Something that seems as though it should be impossible.
I was raised by two Penn State parents. I attended the main campus all four years and received my degree in journalism from Penn State. I was a member of the football team in 2002. I now write articles for a Penn State clothing store, mostly positive in nature dealing with Penn State. I openly cheer for Penn State whenever possible.
Except for one game.
During one game I'm pretty reserved, keeping most of my emotions in check and conscious of the comments coming out of my mouth.
To most Penn State fans, Michigan is a four letter word. They lament the school with such passion that often the students come up with colorful language describing Ann Arbor as a promiscuous woman. Michigan with their flashy helmets, their brazen maize and blue, their 'Big House' which holds more seats than our Beaver Stadium (though as all Penn State fans know, their seats are smaller). That fight song that seems to become imbedded in people's brains like a virus. The seemingly ridiculous amount of calls from Big Ten referees that seem to favor the Wolverines. Especially against Penn State.
Yet here I sit in State College, a Penn State alum and a Michigan fan.
Before I became a Michigan fan, I became angry at Penn State. I'll never forget it. I was 8 years old in 1992 and Miami was coming to town to play the Nittany Lions. I didn't know too much about football other than I loved the helmets, the different colored jerseys and the speed and excitement of the game. I didn't understand first downs, I didn't understand scoring too well, though I did understand that getting to one end of the field meant winning. While I couldn't wait for the game to get started I had no idea about the history between the two teams. I was just excited to see the two teams play.
Then, while with my parents, one of the largest crowds at that time began to boo the Hurricanes. They boo'ed and did so loudly. I had been taught from an early age that boo'ing was beneath me, that jeering an opponent was not something to be done, that no matter who an opponent might be. So this sudden outpouring of negative loud noise deeply troubled me. So...I cried. Then, what cemented my temporary distaste for Penn State, my father, a humble but strong man, who had played baseball at Penn State and was an alumni of the school asked the fans around me to politely not boo anymore, and was promptly told to be quiet.
My father would later tell me that it wasn't a good look for Penn State to be so negative, to barrage an opponent with boo's. That was not who we 'were'. Thus my distaste for Penn State was born.
While I was briefly a Miami fan, I had no real connection to the team, though I did like their bright orange and green color scheme. So here I was in State College not liking Penn State but not having another team to root for. Then the fateful day occurred on October 10th 1993.
Penn State had just joined the Big Ten as an Athletic Partner (there had been an academic relationship with the conference beginning in 1990.) and was up against a highly regarded Michigan team. I knew nothing about Michigan except that my grandfather lived there and we would take vacations to go up and see him every so often. Upon watching them come out on to the field their 'wing' helmet design made an impression on me, like they were dressed not just as players beneath pads, but almost as super heroes. The fact that their mascot 'The Wolverine" also happened to be my favorite Comic Book hero of the time probably also played a factor.
Penn State struck first with a field goal, followed by a touchdown, and to my 9 year old mind they were ready to blow Michigan out and I would be sad and depressed on my way home. However, Michigan would respond by returning a punt for a touchdown and a key offside penalty allowed Michigan to go from missing a field goal, to scoring a touchdown on a corner route. Michigan took the lead, and I was happy for the comeback.
Now my emotions were high. My team was on top. Michigan was better than Penn State, because I just saw them outperform the Lions. Yet again, I did not grasp the concept of time in a game, and that momentum can often be fleeting. Penn State would drive ball with ease it seemed, and all of a sudden my original premonition of Penn State dominating was coming back. I started again to cry and want to go home (I was a bit of a sore loser as a 9 year old. Sorry about that). Penn State was going to score, the Wolverines were going to lose, and everyone was going to be happy in that stadium it seemed, except for me.
As my father and I started to leave, something happened. Penn State was at the goal line just a yard away and seemed just destined to score. Four plays from the one yard line? Automatic. Except it wasn't. On four consecutive plays, Penn State attempted to run the ball for the score, and for four consecutive plays Michigan's defense rose to the challenge. It seemed like a miracle to me. Michigan would take over, and eventually add one more touchdown, but what really sticks with me is what my father told me as we were on the stairs watching the goal line stand.
He told me that if Michigan had a mindset like the one I had, they would have lost. That if they got down on themselves, that if they thought the game was over in the beginning of the game they wouldn't have the resolve to push back and fight. That belief in oneself may not guarantee success, but the lack thereof will nearly assure failure.
That has always stuck with me, as well as my love of the Wolverines. They had a laundry list of incredible players, including some very seeming cool last names, like Irons, Gold, Steele, and Sword. A part of me wonders if part of my fascination came from how mythical these names seemed to make the players. It certainly couldn't have hurt.
Now living in State College and becoming a Michigan fan is not typical, but it isn't exactly unique either. Kids growing up in the area most likely have a family connection to the University in some way or another, but some kids do not want to feel like they have to be what their parents or families want them to be. If a child is told they need to follow one direction just for the sake of their parents imaginative dreams, perhaps the kid will follow, but perhaps the kid will attempt to follow their own dream instead.
In the beginning of the rivalry, it wasn't that bad. Penn State had won 3 of the first four meetings, (the one they lost being my memorable experience back in 1993.) Then in 1997 everything changed.
It was billed by ESPN as 'Judgement Day' because four teams within the top 5 were playing each other. Penn State versus Michigan, both being unbeaten, and part of a day that featured another pair of undefeateds in Florida State and North Carolina. Four of the top 5 teams were going to play each other on the same day, which happens pretty much never unless you count bowl games.
Michigan ended up pounding Penn State in a cold weather game where they played about as physically as any team I've ever seen. In fact one hit literally had everyone I knew scared that someone may have legitimately died on the field and is a warning to players everywhere how NOT to play the game.
That Michigan team eventually wound up winning a share of the National Championship spurring on years of great recruiting that would see Michigan be the dominant team in the Big Ten until Jim Tressel's arrival at Ohio State.
For Penn State it seemed to be the moment where they lost much of their mystique as a football juggernaut.
Yesterday at 11 AM I opened the bar for business and met two Michigan fans from Detroit. I explained to them the nature of my dual fandom and my career course and things of that nature. I explained how I became a fan, and how yet I remain attached at the hip to Penn State. Their response surprised me. Rather than attempting to show the differences, they talked about the similarities of the two schools and the strength of personal character within each.
When I told them I was a walk-on they cheered. When I told them how I left the team on my own accord to improve my grades they applauded, and when I said that while I may still have feelings for Michigan, I will forever be a Penn Stater they understood. I talked about the values of education and sportsmanship and they had no arguments to make. Upon leaving, they actually said our cheer, yelling 'We Are' to which I finished 'Penn State'.
In that moment I found that the Penn State/Michigan rivalry is not one built out of hatred and spite, but more out of respect. That while Penn State and Michigan are certainly different in many ways, the people that call themselves fans of either school will always appreciate greatness in the form of will, sacrifice and a commitment to education. Yes, we may despise one another for a 60 minute block of time because we are passionate about our teams, but when the game is over, the feelings subside and we remember that we are more alike than we are different. No matter how bitter we may be about losing a game, it will not change how we feel about each other as people.
I know this message will probably not be received well by some Penn State fans and I've made my peace with that. Some fans have such an insatiable lust for their own team that they cannot see beyond it. But to the others I plead with you to turn this rivalry into some something special and unique by giving respect to the Michigan fans that have come to our home. Be civil, respectful and treat them as a friendly neighbor. That is the Penn State way and after all...
It's not like they're from Ohio.