The Enemy Of My M-emy

As the college football season begins, one fan reflects on the always bitter Michigan vs. Michigan St. rivalry.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here: Michigan losing to Appalachian State in 2007 was probably one of the top five greatest things I’ve ever experienced. The birth of my son, my wedding, bacon-wrapped scallops, sex, and Appalachian State beating Michigan. That’s it. That’s the list.

In early February of that same year, mere hours after breaking up with my longtime girlfriend, I had boarded a bus in Amherst bound for Detroit. I needed to go home and I didn’t know why. Five months later, I’d finally figure it out.

Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Spartan, born and raised in the Mitten State. My dad went to Michigan State, half my high school friends went there, and if it weren’t for a fortuitous New Hampshire-themed U-Haul that pulled up beside me at a stoplight the summer after my junior year, I’d probably be starting my 14th year as an undergrad as we speak. Major: Communications. Minor: Bowling.

So when I speak about U of M [1], understand it comes from a place of earnest familiarity. And a loathing so deeply embedded that the mere thought of Mike Hart makes my ass clench with rage.

Michigan running back Mike Hart outruns the Michigan State defense for a 37-yard gain in the first quarter of an NCAA football game in East Lansing, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The simplest metaphor for Michigan’s and Michigan State’s relationship is the college football equivalent of England and Scotland. Basically, the former considers the latter a wild, Philistine wasteland of dumb, drunken savages — the staging ground of a handful of minimally disruptive invasions over thousands of years of otherwise docile, God-ordained domination. The kind of people who would react to winning by flipping over cars and fucking one another astride couches engulfed in gasoline fires.

Spartans fans, on the other hand, see in their blue-blooded enemies an arrogant sense of entitlement rooted in … nothing. Literally nothing. England had “divine right;” Michigan has the supposed pride wrought from approximately 400 of their 912 all-time wins coming at the expense of such prestigious foes as St. Apollonia School of Dentistry, The Oshkosh Institute of Agriculture & Bavarian Beverage Making, Obediah Dunckenspuler Wagon Axel Repair University, Central Allegheny College for Indians Who Don’t Play Football, and Purdue.

This infographic pretty much says it all:

My first, genuine memory of the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry was in 1990, the year an unranked MSU toppled the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, 28–27. I was seven at the time, and knew so little about sports that I openly wept upon finding out my dad’s Spartans were down, only to be told that a score was, in fact, worth six points. Possibly seven.

From there on out, I treated every MSU-UM showdown — typically in October, when the leaves and setting suns both turned the color of blood — as a personal holy war. I wasn’t alone, either. It seemed every classmate, from the sports-obsessed to the sports-agnostic, had a dog in the fight. Friends who days earlier were eating Swanson’s Salisbury steaks at my dinner table suddenly struck me, in their Tyrone Wheatley jerseys, as Hell-sent Satans in stained sweatpants.

Even non-rivalry games could, on occasion, summon the stuff of orgasmic schadenfreude. When Colorado’s Kordell Stewart launched a last-second 64-yard Jesus missile to beat Michigan at the Big House in 1994, the ball ricocheting off 17 different hands before landing like the feather of some golden griffin in the waiting arms of Michael Westbrook, the faces of my Wolverine friends were so red and raw from crying I honestly thought they’d microwaved their own heads, just to kill the pain. I spent half my day at school the following Monday dodging people slipping and falling on pools of their own tears like those kids from the milk jug pranks. Then I’d offer them one of those fake hands that detaches from the sleeve and they’d fall again and keep crying.

As the years wore on, losses mounting faster than wins, the banter became both more informed and more incisive. The campus exploits of MSU legends Jeff Smoker and T.J. Duckett (ask me sometime) were invoked as reflective of Michigan State’s general population: dumb, drug-addled and destined for careers as Meijer baggers and bank tellers. Meanwhile, “Wal-Mart Wolverines” became a go-to swipe for Spartans fans adamant that one must actually be accepted to a particular university in order to root for its football team.

