Friday, September 05, 2014

Half a Lifetime Ago

Last week, I was thinking about my favorite Michigan football memory. It made me a little sad that the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Rose Bowl is 3+ years away, and I made a mental note to write a post on it when it comes around.  That was going to be it, but I noted that I was not quite 17 when it happened and it's been not quite 17 years since then.  A quick calculation and a new realization: A few days ago, the 1998 Rose Bowl was the exact halfway point in my lifetime.

In the fall of 1997, I was in my junior year of high school. I'd gotten my license at the beginning of the summer, and my first car:  a green '91 Explorer with a car phone and some visible rust. I spent the fall playing in the pep band and on a pretty good quiz bowl team when I wasn't doing my homework or ferrying my brother and sister all over the Detroit suburbs.

Michigan was coming off an up and down 8-4 '96 season featuring a loss to Northwestern and a win over then-#2 Ohio State. They opened the 1997 season ripping through Colorado and Baylor, outlasting Notre Dame, and then ripping through the meat of their schedule. Iowa gave them a scare, but with one game left on the schedule they were 11-0 and staring a championship season in the face.

Which meant that, once again, it all came down to The Game.  Ohio State was 10-1, their only loss to Penn State. Arizona was the only other team to keep within two touchdowns of the Buckeyes. They'd outscored their Big Ten opponents by 173 points. And this was going to be my first time watching a Michigan-Ohio State game in person.

I've been going to Michigan games since I was 3, and my dad has had a pair of season tickets since before I was born.  The first game I remember clearly is the 1989 one against Maryland, with Elvis Grbac at QB.  My first MSU game was the '92 edition, which was great because I was still angry about the 1990 one I watched on TV.  But I'd never been to an OSU game.  I’m still not sure why I got to go to the 1997 one.  Maybe my dad saw what a diehard fan I was and figured I was old enough to tough it out if it was a blizzard. Maybe my mom didn’t feel like freezing in Michigan Stadium again. Or maybe they knew I'd be applying to colleges next year and wanted to put their thumb on the scale, which would have been completely unnecessary.  Whatever the reason, I was going.

We parked east of State Street and walked through the student ghetto, where there was an electric, profane buzz in the air.  We walked past the field hockey pitch and around Crisler to our usual seats, high in the southeast corner of Michigan Stadium. It was cold, but I didn't feel it.  We were early, much earlier than usual, and were in plenty of time to watch the bands.

I'm sure you remember it, or know the story.  It was three and a half hours of brutality and fear. On the tenth drive of the day, Stanley Jackson fumbled and Michigan drove the shortened 62-yard field for their only offensive touchdown of the day.  After Woodson's epic 78-yard punt return, Michigan went into halftime up 13-0.  In the third, Stanley Jackson drove down to the Michigan 7 before Woodson intercepted him in the endzone. He threw another interception on the next drive, and Andre Weathers returned it 43 yards to push the lead to 20-0.

The rest of the game was white-knuckled hanging on for dear life. It was there for the taking. David Boston finally got loose for a 56-yard score. Don't let it go. OSU's defense gift-wrapped a touchdown after Griese was sacked and fumbled early in the 4th deep in Michigan territory. It took one play for Pepe Pearson to run in a two-yard touchdown. NO, NO, NO. The offense went into a shell, clinging to the 6-point lead. The defense rose up and crushed the Buckeyes, sacking Joe Germaine on the final drive and breaking up his desperation 4th down pass from the Buckeyes' 16.

Madness broke loose, as students emptied onto the field to be met by cops and tear gas.  High up in the bowl, we were insulated from it as Howard King requested that everyone clear the field for the title presentation. Bedlam everywhere. We huddled around with stupid grins plastered on our faces.

The Rose Bowl was brought up immediately, my dad and his college buddies asking each other who was going.  I had no expectations, but I immediately jettisoned any dignity and started begging for us to go, and I was supported by both my brother and sister.  My mom was benevolently neutral, but my dad was steadfast that we weren't going to spend that kind of money to watch Michigan go to a Rose Bowl with a national title on the line. He'd been there before, and it didn't go well.

In 1971, my dad was a sophomore at Michigan.  After Michigan beat Ohio State 10-7 to get to 11-0, he and his fraternity buddies decided to head across the country. They got student tickets and checked into to the cheapest hotel they could find, the now legendary Howard's Weekly, home to a thick cloud of weed smoke from the Jamaican guy across the hall and a thick cloud of dust from everything else.  Michigan lost a heartbreaker to Stanford, 13-12, and they headed home.

