For months I have been calling this the most exciting and intriguing Penn State football season in quite some time. There are many big questions to be sure, but also so many promising answers among the Lions’ most talented roster, top to bottom, in ages. But about two weeks ago I was dealt a curveball no one is ever ready to handle. I got a call that my father had suddenly passed away back home in Columbus.
Like so many of you reading this, my dad is the one that first got me interested in sports, and specifically college football, even if I took a rather unique route to my Nittany Lion fandom. You see, my dad was a lifelong fan of Michigan. He grew up a stone’s throw from the Big House in Ann Arbor, and my parents held season tickets there for years. My first exposure to this wonderful game was in section 7 at Michigan Stadium with my dad, mom, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Those fall Saturdays were true family affairs in the de Bear family.
However, like any good son, I had to forge a different path. Growing up just outside of Columbus, I quickly realized there was no greater way to antagonize my maize and blue bleeding father than by becoming a fan of the scarlet and gray. But dad took it all in stride, even taking me to a few Ohio State-Michigan games in Ann Arbor. I think it was easier given that the Wolverines triumphed in each of those games, often ruining the Buckeye’s title hopes in the process. I was there to see Desmond strike the Heisman pose, Tshiamanga Biakabatuka rumble for roughly 600 yards, and Charles Woodson cement his own Heisman Trophy. My childhood dreams were dashed on each of those occasions, but those days in Michigan Stadium with my dad have always been some of my favorite memories.
My journey would eventually take me to Penn State, a place I first visited with my dad in the summer before my senior year of high school. Like so many of us, I immediately fell in love with Happy Valley. Despite putting off a decision until unnecessarily late, I knew deep down it was where I wanted to be. I also quickly acclimated to the Nittany Lion lifestyle, capped by making the Blue Band as a freshman in 2001. My parents found their way to Beaver Stadium a few times a year, something my dad always looked forward to. One of my favorite pictures of the two of us is from one of those trips, when I sat with my parents to watch the post game “Drum Corner” performance. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back at that photo, I cannot help but smile seeing just how happy he was to be sharing this with me.
As the years went on and after I had graduated from Penn State, the text messages would fly back and forth during games. One of my favorites came in the moments after Michigan State’s improbable victory over Michigan in 2015. After I expressed my condolences for his team’s loss, I suggested maybe I drive back home to give him a hug. His reply was simple, and perfect: “Stay the hell away from me”.
More recently, my dad joined Twitter. He never posted, but he started following me. It was a virtual guarantee that anything Michigan related would soon earn a text reply. We were both looking forward to attending our first game together in years this fall when the Nittany Lions return to Michigan Stadium in November. Now that day will be so bittersweet, and many a good Harbaugh joke will go unacknowledged.
I am still excited for Saturday’s season opener, and the coming months of college football insanity. In fact, my sister and brother in law are bringing my young nephew up for the game, his first ever. It is never too early to introduce this wonderful sport to the next generation. But I also won’t be sharing it with the person who got me hooked on this beautiful drug 30-some years ago. When Notre Dame goes up 10-0 on Michigan early on Saturday night, there won’t be a “Harbaugh sucks” text hitting my phone, or a smartass response to something I tweeted from our tailgate earlier in the day. But for the first time in my life, at least for 11 of 12 weeks, I will be a Michigan fan. Sorry dad, I know you’ll understand some things are more important on November 3.
Go State. Go Blue.