Sometimes the body has to jump. Bound. Leap.
Toward the pale blue heavens, feet press against the Earth beneath searching for sky. Arms cajole the head and torso upward, arrows firing toward the sun.
Standing just outside the tunnel, I watch the University of Cincinnati players sprint, skip, and jump their way onto the turf at the University of Michigan’s “Big House.” Fighting back tears, the moment has me. Grown kids unconsciously springing into the air as their eyes meet 111,000 football fans is too much for this grown man to bear. I wipe tears from behind Waferers, hat pulled low. This is a football game, after all.
No doubt, many saw players running onto a field; I saw more. Maybe fatherhood transformed me into this sorry sentimental excuse of a man. Raising three sons prevents me from ignoring the micro-communities that also bound onto the field of play.
Each player is accompanied onto the Big House turf by the invisible sacrifices of their moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandparents. Look closely enough, just past the C-paw on the gleaming, black helmet, and you’ll see the micro-community is larger than family. High school and little league coaches, teachers, whole neighborhoods and apartment buildings, they’re all in Ann Arbor waiting on the whistle to screech and cleats to kick leather.
Clay, Alabama hops with Hayden. Sandy Creek stands with Jaelen and JaQuay. LaSalle leaps with Jarell.
Mind Over Matter.
There is a strange connection between the mind and body. Sometimes the mind leads the body; other times, the opposite is true. “It can be difficult to distinguish real confidence from confidence that comes from just standing up straight,” so says Ohio State psychology professor Richard Petty. He continues, “Happiness leads to smiling, but also smiling leads to happiness.”
Toward the end of last season, the Bearcats looked defeated before they ever walked onto the field. Or as my old man used to say, “Them boys looked whooped before the punchin’ started.” Shoulders slumped and solemn faces, the 2016 UC team slowly approached the gridiron most games, a funeral procession’s pace.
One of the first things first year Coach Luke Fickell focused on this offseason was body language. Players must stand, stay engaged, and be prepared to give their undivided effort. Nobody gets a pass, not even media. After a spring practice, Coach Fickell joked that I’d yawned one too many times during practice.
Science supports Coach Fickell’s philosophy. “Embodied cognition” is a phrase used to describe the mind-body connection, and scientists have discovered that the posture of the body triggers the mind. Good posture doesn’t just display confidence, it transforms the chemical composition of the brain. Presumably wearing lab coats and holding beakers, scientists collected saliva samples of people displaying different postures. The beaker spit showed that upright postures increase testosterone while decreasing cortisol levels, the stress hormone in the brain.
Getting to Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is a hop, skip and a jump from Cincinnati. In the 60s and 70s, many influential rock bands called Ann Arbor home, including Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and George Clinton. Bearing the hallmarks of a musical past, Ann Arbor has plenty of great bars, breweries, coffee shops, and even a Himalayan Bizarre. The city is a weird blend of the eclectic bohemia that surrounds most Midwestern universities combined with a rabid maize-and-blue-clad fan base, many of whom never bothered to enroll in classes.
In the 1800s, the Ann Arbor general store was painted bright red at the intersection of Huron and Main, and became known as “Bloody Corners.” If you followed my Twitter account (@BearcatsRadio), you’d understand my desire not to go near Bloody Corners. We published an article last week that went viral within the Wolverine online community. Not only did some folks take to the internet to make comments, but some stopped just short of threatening my life. While I appeared on the Oh Varsity! podcast to discuss it and an article was written describing the verbal jousting, for your convenience I share a small sample of some of my favorite comments…
As you can gather, the thesis of the article inciting digital violence from the Michigan faithful – UC would win the game. Why was that so offensive? Why did I believe the Bearcats could compete? Coaching and talent.
Prior to Saturday’s game, Luke Fickell had jogged onto the Big House turf ten times. At Ohio State, Fickell was 5-5 in the Big House (0-2 as a player; 5-3 as a coach). Having observed a fair number of good coaches in my life, I think Luke Fickell could end up being a great coach. He’s as concerned with the body language and culture of the team as he is the Xs and Os of schemes.
Football is a violent game, a fight. Players collide, sometimes at high speeds. Football’s violence is the great equalizer, providing any athletic team with a puncher’s chance to win. Early in the game, it appeared as though Michigan was going to cruise to an early TKO. Michigan’s two quick scores felt like a punch in Cincinnati’s gut. Though hobbled, the Bearcats climbed up from the ground, and scrapped their way back into the game. UC opportunistically recovered fumbles and entered halftime down ten points (7-17), set to receive the third quarter kickoff. As the players made their way into the locker room, their posture advised how the second half would go – this Bearcats team was far from whooped.
At the end of the third quarter, the margin was ten points (14-24), as well. But late game mistakes ultimately cost us the win. I say “us” for a reason.
The University of Cincinnati players and coaches lost the football game to the University of Michigan players and coaches, 14-36. But we, the community (and micro-communities) of supporters saw something we haven’t seen in a while. Fight. Confidence. Heads held high to the finish.
After the game, Michigan fans took note. I walked in front of the band as they marched down Hoover Avenue, the street still lined with Wolverines faithful. They clapped. They shouted encouraging remarks about how UC played. They applauded the band as though they went wire to wire with Harbaugh’s 8th ranked squad. In some ways, they did. We all did.
For me, more emotion. Touching the corner of my eyes, I acted like the Ann Arbor mold count was high. Allergies, I explained to my friend.
The Big House is a whole body experience. One hundred and eleven thousand human beings on this somewhat shared journey, each wanting our community to prevail. Though each of us is focused on our team, the same things are unfolding in our presence. And it’s beautiful.
By Brian Fox