Michigan State quarterback Jeff Smoker (9) celebrates as he leaves the field following a 27–21 win over Notre Dame Saturday, Sept. 23, 2000, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. Smoker, filling in for the injured starter Ryan Van Dyke, threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to win the game. (AP Photo/Werner Slocum)

Somewhere along the line, Michigan State dropped two straight games to Central Michigan. For those of you who don’t know, Central Michigan is a school located in Mt. Pleasant, a town still waiting for deliveries from the Pony Express and where the only source of electricity and running water is a giant casino. For years afterward, all we’d hear before any MSU-UM showdown was how the Chips had taken us to the woodshed.

“Oh, little brother,” they seemed to say, inflection a patronizing pat on the head. “It’s alright. You’ll probably beat Indiana.”

After a while, a fandom switch was flipped, such that I cared far less about the actual outcome of our supposed rivalry [2] than I did another, seemingly ancillary concern: Michigan suffering an embarrassment so impossibly enormous that no semi-innocent bystander would be immune to the fallout.

As the years wore on and the Wolverines rattled off Civil War win after Civil War win, my faith in their failure waned. Despite Michigan’s seemingly perpetual preseason No. 5 rankings and subsequent 7–5 finishes, I just couldn’t shake the sense that, when the Great Scorer came to write against this rivalry’s name, my Spartans would triumph neither in wins nor in how they played the game.

And then, out of nowhere amidst a nihilistic nostalgia-tinged sojourn, the pieces fell into place: a panicked Peter Pan bus ride West, outdated bistro fare in a basement Ann Arbor restaurant, a game-day feed that was supposed to cut away to a more competitive game, and a euphoria one isn’t supposed to feel at a fellow man’s failure. But feel it I did.

It was September 1, 2007, and I was working one of my last shifts at Ann Arbor’s Metro Café before heading back to begin my New Hampshire life anew. It was an atypically slow Saturday, which — coupled with giving zero fucks at all about my future employment — meant I could watch the chaos blossoming before me with undistracted eyes.

Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards dives over Michigan linebacker John Thompson (49) and cornerback Brandon Harrison during the second quarter of a college football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2007 in Ann Arbor, Mich. Appalachian State upset No. 5 Michigan 34–32. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

I have no idea where Armanti Edwards is now. Quite frankly, I don’t want to know. Because the lasting memory I have of the scrambling App State slinger needn’t be rooted out by reality. It’s the image of a quarterback so sneaky and slippery and crafty in his instincts that Rich Rodriguez — “The Weeping Wizard of Washtenaw” [3]— wound up recruiting the Armanti-Edwards-on-whale-steroids, Denard Robinson. On that day, Edwards turned the Wolverine secondary into a gridiron version of a particle collider: random atoms smashing into one another with no regard for time, space, or self. There’ve been 10th-century brain surgeries that were more humane.

With no timeouts and a scant 1:37 left in the fourth, Edwards marched the Mountaineers 69 yards down the field, leading to a 24-yard field goal to put App State ahead 34–32. Moments later, a 46-yard haymaker from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham had the Wolverines — playing in “The Big House,”[4] mind you — within a 37-yard chipper of a face-saving win.

Only Jason Gingell’s boot was blocked, securing ASU’s all-time stunner and immediately sending Wolverine faithful everywhere into a full-on Raiders of the Lost Ark skull melt from which both the brand and the fans have yet to recover.

Me? You could say I relished it.[5]

On August 30, 2014, the University of Michigan Wolverines — playing in front of a capacity crowd of 109,901 Dockers models — plastered Appalachian State 52–14. For millions of Michigan fans the globe over, the sense of relief … well, it must’ve been special. I think the Ann Arbor Patch had something about some students setting off sparklers. Pretty rowdy.

Just a jaunt down the way, Michigan State squeaked by the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, 45–7. It was, by all accounts, a convincing opening-day win following one of the most successful seasons in the program’s helter-skelter history. And yet, when all was said and done, I felt numb — numb that my own team’s triumph will never wield the weight of watching my enemies whither and wail.

Maybe that’ll all change someday, when I’m all grown up and well beyond winning by way of someone else’s loss. Maybe I take this stuff too seriously. Maybe I’ll learn to just enjoy the game free of fury and bitter feelings. Some day. [6]