Author's note: Some details of this story have been omitted to protect the privacy of those involved.
Sport is a poor substitute for people.
Our favorite athletes and teams simply cannot offer the same kind of emotional attachment and support that our friends and family can. Don Vito Corleone would look down on any man who didn't put family first, and that's a sentiment I share.
Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself a little bit. There's a story behind these feelings. There's also a reason why I'm writing about it now, the day before the annual football contest between Michigan State and Michigan.
Last football season, I had the distinct pleasure of playing baritone in the Michigan State University Spartan Marching Band. I'd given serious thought to joining the finest collegiate marching band in the nation before, but I didn't make the leap until my fourth year in college.
The SMB is rich in both quality and tradition. The band grew out of the military ensemble tradition in the late 1800s and considers it a point of pride to uphold the disciplined nature of those early ensembles. There is a very strict uniform protocol and members are held to a tight code of conduct, as well.
There is also no thrill quite like kick-stepping out of the tunnel in front of 70,000 screaming fans, or marching The Series into the stadium itself. It's great to be such an integral part of the game-day tradition. But my story is not about the Spartan Marching band, though it does play a crucial role.
Fast-forward to October, 2007. The SMB schedule included a trip to Ohio State, followed by a rare weekend off as the team traveled to Iowa, and then the most anticipated game of the whole season—at home against Michigan.
Michigan Week 2007 is when everything went wrong.
After a nice, relaxing weekend without any marching obligations, I returned to classes on Monday looking forward to the rivalry game against Michigan. Sparty Watch was in full swing, and you could feel the anticipation in the air. My first Michigan Week as a member of the SMB was shaping up to be a good one.
After my first class of the day on Monday, I got a phone call from home. My mom seemed upset on the other end of the line, and asked me to go to a friend's apartment and call her back.
I was puzzled; something was definitely wrong, but I had no idea what it could be. My mind immediately flashed to my grandma, whose health has been on the decline for the past decade.
When I finally called my mom back, she gave me the worst news of my life. My younger brother Ian had passed away unexpectedly earlier that morning, and I needed to get home immediately. I remember collapsing in my friend's living room, and then everything until I finished the hour-and-a-half trip home is a complete blur.
Suddenly, beating Michigan didn't matter at all. Football didn't matter at all. Marching didn't matter at all.
It's amazing how quickly one announcement of bad news can turn a family upside-down. In an instant we went from running everywhere at a mile a minute, busy with countless obligations from school and work, to grieving and focusing only on each other. But any man worth his salt knows that being together was the only thing to do in that situation.
The next few days were a mix of grieving at home and welcoming family and friends from out of state who had hopped on a plane or in a car as soon as they heard the news. You always hope for a chance to see that uncle from Texas or the college friend from Wisconsin, but you don't want an event like this to be the reason for the reunion.
It's nowhere near worth it.
In the middle of all this, I had to decide when to return to school. Should I stay with my family through the weekend, or head back on Friday? If I went back early, I wouldn't march halftime of the game because I'd missed a week's worth of rehearsals, but I could march The Series and pregame.
More importantly, I'd be immersed in an environment filled with close friends and boisterous State fans, and I might be able to stop thinking about Ian's death for a few hours.
I made the decision to return to school for the game at Ian's visitation on Thursday night. I walked into the funeral home and saw a bouquet of flowers that my section mates in the SMB had sent me. I knew that being around them would make me laugh and put a smile on my face.
Before I left home the next morning, I grabbed a necklace out of Ian's room. My aunt and uncle had given it to him, and he considered it very special. Wearing it would serve as a constant reminder that he would always be a dear member of the family.
Earlier, I mentioned the SMB's strict uniform protocol. In the band handbook, there is a rule explicitly forbidding any jewelry in uniform aside from a wedding band or medical alert bracelet. There was no way in hell that necklace was coming off, so I hid it under my uniform, out of sight from squad leaders and the uniform manager.
I like to think that Ian would have appreciated that subtle act of defiance.
Skip forward to game day. I'd been greeted at rehearsal the day before by hugs and well-wishers. They helped confirm that I'd made the right decision in coming back.
Once the game-day festivities began with a 7:30 a.m. rehearsal, I was able to pull my mind away from grief and just absorb the excitement in the atmosphere. It was a most welcome respite.
Once the game actually started, I had an epiphany. Football was still taking over my Saturday like it had for years, but my outlook on the game was changed.
I wanted to send Michigan home with a loss, but I'd realized that, in the grand scheme of things, records don't matter. A late attempt at a long third-down conversion was no longer a matter of life or death, it was simply another play.
Michigan State went on to lose a heart-breaker thanks to a late comeback by Michigan, but it didn't affect as much as it would have in years past. I was upset but relieved that the game offered a brief shelter from the mourning back home.
The violent nature of The Series was very cathartic, and the stadium filled with cheering fans served as an emotional Novocain of sorts.
After the game, I called home and let my folks know that I was still thinking about them. It was nice to escape for a few hours, but family still comes first. It turns out that they had turned the game on and also managed to escape for a while. We all needed that afternoon to refresh our minds.
Without a football game to look forward to that weekend, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been in bad shape when I returned to class the next week.
Without the brief interruption, the grief would have continued unabated, and I honestly don't know if I would have been able to finish the semester.
One game made a world of difference. This weekend, when Michigan State rolls into Ann Arbor, I'll be watching the game with unbridled enthusiasm, hoping for a big victory. But something more important will also be on my mind. Family.
Sport is a poor substitute for people, but as far as temporary Band-Aids are concerned, there are few better things in life.