Musings From A Wolverine In San Antonio

A room in the Days Inn in downtown San Antonio opened up the morning after the Final Four games, and it’s filled with the ghosts of the fans of the losing teams. Who knows where those fans are now? Perhaps they’re waiting at San Antonio International Airport for a flight back to Chicago, or maybe they just arrived home in Lawrence, Kansas after a silent drive through the night. They might have proudly tacked their Final Four towels up on their dorm room walls, or they might have stuffed them in the bottom of their suitcase because the memory of that Saturday night was too painful to relive.

Regardless of where those fans are now, their former room in the Days Inn is once again in use. The bedside tables are decorated with Clif bar wrappers and mostly-full cans of Coors Light. A pile of textbooks collects dust on the floor by the window. The only book that has been opened all weekend is a hardcover copy of Mitch Albom’s The Fab Five: Basketball, trash talk, the American dream. This book is displayed proudly, almost piously, in front of the TV, bookmarked with a failed pop quiz.

In the center of the room, I am sitting with two other girls, our eyes closed, holding hands. It’s our first day in a hotel room downtown; the past few days, we were in a Motel 6 that was a $100 Uber ride away from the Alamodome. The air conditioning drowns out the sound of our hearts thumping, but just barely.

“Dear Lord,” I begin finally. “Please be with us during this game. And let Duncan and Muhammad go to bed tonight with smiles on their faces.”

“Let Livers absolutely go off today,” Bailey says.

“Help Zavier to guard Jalen Brunson,” Harley says.

“Please be with Zavier on offense too,” I add. “Don’t let him cause any turnovers.”

“But let him cause lots of turnovers on defense,” Bailey says. “And make free throws. At least 50% of his free throws.”

Harley pauses. “God,” she says. “Let Moe make his first shot. And make him play angry, but not as angry as against Montana, ‘cause we need him.”

“Same with Charles Matthews,” I say.

“Let Duncan score six points,” Bailey says.

“Let Duncan nail every three-pointer,” Harley says.

“Give JP another big moment,” I say. “But please not another moment like the one against Houston, Lord. My heart really can’t handle that much stress again.”

“But if that’s the way it has to be for us to win, then your will be done,” Bailey says.

“Let our offense show up so much that CJ Baird has a chance to make another three,” Harley says.

“God bless Jon Teske,” Bailey says. “Especially on defense.”

“God bless John Beilein,” I say.

We pause. I don’t know what Bailey and Harley are thinking about, but I’m picturing the final seconds of the game, when the seconds left on the shot clock seem to disappear faster and faster and the student section starts screaming, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine!”

“Amen,” the three of us say, and we all squeeze hands before letting go. We feel a little bit better, but just barely.

As I stand up to fill up my water bottle in the bathroom sink, Bailey asks, “He’s a Michigan guy, right? He’s never gonna leave us?”

“Who?” I ask. “God or John Beilein?”

***

This time the next day, the room in the Days Inn in downtown San Antonio is once again empty. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe somebody else has already moved in, and our ghosts are haunting them, just like the ghosts of the Loyola and Kansas fans haunted us.

Our tears have dried and we’re gazing outside at miles and miles of Arkansas highway. Bailey’s driving, I’m sitting cross-legged in the passenger seat, and Harley’s sprawled out in the backseat, covered by blankets and the remains of our bag of snacks.

“Remember the Nova fan?” Harley says slowly, quietly. “Before the game? The one who was like, I respect you as an academic institution, but not in sports.”

“Yeah, tell him we’ll see him during football season,” Bailey responds with a small laugh.

“I bet we’re the only student section in the country that starts chanting ‘Safety School’ during a Final Four game,” I say.

Saturday night, Harley, Bailey, Fizzy and I were standing on a street 1,500 miles from home, scream-singing “Hail to the Victors” with hundreds of strangers who felt like family. In that same moment, South University Avenue flooded with students singing the same song, but in temperatures about 50 degrees colder, shouting, “We’re going to the Natty!” Classes were canceled, and students woke up at 6 am on Monday to get a spot inside a South U bar. Walking by a bar in San Antonio, I heard a drunken twenty-something give a toast to “the best university in the goddamn world” and I immediately started cheering because I knew there wasn’t even a chance that he was talking about any other school but my own.

Now it’s silent. In our car, and probably on South U also. I know this silence all too well. It’s the same silence that echoed throughout my family’s house after the Michigan State football game in 2015, the same silence that filled up my dorm room after we lost in the Sweet Sixteen in 2017, the same silence that I suffered when my family drove home from Buffalo Wild Wings after OSU football in 2016, the same silence that I remember from when we played this very same game, but against Louisville, when I was a freshman in high school.

“Write it on my grave,” Harley had said about those last two games a few days earlier. “JT was short and the block was clean.”

That silence doesn’t always pertain to sports. I’d felt it earlier Monday morning too, before we even played, when I checked my email to find that I’d been denied from not just one, but two, of the internships I’d applied for that summer. I sat in the corner of a San Antonio bakery in my conspicuous maize hoodie, tears streaming down my face, and I wanted to scream at every Villanova fan, “I’m not crying because of the ESPN predictions! I have nothing to be scared of when it comes to our basketball team!” But I didn’t. I was silent.

The radio begins to sound fuzzy, and Bailey adjusts it as we pass field after field, city after city, mile after mile. I check the Maps app on my phone. Eleven more hours in the car. Eleven more hours to sit and think about the game, before I drop my bags off at my apartment, put my winter parka on, and walk to class.

Eleven more hours to Ann Arbor. I close my eyes for a moment.

“Dear Lord,” I think. “Thank you that I’m not going home to anywhere else but the University of Michigan.”

And God bless John Beilein. Amen.