If being honest, I had not thought of Jerry since the beginning of last September, exactly 52 weeks ago tonight. With a beer in hand at a Chicago bar, I noticed a highlight package reliving the iconic Appalachian State upset at Michigan in 2007. If memory serves, it was how ESPNU filled one of the three lightning delays during the six-hour marathon known as Lane Kiffin’s debut at FAU, a 42-19 loss to Navy.
As any respectable college football fan should, I remembered where I was as the Mountaineers blocked the Wolverines’ coulda-won-the-game field goal and scampered down the sideline, bringing the clock to zero. I was with my father, one of those few sporting moments where he agreed with my frequent diagnosis of, “Now that’s a huge upset.”
His next sentence? “Jerry isn’t going to be happy.”
I chuckled last year in that Bucktown bar, not at my college roommate failing miserably at karaoke, but at the thought of Jerry fuming after that Michigan loss.
He lived across the street from us as I grew up in western Wisconsin, 50 or so years my senior, married to my mother’s best friend.
I didn’t think of Jerry for the next 10 months. Then he passed away this July. As it regarded my mother and her worry about her best friend, my first thought was, to paraphrase, “Now this will be hugely upsetting.”
My next thought? “Jerry would have loved this year’s opener.”
Do not misconstrue this. By no means was I particularly close with Jerry. He was my neighbor, one that I never inherently had a bond with. But we always joked about college football, easy target practice for me considering Michigan’s success post-1997 was disappointing by Wolverines standards, much like Notre Dame’s has been for Irish fans in a similar timeframe.
When Jerry died, my concern went to how much my mother would try to buoy his widow, even though they moved across the state a number of years ago. There was no larger emotion personally, not to sound callous.
But I will think of Jerry this weekend. College football is funny that way, and that is the best reason why it remains so absurdly popular.
Allegiances develop early, and they trace a bit deeper than simple geography — usually that combined with bloodlines and perhaps a rare tasting of on-field success. Establishing a law practice in Minnesota as a Michigan alum creates opportunities for banter, not friction.
A move to Los Angeles for graduate school does not endanger one’s Notre Dame interests; it only inspires ribbing from your undergrad friends as your newest graduation photo album features a cardinal-and-gold lei around your neck. Considering business school at — *gasp* — Michigan does not revoke one’s Irish credentials, though it does lead to jokes about that “dark period” of your life.
Instead, those dichotomies lead to common conversational ground, like an 11-year-old had with his neighbor while typing up the neighbor’s wife’s invoices for her interior design business.
“You said they ordered how many sets of drapes? … I don’t know, Jerry, Drew Brees might be enough for Purdue to beat you guys.”
Note: I was right. In 2000, his senior year, Brees threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Boilermakers past the No. 6 Wolverines, 32-31. A field goal with four seconds left provided the winning difference, Purdue scoring the game’s final nine points.
Jerry wasn’t happy about that. He did, however, give a little more credit to my ramblings the next time his wife needed to bill somebody for wallpaper samples.
There is no larger point here. Just a chance to smirk as I remember Jerry, and I will here and there tomorrow, something I had hardly done since first heading to college.
That is the redeeming value of this gladiatorial combat, isn’t it? It is the common ground for the first-generation immigrant from India and the corn-fed Midwestern football know-it-all. It is the only debate shared by 10 barely-acquaintances via a never-ending Google Hangout. And it is the easiest way to pass the time while adding up the total cost of half a dozen dining chairs and the 110 square-feet of rug to match them.
Despite all its flaws, college football sparks and smolders these relationships, even among seeming rivals. It was, after all, this exact rivalry that got Jim Harbaugh to call Brian Kelly.