Michigan sports fans couldn’t attend games during COVID-19. Here’s how they coped

Detroit Free Press

Ron Crachiola couldn’t help himself on Thanksgiving Day.

The man who has devoted a lifetime of Sundays and Mondays — and especially Thursdays in November — rooting for the Detroit Lions had to see for himself. A season that didn’t feel like a season kept Crachiola and every other Lions fan away from Ford Field last season because of COVID-19 safety restrictions.

But the man known throughout Lions fandom as “Crackman” or just Crack or simply as that crazy guy with the hard hat, work boots, bib overalls and a painted-blue mustache had to see for himself. If the season didn’t feel the same, at least Thanksgiving might feel like Thanksgiving in Detroit, where the Lions started their NFL tradition in 1934.

Crachiola, 69, was compelled to see Ford Field. To be near it somehow. Like a kid with his nose pressed up against the window of a toy store, he wanted what was inside.

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron "Crackman" Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, holds a figurine a friend made for him with his slogan "Who loves ya, baby?" While wearing a button in memory of his friend and Detroit Lions fan the late Donnie "Yooperman" Stefanski at his home in Macomb Township on March 3, 2021.

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, holds a figurine a friend made for him with his slogan “Who loves ya,…
Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, holds a figurine a friend made for him with his slogan “Who loves ya, baby?” While wearing a button in memory of his friend and Detroit Lions fan the late Donnie “Yooperman” Stefanski at his home in Macomb Township on March 3, 2021.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

So Crachiola loaded up his bike on Thanksgiving and drove from his Macomb Township home to Detroit. He put on his hard hat and overalls, which he says symbolize Detroit’s blue-collar working spirit, and rode around downtown with some friends. Up and down Jefferson Avenue, past the Renaissance Center, along the Dequindre Cut, around Eastern Market.

“I was just so sad,” he said. “It was like going to a funeral because the place was like a ghost town on Thanksgiving.

“It was tough. Not only for me but fans through all the NFL. Friends of mine that I talk to, they’re going through the same thing I am.”

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township
I miss everything, but it’s just seeing all the fans, you know?

As he got closer to Ford Field, Crachiola found a security guard he knew.

“He said, ‘Crack, they’ve got everything blocked off, you can’t get near the stadium,’ ” Crachiola said. “So I didn’t go by the stadium. I probably would’ve started crying.”

Since we’re a year removed from the shutdown caused by COVID-19 that has severely limited fan attendance across all sports — though some restrictions at stadiums and arenas in the state began to lax last month — the Free Press salutes some of the staunchest fans of our local teams and recognizes their struggles and efforts to remain loyal and connected with their teams during such a challenging year.

Crachiola is a shining example of this. He has been a Lions season ticket holder for over 45 years. He began going to games at Tiger Stadium in 1966 with his father, Tony. Afterward, he even sneaked into Hoot Robinson’s bar a few times — as a 14-year-old.

As an adult, Crachiola’s fanaticism took hold of him with a ferocity that has seemed to strengthen with each passing year. Devotion among fans tends to wane as they get older. Marriage, kids, work — they begin taking precedence as we move through life.

But Crachiola never married. Instead, he has been faithful to the Lions, a doting devotee throughout his life. He has averaged attending six or seven road games for the past 20 years and when he retired as a lineman for DTE Energy in 2015, he finally went to all 16 games that season — when the Lions went 7-9.

“The tailgating, the camaraderie, the fellowship that I’ve gotten over the years from many fans around the NFL is just like a family to me,” he said. “It’s just enjoyable. We talk football, we’re family. Of course, we want our teams to win but during the game we’re enemies. But after the game, we drink.”

[ How life has changed for the major sports teams in Michigan since the COVID-19 pandemic ]

Of course, it isn’t all a beer-soaked bacchanal for Crachiola. He isn’t immune from the Lions’ struggles throughout most of his lifetime. When Crachiola was still working, the common razzings he would get Monday mornings in the fall were tough to take. He grew a thick skin and hatched an interesting philosophy that should resonate with many Michiganders.

“A lot of people think I’m a nut, I’m crazy,” he said. “Like how do you deal with this all these years?

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron "Crackman" Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, puts on his gamely paint in a bathroom at his home on March 3, 2021. "Last year it sucked. It was hard for me to really get into it. I prepare myself. I sit here and I get dressed. In my mind, I'm thinking about the game, the crowd, my ritual and what I'm going to do. This year it was hard just to even get motivated. It was just like going to a funeral but no one there. It was just sad but hopefully, it'll come back," said Crachiola, who's known for his phrase, "Who loves ya baby," about not being able to attend games due to the pandemic.
"When you're in the crowd it's different. It's loud in there. At games, I go crazy." 
He started attending Lions games at Tigers Stadium with his father and this past opener and Thanksgiving Day ritual of attending the games was his first time missing them in his over 40 years of being a season ticket holder.

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, puts on his gamely paint in a bathroom at his home on March 3,…
Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township, puts on his gamely paint in a bathroom at his home on March 3, 2021. “Last year it sucked. It was hard for me to really get into it. I prepare myself. I sit here and I get dressed. In my mind, I’m thinking about the game, the crowd, my ritual and what I’m going to do. This year it was hard just to even get motivated. It was just like going to a funeral but no one there. It was just sad but hopefully, it’ll come back,” said Crachiola, who’s known for his phrase, “Who loves ya baby,” about not being able to attend games due to the pandemic.
“When you’re in the crowd it’s different. It’s loud in there. At games, I go crazy.”
He started attending Lions games at Tigers Stadium with his father and this past opener and Thanksgiving Day ritual of attending the games was his first time missing them in his over 40 years of being a season ticket holder.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

“I tell them I look at it as a bunch of guys that are deer huntin’. They’ve deer hunted their whole life, 40 years or whatever, up in the U.P. or in the upper Lower (peninsula) and they’re looking for that big trophy buck and they just don’t get it. Do they go out and sell their guns? No. Do they sell their cabins? No. They go back every year because there’s camaraderie, fellowship. They enjoy their time together. Same thing as fishin’. Guy don’t catch a fish, you don’t sell your boat.”