He surprised us all when he relented at the eleventh hour, just before tickets went on sale. Shockingly, he even bought into the alumni association's all-inclusive tour package and we were heading to California for almost a week.

For the only time in my life, we went to the international terminal at Metro Airport, which was shared with the chartered Northwest flight we were taking.  I was hoping for a 747, but we took a DC-10 instead, and our in-flight movie was the Travolta and Cage classic Face/Off.  We landed in the twilight and were bused to the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach where we'd be staying. 

At check-in, we learned they'd messed up our reservation and hadn't put us in adjoining rooms.  I was 16, my brother 13. We didn't care and didn't think it was important, but my parents disagreed.  The only rooms left were on the concierge floor (which they called the Executive Panache level), and it was like a paradise. Glass bottles of Coke and ginger ale, evening hors d'oeuvres. Perfect.

Over the next four days, we went all over Orange County. We took the back lot tour at Universal Studios, and took a cab ride in a yellow limousine driven by a surfer dude burnout to the Laguna Beach boardwalk.  We went to Disneyland and rode everything except the Matterhorn, which was broken, and went to the pep rally with the MMB. At the end of the day, Space Mountain was almost empty and we rode it again and again and again and again, sprinting out the exit and back to the front of the line. It was amazing.  The whole time there were other Wolverines around us.  We'd sing "The Victors" or chant "It's great to be a Michigan Wolverine" at the drop of a hat. It was completely obnoxious.

We woke up at about 4:00 AM on January 1, 1998.  We had to be that early to get on the charter bus up to Pasadena for the Tournament of Roses Parade. We parked near the Colorado Street Bridge and walked to our seats on the parade route. It was cold and clear early, as the parade got going. It was a parade, and I don't think I need to see another one. The only part I really cared about was when the MMB came through.  Then we were off, heading back to the buses to get into the stadium parking lot and the Alumni Association tent for lunch.

I think I had a hot dog and a bag of chips and we sat down to eat, listen to the speakers, and let the nervous tension build.  From the moment that the Ohio State game ended, I had been certain that I needed to go to the Rose Bowl so I could watch Michigan win their first national championship in mine or my dad's lifetime. It was completely irrational, and nothing had changed it.  But sitting at that table, just waiting, I finally had time to let the Eeyorish nature of Michigan football creep up on me, and all I wanted was for the game to begin.  The minutes dragged on and on, and finally it was time to head inside.

We watched the team and the band get off the bus, only to be trapped in a huge line trying to get into the stadium.  The more stadia I visit, the more impressed I am with the Michigan Stadium staff and design.  We were stuck waiting in the tunnels for at least half an hour, making it to our seats right around kickoff, and there was nothing left to do but watch.

Our seats were in the corner of the Washington state endzone, near the MMB on the press box side of the stadium.  We were low in the bowl, closer to a Michigan football game than I'd ever been.  The teams started the game feeling each other out. Following a Brian Griese armpunt, Washington State's drive stalled, but the Cougars downed their own punt on the one.  Michigan failed to get any breathing room, leaving WSU with great field position on the Michigan 47. The typically swarming Wolverine defensive line sacked Ryan Leaf, but then busted two rushes and a Leaf scramble, setting up 2nd and 2 from the 15. Leaf found a hole in the zone before the pass rush could get to him and took the 7-0 lead with about 3 minutes left in the quarter.

Michigan finally made it across the 50 on their next possession, but failed to flip field position on the Cougars when their punt only netted 17 yards. Leaf went to the air and the Cougars were knockin on the door again from the 14, and things were looking grim. On first down, Dhani Jones forced a blind throw that still almost hit a wide open receiver. A second down rush went nowhere.  On third, Leaf rolled to his left and fired at the back corner of the endzone.  And then, right in front of my eyes, Charles Woodson levitated, snatched the ball from mid-air, and floated back to earth. I lost my mind.

Only a few plays later, Brian Griese hit Tai Streets on a 53-yard touchdown pass to even things up at 7-7, where it remained through halftime. But shortly after, Leaf drove the Cougars a full 99 yards down the field to once again take the lead with a frustrating drive, which ended with a reverse.  James Hall immediately slashed through the line to block the PAT, which was a small favor.

Michigan's responding drive was pure vanilla; short passes and between-the-tackles rushes. Chris Howard was playing some of the manballiest manball that ever manballed. And then Tai Streets went vertical and Griese dropped a bomb right in his hands for a 58-yard touchdown. Michigan's PAT was good, and Michigan had their first lead of the day, 14-13.

