Anyone who knows me knows I would do almost anything for Michigan football tickets. I am the obnoxious fan whose voice is hoarse after every football Saturday and the one who can’t help but rattle off the stats of the Michigan alums during any NFL game. It’s second nature for me to brag about Larry Foote’s eight tackles for loss against Michigan State when his name is called as a Steeler. I look forward to fall at the beginning of June because it’s the return of tailgating and 40-degree drizzling rain football. Normally abysmal events become endearing moments when they are paired with a box of popcorn, a Charles Woodson jersey and a noon kick-off.
This anecdote is just one example of why sports permeate so strongly through our culture. It is hard not to be immersed in the atmosphere of athletics – sports are present from the moment you turn on the news and hear about the 13-inning thriller from the night before or, in my case, when you walk out of the house every morning and see a giant Michigan football flag flapping in the wind. Athletes have become our society’s biggest stars and, consequently, the most prevalent role models.
Chris Perry was my inspiration growing up. The Michigan runningback was the stereotypical workhorse. In one game against Michigan State, Perry rushed a record 51 times for 220 yards. He led by example, shouldering the bulk of the Michigan offense.
Perry personifies the hard work and dedication that is sometimes absent in the bulk of today’s young athletes. With a society that is becoming increasingly impatient for success, the up-and-coming superstars concentrate more and more on what will make them great. They overlook the importance of team play, dismantling the culture surrounding the game and furthering the gap between the traditional and contemporary.
Our sports stand alone as a time capsule. They create a bond between young and old, but only because athletics have always circled around the same relatable qualities of collaborative effort and perseverance. As those characteristics are increasingly more in jeopardy of being pushed aside in favor of individual accomplishment, the ability of the game to transcend generations also disappears. I can only hope that in 40 years, Detroit Red Wing Steve Yzerman will not only be remembered as one of the greatest leaders and team players in NHL history, but also have a successor. The moment that athletics stop producing high-caliber players who can also command the respect of their teammates and fans is the day sports will fall from their pinnacle at the top of popular culture.
Last year, I was flying back to Rochester from Orlando when a man questioned me about my Michigan sweatshirt. After figuring out we were both Wolverine fans, Albert, the 58-year-old teacher who grew up just outside of Jackson, and I were hardly able to contain our excitement. Two hours later, we were still talking about which Buckeye we hated more, Jim Tressel or Troy Smith (obviously it’s Tressel – the mere sight of a grey sweater vest makes me nauseous).
Our conversation gave me hope that sports can still bridge gaps and cross cultures. I know when I’m fifty, I will still be holding on to those childhood memories of eating hot dogs at 9 a.m., sitting on ice-cold benches in the “Big House” and being surrounded by a small city of people who shared my passion for the sport. I will still be recounting memories of Charles Woodson’s one-handed interception against Michigan State and of that Minnesota game where the Wolverine offense put up 28 points in the fourth quarter to come back and beat the Gophers. The nervousness and sub zero temperature – it’s all negated by an atmosphere that reflects every drop of sweat and blood shed on that field: an atmosphere that, if our athletes allow it to, has the opportunity to transcend generations in a way few other factions of our society can.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.