Fitting four people inside a football stadium that routinely packs in 111,000 doesn’t sound like a daunting task. But on a Saturday night in July 2005, four of us stood outside Michigan Stadium wondering how we could quietly slip inside to carry out the last wish of one of the Wolverines’ biggest fans.
My friend John lived a life of sky diving, bungee jumping, and white-water rafting. He cheated death on more than one occasion—including surviving a serious accident in 2002, only to die of complications from that accident in December 2004. He had lived for Michigan football and in death wanted to remain close to it. So I traveled from my home in Miami to attend a memorial golf outing for John and then attempt to scatter his ashes inside Michigan Stadium—the big sleep in the Big House.
From the time I met John during my freshman year in 1982, we bonded over the Maize and Blue. We watched numerous games together at the stadium, performing “The Wave” in all its variations, dancing like moose to the Bullwinkle theme song, and occasionally firing marshmallows at the band.
We celebrated victories that sent the team to bowl games and cursed upsets that ruined seasons. We followed the team on several of those bowl trips, reveling in the Rose Bowl victory that capped the perfect 1997 season and gave the Wolverines their first national championship in 50 years. As fans poured out of the gates of the Rose Bowl, we led the singing of “It’s Great to Be a Michigan Wolverine.”
John’s devotion knew no limits. This was a man who arranged work and vacations around the football schedule, who wanted to become a pilot partly so he could fly to a road game at Wisconsin. The décor of his apartment—a “glorified dorm room,” he often joked—leaned heavily toward Wolverines memorabilia, and, yes, I think he owned the requisite football phone at one point. This was a man who would don a giant inflatable Michigan helmet without shame. With humor, but without shame.
During our last visit to Ann Arbor in 2001, on the weekend when football games were canceled because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we sat in the Diag and observed the students and the mood of the day. John was dismayed by students stepping on the Block M, which brought bad luck in our day. He walked over, knelt down, and kissed the M.
John also annually counted down the days of summer until Michigan’s season opener. On that July night in 2005, there were 42 days left before kickoff, and the four of us—me; John’s girlfriend, Mary; his brother Dan; and Dan’s girlfriend, Teresa—headed to Ann Arbor to try to get into Michigan Stadium under cover of darkness.
The Big House appeared to be in lockdown as we drove to the south end. There had been a time when gates around the concourse were left open, inviting all kinds of impromptu late-night activities. But in the Sept. 11 era of security, we knew we might have to bend local ordinances to carry out our game plan. As we conspicuously walked up to the closed gates, we pondered the possible upcoming misdemeanors. Dan, who was a graduate of archrival Michigan State no less, was determined to fulfill his brother’s wish and had come prepared. Along with a small plastic bag holding John’s ashes, he brought bribe money for a security guard and bail money for Ann Arbor’s other “men in blue,” in case he needed to climb over the high, spiked fence.
We decided that would be Plan B and kept walking around Crisler Arena to the east side of the stadium. We turned the corner and, much to our surprise, the tunnel leading to the locker rooms and the football field was undergoing renovations. Lights beamed, seemingly from the heavens, and fencing surrounded the area—but the gate of the fence was wide open.
Through the tunnel where thousands of Michigan players have roared out onto the field, we crept along quietly, fearing we’d be stopped by someone any second. But not a soul was there. Only John’s, perhaps.
We walked to the Block M at midfield. Serendipity, higher power, construction crew negligence—take your pick, but we were there. Both scoreboards were lit up, and two lights from the press box illuminated us like actors on a stage. No fans filled the stands, no cheers filled the air, and the giant bowl seemed small in its emptiness. Serenity encircled us.
We paused for only a moment, not quite believing our good fortune. As eyes misted and throats clenched, no spiritual words were spoken. John’s only religion was football. Then, with a final farewell and a flourish, I tossed the ashes upward and off John went. Into the wind. Down the field. Across the goal line.
Chris Gerbasi, ’85, is a longtime journalist, first in Michigan and currently in central Florida. His mood still rises and falls with the result of each Michigan game.