Leaf tried to force his next pass as Dhani Jones was once again in his grill and William Peterson almost had a pick.  Woodson eventually stuffed a run to force a punt.  Michigan put their best drive of the day together, or at least the most Michigan.  Lots of A-Train and Chris Floyd up the gut, with quick outs to Marquise Walker and Tai Streets.  And the big play to finish it off was pure '97 Michigan:  Fake the handoff, waggle right, and hit Tuman in stride. 21-13, Michigan, with about 11:00 left in the game.  With this defense, no question the rest of the game was going to be in clock-killing mode.

But the Cougars weren't going quietly.  Leaf was under siege on almost every snap, either getting sacked or putting a ball on the numbers. He drove down to the 25, but was immediately sacked by Dhani Jones. He was forced to scramble on 3rd and a million, bringing up 4th and 15 from about the 30. Ryan Lindell stepped in and drilled it through the uprights.  21-16.

Michigan got the ball back with 7:25 left and proceeded to slowly murder it.  It was awe-inspiring and gut-churning. Washington State exhausted their timeouts as Michigan ripped over six minutes off the clock.  On 4th and 7 from the 33, the Wolverines played the Brian Griese Incredibly Surprising Pooch Punt and left the Cougars on their own 6 with 29 seconds left. Again, far too much time for anyone who'd watched the '94 Colorado game.

It was agonizing to watch Ryan Leaf go under center again.  Incomplete on his first throw.  He hung tantalizingly long in his own endzone on the next play, only to throw it away.  I screamed something about holding, because why not?  3rd and 10, and Leaf throws up a prayer headed straight for Charles Woodson.  But then Woodson crumples to the ground and Marcus Ray is leaping over him to force Nian Taylor out of bounds near midfield.  The ref swallows his flag and gives Taylor the first down. 

We're stunned, and terrified.  The national championship, a holy land that didn't seem worth dreaming about, is within our grasp at this moment and Ryan Leaf has one more opportunity to put a dagger through it.  We've got Woodson, and a defense that's answered the bell every time.  A Cougar is rolling around with an injury, letting everything build.

The ball is snapped and Ryan Leaf is flattened on a bull rush by Glen Steele, but flags are everywhere.  False start on Washington State, the game clock goes back to 9 seconds, and yet ANOTHER bite at the apple for the unkillable Ryan Leaf.  The pass is complete, but in the middle of the field, it's not a first down, and if you can just tackle him here OH GOD NO HOOK AND LATERAL. First down, but tackled in bounds. Leaf under center, and I thought he moved before the ball was whistled ready for play, and the clock rolls to zero as he spikes it.  Did they make it?  NO! THE MICHIGAN WOLVERINES HAVE WON THE ROSE BOWL AND THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP THIS IS AMAZING DON'T EVER LET THIS FEELING STOP!!!!!!!!!

I can't feel my hands, I can't hear my voice. I think I'm singing "The Victors", but I don't have any evidence to corroborate this.  There's lots of hugging and high-fiving. Everything is beautiful and I can't believe I'm actually here, in this place, at this moment, watching it all play out in front of me.  It is complete and total euphoria, and I'm lost in it.  Relief, astonishment, joy.  The band plays everything they know and then keeps playing.  I don't think they did a post-game concert; I think they just kept playing in the stands and we kept singing, wandering around our section.  It's like we've all fallen into a harmonious, slightly trippy daze.  Eventually the band calls it a night and we're herded to the buses. 

I fell asleep on the ride back to the hotel, then woke up for the post-game dinner that had been prepared for everyone.  Everyone still looked like they'd been hit on the head with a happy stick.  I talked to more total strangers than I ever had before, and I remember almost none of it.  I remember thinking "I'm so glad we won, because this would have been the most depressing meal of all time if we hadn't."  It was my only negative thought, because the world was full of good and happy people.

The next day, we were trying to sneak a look at Tennessee and Nebraska in the Orange Bowl while waiting to board our flight.  This time the movie was supposed to be Contact, one of my all-time favorites.  But someone complained; we were supposed to watch My Best Friend's Wedding on the way out instead of Face/Off, so it was substituted.  Look, if there's any time "They should've sent a poet" is appropriate, it's after the '98 Rose Bowl. Am I arguing that a 16-year-old should have been allowed to curate the in-flight movies for a bowl trip?  Yes. That's exactly what I'm saying.  When we got home, I went straight to bed and crashed for hours, living a jet-lagged existence for the next week.  But it was the best trip I've ever been on, and I still can't believe I was lucky enough to be there.