The air was, as they say, electric, as our boys took the field. On one side of the gridiron stood a strutting group of taut-muscled young men, glutted, this season, on victory; the other, because every contest must have an underdog, carrying the challenger's standard of redemption against the status quo. When the first whistle shrilled across the chilled grass they hit one another like the proverbial immovable object meeting the irresistible force, as fans in varying degrees of ridiculous costume to show their spirit draped their heroes in a roaring cloak of noise.
At first things did not look good for the favorites. The audacious challengers struck first, desecrating the storied ground of the home end zone with a touchdown and a field goal. And then the machine that had brought home the glory this year kicked into gear. Touchdowns riddled the interlopers' resolve like bullets from a semiautomatic.
The challengers rid themselves of the mantle of defeat, however, and drawing around them the heartfelt support of their outnumbered fans, closed the lead to a single touchdown.
But it was not enough.
By the end of the battle--the contest deserves a label superior to "game"--the favorites would also prove the victors, driving their rivals into the ground with a final, decisive score.
And so one team left the field to continue their quest for the crystal trophy. And the other boarded the buses that would take them back home, where the home crowd would welcome them and begin the preparations for next year. In a conflict as long as this one--as long, now, as the war waged between the medeival British forces against the French in the years surrounding the Black Plague--the contention is never over.
No, I'm not talking about the Patriots, though they are normally my obsessive, even rabid, focus whenever I discuss the peculiar American pastime of controlled violence otherwise known as football (and, it should be noted, their exhausting win in overtime against the Houston Texans today is worthy of discussion). I'm talking about the football rivalry the phrase was coined for: Ohio State vs. Michigan.
According to An Ohio State Univeristy Library Webpage,
The Ohio State University/University of Michigan rivalry in football began with their first game in 1897. UM won that game 34 to 0 and dominated the series until 1919. That year the tables were turned and the Buckeyes won 13 to 3.
The Ohio State/Michigan game has always been important, but it was not always the last game of the season. This practice began in 1935 and, except for one year, the tradition has continued. Often the game has determined who is the winner of the Big Ten and who will represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. An ESPN poll rated the rivalry as the greatest of all time.
I've only glimpsed a sliver of this history, in the three years my sister has attended the pre-veterinary program at Ohio State. I've never been to a game, although my parents have; my mother has new superlatives to use to describe the experience every time she comes back. Coming from a woman who tends to put on football in the background while she irons shirts, it's quite a testimonial.
And she's never been to the Ohio State - Michigan game.
My father, whose experience in the world of sports fandom is broad and deep indeed, says he has never been in an atmosphere as gripping as an Ohio State football game.
And he's never been to the Ohio State - Michigan game.
This year, first and foremost in everyone's mind was how, just last year, the Wolverines were little more than a speed bump under the juggernaut that was the National Champion Ohio State team; just one more "W" on a 17-0 schedule. This year, however, the Buckeyes fell on Oct. 11 to the University of Wisconsin. Meanwhile, their rivals to the North had succumbed to both Iowa and Oregon, but were still judged to be having a better season--more of their games had been blowouts, and they had developed a definite swagger.
This is what makes a football rivalry--this simple fact alone: Ohio State had just one loss this season, but a Michigan victory would make their records match at 10-2 and send Michigan on to the Rose Bowl. Michigan could hardly pass up such an opportunity; Ohio State would have to be deluded, somehow, to let Michigan escape with their hopes for a repeat title.
So on Saturday, November 23, 2003, precisely forty years after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, a few hundred miles North and East of Dealey Plaza all anyone could remember was that thirty years before, the two had battled to a frustrating 10-10 tie; that four years before that Michigan had upset a heavily favored Ohio State 24-12; that more than one hundred years ago Michigan had introduced itself to Ohio State with a 34-0 blowout against the Buckeyes.
One hundred years. Let's put this in perspective: the last actual military conflict to last for one hundred years began in 1328 A.D. and ended in 1565. The World Wars combined, by contrast, lasted just ten years. The Vietnam War also spanned just a decade. Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the West Indies Federation, the Mali Federation, the Soviet Union, the United Arab Republic, the United Provinces of Central America, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Germany, among others, have fallen apart (and in Germany's case, put back together again) since 1897. And, among others, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Jamaica, Senegal, Mali, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been created.
In other words: 100 years is a very long time. It's a very long time to exist, even as a sovereign nation. It's a very long time to fight a war. It's a very long time to live as an individual human being. And it is an truly unfathomably long time to play football.
It is just as long, in fact, to play baseball, and only one rivalry in any other sport compares, of course: the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Which leads me to the other notable event of Saturday's football game for me: As I sat cheering on the Buckeyes, the ABC camera crew combed the audience for celebrities attending the game. They found a few, and interviewed each briefly. An alumnus here, a captain of industry there, and then, to my horror, two familiar figures, each bedecked--drenched might be more accurate-- in the blue and gold of Michigan, the Enemy, appeared on my screen.
One, weak-chinned, with a Gomer-Pyle air about him. One, dark-skinned yet light-eyed, a familiar face to anyone who's watched ESPN in the last ten years for more than five minutes. In case you need more clues, you're more used to seeing the first in catchers' pads behind home plate, and the other leaping into the air between second and third base. By now, you should know who I'm talking about:
Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter.
In Michigan gear.
Cheering on the Wolverines. The Enemy.
Suddenly it was a little more understandable how some rivalries refuse to fade away.