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Ski-U-Mah! How I found my school spirit

Courtesy of the author
By the time the sun set we’d eked out a win over Air Force 20-13, and the crowd went bonkers again as cries of “Ski-U-Mah” filled the air and Goldy spun his head.

Fall may be my favorite time of year. There are trips to the apple orchard, the colors of the trees, pumpkin flavored everything, and football.

Daniel Eckberg

Whether as a player or a fan, from backyard pick-up games to Monday Night Football, nothing signals the changing of the seasons quite like the return of the pigskin.

But while always an enthusiastic two-hand-touch participant, an avid NFL fan, and a die-hard supporter of my high school team, I never cared too much for the college game. Even after I began attending the U of M, I never felt nearly the same school spirit for the Gophers as I had for my high school.

It felt so impersonal and corporatized: licensed merchandise, $6 hotdogs, and, at the time, an indoor stadium nearly a mile off campus. I enjoyed my share of great sports moments in the Metrodome over the years, but few places were more effective at draining an autumn day of its charms like entering the big gray baggie.

And much as I’d like to think I’m not a fair-weather fan, the middling performance of the team certainly didn’t help. The fight song felt like an obligation. (“Fire Mason!” had become a far more common refrain). Nonetheless, I dutifully bought season tickets as an underclassman. But by the end of the woeful 1-11 campaign of 2007 my tolerance had been sapped.

One more shot

The following year I didn’t attend a single game, though the team began to show some signs of life. That, combined with the opening of our new stadium the subsequent fall, persuaded me to give the squad one more shot, and I was not disappointed.

The timing couldn’t have been better. TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009, the start of my senior year. I worked on campus that summer and received an invitation sent to all university employees for a free preview tour of the grounds. I went and it was a marvel. Huge photos of U of M legends adorned the locker room, from Bruce Smith to Tony Dungy. The view from the bleachers showcased the Minneapolis skyline in the distance.  

I was becoming truly excited as the first game approached, and I wasn’t alone. For the first time in memory my friends and I arrived at the gates hours before they opened, hoping to get good seats for this once-in-a-generation event.

And one of the best parts? We could simply walk there from Dinkytown; there was no more caravan of Campus-Connectors shuttling undergrads to and from the rented Dome. After 30 years we finally had a home again.

Building anticipation

As we waited in front of the student-section entrance, the crowd behind us grew with each passing minute. Soon President Robert Bruininks appeared and gave a rousing speech to the masses, and the anticipation built further.

When the gates opened we poured into the concourse and were able to snag seats in the lower bowl. The upper deck seemed to be overflowing. It was a far cry from the half-empty arena I was used to, and the weather had hit that perfect crisp equilibrium between hot and cold.

The marching band took the field in short order and the crowd was nearing full fever pitch. And then the capper: Before the coin-toss a litany of former Golden Gopher stars emerged. Bud Grant was in tears, but it was all punctuated by 96-year-old former coach Murray Warmath. As he zipped onto the field in his motorized wheelchair, smiling and waving, the stands erupted in guttural approval, and a shiver ran down my spine. It was finally all coming into focus now – the immense history of this institution I was attending.

This man was a living link to the program’s glory days of a half-century before, when he’d led the team to the Rose Bowl by recruiting one of the first heavily integrated rosters. More than just a reminder that we had much to be proud of though, he represented the sheer humbling size and scope of the university’s reach. My experience there was just a tiny slice of the hundreds of thousands of students who had called this place home since the 1850s.

One of my more stoic pals turned to me and said he had chills.

Crowd goes bonkers as 'Ski-U-Mah' cries fill the air

Finally the game began. We watched as now NFL star receiver Eric Decker carved his way through the opposing defense. By the time the sun set we’d eked out a win over Air Force 20-13, and the crowd went bonkers again as cries of “Ski-U-Mah” filled the air and Goldy spun his head.

Normally a seven-point win over an unranked team in early September would hardly warrant such a reaction, but the margin of victory hardly mattered. The field crew even preemptively lowered the goal posts in an effort to discourage fans from taking matters into their own hands.

It was clear I wasn’t the only one who had felt starved of something better; for the first time in years people had found an excuse to celebrate to excess, and they weren’t going to let it escape. I’d finally glimpsed that camaraderie and sense of tradition so essential to the college experience. For one night at least, I felt like a Gopher.

Danny Eckberg is a Minnesota native and 2010 graduate of the University of Minnesota who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Comments (2)

Yay, Gophers!

I've been to several Gopher games. Two when they were playing at the (now demolished) dome and two since TCF stadium was built. There's nothing to compare with going to a game where the college has its own stadium and traditions. IMHO, Minnesota lost something when it didn't have its own field to play on.

I attended Michigan State University ("MSU") during the 1960's. At that time MSU was reputed to be the largest campus with most students. A student had almost no choice but to go to the football games on Saturday. (Sure, study. Right!). Whatever other it had, it enhanced my appreciation my Alma Mater on the Red Cedar River and its football team in the Autumn. I appreciate the Ski-U-Rah and the Gopher tradition. But I specially treasure my Spartan traditions, such as marching to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan behind the Spartan Marching Band! Go, Spartans! But. also Go, Gophers!

My Sentimental Favorite Even Now, John

Also in the '60s, I found Michigan State Football to have a special appeal, perhaps their speed and passing game that helped set the new Big 10 dynamic. We got three channels then, of course, with college ball pretty much on ABC or CBS, it seemed.

Well, I joined the University of Minnesota Football Marching Band (FMB, yes, "Football" was in its name then). Hard, hot and spirited work...team level calisthenics prior to field practices. Major college marching band was a "sport" of its own kind. Still is. The bands I still view with special regard are the Spartan Marching Band, The Ohio State Marching Band (exceptional)...and, of course, our Minnesota Band.

So, I've followed Sparty for decades, right into this past weekend. Notre Dame (my daughter's school) naturally has divided my sentiments, certainly since she was there. I watched a week ago in an odd haze of ambivalence, deciding I was OK with either team winning.

And, of course, I've followed the Gophers since returning here from Seattle years ago, watching Lou Holtz turn them into a viable contender, then those who followed him. My passion is college football, with only passing interest in the pros. ........................................................................................................................................................................................
So, Mr. Daniel Eckberg, may I suggest an excellent path to ongoing team spirit inclusion and infusion? Get close to some marching band people around you now in Madison, buddies if possible, and become an ad hoc member of their social world. It's a passionate, rather crazy and definitely up-tempo life for those dedicated to the spectacles, traditions and glories of college sports. You will grow the passion. Former band members grow older, often discard our instruments and become a bit stiff in the knees...but, we never quite lose our step.

And, Dan, you had a great college rouser, one of the all time best alma maters, and maybe the absolute best marching song of all: Minnesota March. Hum them, love them, sing them with friends (or even alone in Madison life)...and remember them forever. That's college spirit, no matter where, no matter when, across the miles, across the centuries.

Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!
Rah for the U of M. (!!!!!)

Best wishes, Jim Million: University of Minnesota Football Marching Band, 1966 & '67 seasons.
Memorial Stadium, University Ave. Procession, Tunnel Rouser & Pre-game
entrance, and the glory of those Saturdays long ago, regardless of win/loss
records.