One of the best quotes I've ever heard came in a Rick Reilly column many years ago in the form of a graduation address to a class of top athletes. His speech ends with, "Remember when you were a kid? All you dreamed of was playing centerfield for the New York Yankees. Soon, you'll be there. Don't forget to tingle."
I've always related that to sports writing, since I'm no Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams or Johnny Damon on the diamond. We all have so many dreams, and in reality, so few of them ever come true. And when one does come true, I definitely don't want to let the moment pass me by.
So far this fall, I'm living out one of my dreams: writing football for a major university. The first four games have been a blast, and I'm looking forward to the next eight (or nine, if there's a bowl game).
But the highlight of my season — the one game that stuck out to me when I checked out Wisconsin's schedule last November after being hired — came last Saturday. A chance to not only watch the Badgers have a rematch with historic Michigan, but to enter the gates of a college football Mecca.
Michigan Stadium. Land of the Wolverines, home of the M Den. The Big House.
From the outside, the House doesn't look very big, or impressive for that matter. As we drove up toward the stadium, one of our photographers said jokingly from the backseat, "Man, I could almost jump right onto the field from out here!"
Indeed, the very top row stands no more than 30 feet above the ground level surrounding the seats. Yes, we were aware the bowl-shaped stadium is built downward into the ground, but you can't deny a first impression.
But upon entering view of the field, we could see how this place stuffs 110,000 people inside for a Big Ten match-up. Not to mock one of the University of Wisconsin's greatest traditions, but when you say the Big House, you really have said it all upon laying eyes on the vastness of the bleachers. Instead of building upward, as in the style of Camp Randall and most football stadiums in the United States, the bowl-style structure protrudes outward from the playing area.
This does have its disadvantages. When an opponent is backed up inside their own 10, the sound coming from Wisconsin's student section can be deafening as all the fans are close to the field. But because the upper rows of the Big House stick backward, it's harder to hear all the students, and thus the sound isn't quite as boisterous. My colleague, Dave McGrath, dubbed it "the quietest 100,000 people you'll ever hear."
(One quick side-note: it could just be me, but it seemed like Michigan's student section wasn't nearly as rude as others. Even when we went down to the sidelines at the end of the game, the heckling of UW's players, surprisingly, wasn't vulgar at all. Hmmm … from Michigan's perspective, I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. But anyway …)
As for its appearance, Michigan Stadium is nothing to look at, to be sure. Dave went so far as to call it a "goat farm." It seemed to be a general consensus, at least by visiting Wisconsin fans and media, that Michigan Stadium is past its prime and needs to be renovated or replaced.
I have to disagree. I suppose I favor the sleekness of Camp Randall, but I've got a soft spot for that retro look as well. You know how when you look at a picture, you can instantly tell when that picture was taken — whether it be in the last few years or a hundred years ago? Michigan Stadium ain't like that — staring out at 100,000-plus people, I couldn't tell if I was sitting in the year 2006 or back in 1927, when the Big House was born.
There are no lights (they call in portable lights when they have to stage a night game), no actual seats with fancy cushions (just really long bleachers for every fan), and — here's the stunner — no advertising. Anywhere in the stadium. Not one swoosh or slogan in sight, not a beer bottle or brand name to be found. I don't know why, but I thought that was really, really cool.
When it boils down to it, I would say I'm glad my season pass is for the newly renovated Camp Randall, but if I could visit one and only one stadium, I'd pick Michigan Stadium. It's just one of those things … like how you wouldn't live in Cooperstown, N.Y., but you officially join the Real Sports Fan Club when you first witness the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Good news, however, for Wolverines fans who want a newer-looking stadium. After the game, we chatted with one of the security guards at the stadium, who informed us of some repairs in the makings for the Big House — reportedly a $250 million overhaul — set to be underway in the next five years.
It would be great to see Michigan Stadium get a facelift … I guess. Like I said, the retro look is cool, and it wouldn't surprise me if most Michigan fans now prefer it that way.
One last thing … during the Badgers' lone touchdown, as P.J. Hill caught the ball and saw nothing but open field in front of him, I started to yell, "Seven. Seven, seven, seven!" referring to the lead Wisconsin was about to take.
Sure, it's hard not being able to cheer for Wisconsin while in the press box, but this was the first time I showed any bias of any kind. Needless to say, I was a little embarrassed.
Was it that I was just excited over the Badgers drawing first blood? Perhaps. But I'm thinking the emotion of getting to watch a game in the Big House came out in the heat of that moment.
That was just my way of making sure the moment didn't pass me by. Say what you want about Michigan Stadium in the 21st century, but that thing's a historic landmark for college football, and I feel honored to have been a part of it for the first time.
What's your take on Michigan Stadium? A piece of history or a piece of you-know-what? Post your comment below or send your thoughts on the Big House to firstname.lastname@example.org.