Why Michigan’s 42–27 Victory over Ohio State Gives Me Hope for Humanity
My first year at Michigan, 1969, was also Bo Schembechler’s first year coaching football on that campus.
By that time, the two rival schools had been competing on the college gridiron for well over half a century.
The year before, in 1968, Ohio State had beaten Michigan by a score of 50-14. Michigan’s coach resigned after that crushing defeat, leaving room for Schembechler to come to Ann Arbor and take the helm.
Nobody knew who Bo was. No one expected Michigan to win in '69.
Well, perhaps no one except for Bo, his staff, and his players.
I remember sitting in those cold stands, watching that historic game in late November, when it’s always played, as Michigan scored an upset victory over its arch-rival, with a final score of 24-12.
As a very academically-oriented freshman who had gone to high school in Maryland, though, I did not yet understand the full significance of that victory.
My wife Pauline grew up in Southern California, and we met there, and saw a couple of Michigan Rose Bowls. Our son, Stephen, grew up watching televised Michigan football games with me from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
And then our son decided to attend the University of Michigan for his college career, starting in 2005.
By then, though, college football had changed, as had the world. Ohio State had become a dominant tier 1 team that regularly competed for a national championship, while Michigan was struggling to remain relevant as a tier 2 team. And the annual meeting between Michigan and Ohio State on the football field had become more of a ritual humiliation for Michigan than a legitimate competition.
And so, when the Ohio State Buckeyes came to Ann Arbor this year, in 2021, Michigan fans hoped and prayed for a victory, but we also dreaded having to sit through another terrible loss.
And few people honestly expected Michigan to win this year.
Well, except perhaps for coach Jim Harbaugh, his staff, and his players.
Because, you see, to beat Ohio State at football is a terribly hard thing to do.
That’s the way it’s been for over a hundred years.
And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be easy. The outcome is never certain.
This is why the annual football game played between these two teams has no fancy name. The winner does not receive a cup of any kind. There is no need for branding, or for some symbolic token of victory. If you are at all connected to these two schools, or to these two states, then you understand that it is simply The Game. And you know who last won. It’s something you wake up with each morning and go to bed with every night. And you know when the next meeting will be. And you fully realize how sweet a victory would be this year, and how bitter a loss. And you know that you will carry that feeling with you, whatever it turns out to be, for all of the coming year.
And so, when the University of Michigan and The Ohio State football teams met in Ann Arbor this year, there were all of the usual hopes and dreams being focused on that playing field, on those 100 yards of turf – but there was more.
Because Ohio State had won the last eight games. And they were favored to win again this year.
And that’s just not right.
Because even though beating Ohio State at football is a terribly hard thing to do, humans are built to do such things. We can figure out how to fly. We can defeat dictators. We can send people into space and return them safely. We can conquer terrible diseases.
These things have never been easy. And we humans still have a whole host of hard things out in front of us, all needing heroes to do them.
And there are always so many reasons why these difficult tasks may feel impossibly hard.
People have to put aside their differences, find common cause, and work together.
We have to resist cynicism, and dare to believe, not that we will win, but that we can win, and that victory will be worth the effort.
We have to do everything we know how to do, and then do more.
We have to rise up from defeat, saying “We will try again.”
We need to embrace our heroes: not just those with familiar faces and names, but those who rise to greatness on the field of battle, and earn a name for themselves, whether they are in the spotlight, or whether they are winning the battle in the trenches, fighting for every inch of ground.
And so, as I sat down with my son to watch The Game this year, I knew how much this annual contest meant.
And then, as we watched these two teams compete on that snowy field for the next sixty minutes, we were privileged to see unfold before us one of those priceless, historic Michigan victories, not by a few points, but ending in a score of 42-27, leaving no room for doubt about which was the better team on that day. It was played as it should be played, with each team fighting for every point, and for every yard on the playing field.
And we won.
And we won because we had a team full of heroes. So much had to be done to gain this win. So many failures and mistakes had to be avoided. Every Michigan player wearing Maize and Blue on that day had a part to play, and every one of them played it to virtual perfection.
Because anything less would not have been enough.
As I’ve reflected back on that victory over the past day or two, I’ve been surprised at how much it means to me.
As a Michigan Wolverine, of course, I have that warm glow that comes from knowing that we emerged victorious, and vanquished our rivals, and that we get to carry that victory with us for the entire coming year.
And yet, there’s more.
In some of the darkest days of World War II, British leader Winston Churchill told his people:
It’s no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.
And this year I saw our Michigan team do what was necessary.
And yes, I know, it’s only a football game.
But to beat Ohio State at football is a terribly hard thing. Always has been. And I trust it always will be.
And in this, of all years, after eight straight losses, I’m sure it could easily have felt impossibly hard.
And yet a team full of heroes emerged, rose up against all odds, donned the Maize and Blue on that day, and accomplished what many had told them would be impossible.
And so, when I woke up the day after The Game, much about our world was still the same. We humans still face terribly hard challenges. There are still just as many reasons why we might fail.
But I awoke with new hope.
Because I now know, again, that we humans can do terribly hard things.
I’ve seen it happen.
Right before my eyes.
November 29, 2021