-callers across the country but is just as talented. He and his recieving corp will test a shaky Michigan secondary early. If they jump on the Wolverines early, watch out! WMU may be an underdog, but I like their chances of pulling off the upset.

I just don’t like the fact that I do like their chances, if that makes sense.

Saturday should be an interesting afternoon for both teams, both schools and both fan bases. And for one fan in general, a real conflict of interest.

Prediction: Michigan 31, Western Michigan 27