THREE RIVERS, Mich. — “We didn’t forget your sign!”
This friendly assurance from Maddy, my favorite bartender at Rooster’s Wing Shack — the best bar in this town, in case you’re wondering — was a reference not to astrology (I doubt Maddy knows, or cares, that I’m a Pisces) but to a Bud Light promotional poster.
I was glad she remembered. A month ago, while stepping outside the bar for some fresh air while our beloved University of Michigan football team trounced an in-state opponent on the TVs inside, my wife and I noticed a beautiful large Bud Light sign that featured the Wolverines 2022 regular season schedule as well as a special dedication (“For the fans!”) emblazoned across the top. When we went back inside, I asked Maddy, whose parents own the place, whether I could have the sign as a souvenir after — note that I did not say “if” — Michigan went undefeated in the regular season. She said yes.
Unless you are in a Covid detention facility in China or are playing along with cable media’s desperate attempt to make the World Cup a thing on American television, you are probably aware that Michigan indeed finished the regular season undefeated, beating Ohio State 45-23 on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Here at Rooster’s we have long known what the rest of the country was going to come around to understanding sooner or later: In this year’s College Football Playoff, which begins on New Year’s Eve, every American has an obligation to root for the Wolverines.
This is not just because everyone is sick of seeing Alabama (thankfully eliminated from playoff contention) or Clemson (ditto) win, though everyone is. Nor is it because Michigan is arguably the biggest TV draw in college football. And it certainly isn’t because of our coach, Jim Harbaugh, the anti-abortion, pro-Colin Kaepernick madman whose unclassifiable politics, painfully dorky fashion choices and inexplicable animosity toward poultry have made him, though cherished in our household, a figure of more mixed reputation in other parts of the country.
No, the case for Michigan is a simple matter of restitution: Since 1997, the last time we won a national football championship, this country has been nothing but cruel to our state. It is time to make amends.
Some of my happiest memories from my Michigan childhood are from that glory year of 1997: four small children in the lap of our 26-year-old father, shouts, beery kisses, Charles Woodson’s 77-yard punt return touchdown in the Ohio State game, the ever-present voice of ABC’s legendary play-by-play announcer, Keith Jackson. But 1997 was also the year in which General Motors announced the closure of Buick City — once the largest auto factory in the world — where generations of my family on both sides had been employed. When the doors were finally shut two years later, my maternal grandfather was forced into early retirement.
By early 2009, after the Wolverines went 3-9 following a blowout loss to Ohio State, G.M. and Chrysler had declared bankruptcy. Detroit itself would follow suit in 2013, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history at the time. Halfway through the middle of the Obama administration, the world of broad-based prosperity that manufacturing and trade unions had made possible in our state had become as distant a memory as Bo Schembechler, the greatest football coach in Wolverine history, whose wariness about money once led him to reject an offer from Texas A&M that would have roughly tripled his salary.
What else has happened since the 1997 championship? Thousands of doctors, nurses and pharmacists took part in lavish “pain management” training junkets put on by Purdue Pharma; as recently as 2016, more than 10 million opioid prescriptions were being written in Michigan each year. Tens of thousands of mostly nonunionized auto manufacturing jobs began cropping up in the South, an arrangement with which the Big Three automakers are not likely to ever be able to compete. Recreational cannabis use was legalized here in 2018, soon to be joined by online sports and casino gambling, the two industries that (if the preponderance of expressway billboards is any indication) together make up Michigan’s economy. Decline in religious practice neatly tracked an increase in so-called deaths of despair. By 2019 a Michigander was committing suicide every five hours, and drug overdoses were even more frequent.
For the Wolverine faithful, winning a national championship again is not simply about football. It is also about our state, and what we have lost, and what we hope to be again. Unlike the Michigan State Spartans, whose fan base seems to be made up entirely of people who attended the school, the University of Michigan commands the allegiance of millions of “Walmart Wolverines” like me who had no chance of attending such an elite institution. Our shared loyalty is a rare instance of solidarity that transcends class and racial boundaries in the name of the common good.
To his credit, President Biden seems to understand the case for Michigan football. On the same day I picked up my Bud Light sign, he spoke at a newly expanded semiconductor plant up in Bay City, 45 minutes north of Flint. He made an implicit connection between the fortunes of the Wolverines and the decline of American industry by reminiscing about his own brief football career as a flanker at the University of Delaware, whose blue-and-yellow uniforms and winged helmets would look suspiciously familiar to his audience. “We stole Michigan’s uniforms,” the president admitted, with the same admirable candor with which he declared that “the middle class built America, and unions built the middle class.”
When Michigan plays Texas Christian on New Year’s Eve for a spot in the championship game, our family will be watching (at Rooster’s, I hope) with friends visiting from a Detroit suburb. Nick, a midlevel nonunion Ford employee who has somehow managed to survive at least three rounds of layoffs, and I will be drinking Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, a product of nearby Comstock that food snobs have repeatedly voted the best beer in America — practically the state’s only national success story in recent memory.
I humbly invite the rest of the nation to join me, Nick and our 46th president in wearing Michigan’s colors, at least for the next month.
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