Never mind that hunters and fisherman might have more luck bagging Bigfoot or Moby Dick than seeing a Lions Super Bowl victory in their lifetimes. Crachiola’s comparison holds true. A pursuit is about more than the prize. It’s about the passion.

That’s why last season was so hard on Crachiola. He missed the games but he also missed the people and his game-day ritual. He would attend 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Mount Clemens before friends met at his home, where they piled into the Lions-themed shuttle bus Crachiola and his late friend Donnie “Yooperman” Stefanski bought from the team. It was on to tailgating in Lot 1 at Eastern Market with plenty of food and friends.

Hard as he tried, Crachiola found it impossible to replace that happy tradition.

“This last year was a killer,” he said. “We had a couple gatherings at people’s houses like the first game against the Bears. We were at a friend’s house on Commerce Lake. And some of the fans we’d tailgate with showed up.

“But it just wasn’t the same. Hell, that was the first opener I’d missed in over 40-something years. And then some other games I just stuck around the house here.”

Fans like Crachiola, those truly devoted loyalists who still hear the echo of their teams’ greatest moments, struggle when they are disconnected from their game-day, in-person experiences. After having watched countless Lions games at Tiger Stadium and the Silverdome and Ford Field, it’s about as easy for Crachiola to pick a favorite memory as it would be for your mother to pick a favorite child — especially if she had 16 kids every year.

There are plenty of contenders, but Crachiola says Barry Sanders’ debut tops his favorite memory. It came in the third quarter of a 16-13 loss to the Phoenix Cardinals in the 1989 opener in front of 36,735 fans at the Silverdome, though Crachiola remembers it as 80,000 fans.

“They say he didn’t know the plays that well,” he said. “One of (the coaches) just told the quarterback we’ll just do pitch right, pitch left and let the kid run.

“I think it was a toss, he went on the left side, a couple jukes and bang! He went 25, 30 yards and 80,000 people went crazy in there. The next one went to the right and the next one in the end zone. And that was it: ‘Bar-ry! Bar-ry!’ It was the start of an era.”

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron "Crackman" Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township stands amongst photos and items representing his team at his home on March 3, 2021. "Last year it sucked. It was hard for me to really get into it. I prepare myself. I sit here and I get dressed. In my mind, I'm thinking about the game, the crowd, my ritual and what I'm going to do. This year it was hard just to even get motivated. It was just like going to a funeral but no one there. It was just sad but hopefully, it'll come back," said Crachiola, who's known for his phrase, "Who loves ya baby," about not being able to attend games due to the pandemic.
"When you're in the crowd it's different. It's loud in there. At games, I go crazy." 
He started attending Lions games at Tigers Stadium with his father and this past opener and Thanksgiving Day ritual of attending the games was his first time missing them in his over 40 years of being a season ticket holder.

Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township stands amongst photos and items representing his team at his home on March 3,…
Diehard Detroit Lions Superfan Ron “Crackman” Crachiola, 69, of Macomb Township stands amongst photos and items representing his team at his home on March 3, 2021. “Last year it sucked. It was hard for me to really get into it. I prepare myself. I sit here and I get dressed. In my mind, I’m thinking about the game, the crowd, my ritual and what I’m going to do. This year it was hard just to even get motivated. It was just like going to a funeral but no one there. It was just sad but hopefully, it’ll come back,” said Crachiola, who’s known for his phrase, “Who loves ya baby,” about not being able to attend games due to the pandemic.
“When you’re in the crowd it’s different. It’s loud in there. At games, I go crazy.”
He started attending Lions games at Tigers Stadium with his father and this past opener and Thanksgiving Day ritual of attending the games was his first time missing them in his over 40 years of being a season ticket holder.
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

Even the play-by-play from the official NFL game summary noted this after Sanders’ touchdown: “The roar seemed to be restored.”

Someday, and he hopes soon, Crachiola will be able to hear that roar again in person as he watches his beloved Lions among his friends.

“I miss everything,” he said, “but it’s just seeing all the fans, you know?

“People don’t realize the fan base the Lions have. They haven’t won a championships since ’57. But on opening day, nice sunny day or even in the heart of the winter, you go down to that ballpark, the streets with the blue — it’s just so amazing the people that love the Detroit Lions.”

Brian Minbiole knows exactly what he’s missing whenever he turns on the Detroit Pistons game and settles in on the reclining couch of his Rochester home.

“It’s electric,” he said of his couch, “so I can kick the legs out after I’ve plowed through my chicken wings or whatever. I mean, it’s all right there and it’s comfortable and it’s cozy.”

Minbiole speaks of his comfort almost with contempt because he’s a true basketball aficionado who knows what he’s missing by not attending games. Actually, he’s more than an aficionado. He’s a nut. But he’s the best kind of nut, especially about the Pistons.

The 57-year-old former AAU coach can tell you anything and everything about the team he has followed from Cobo Arena to the Silverdome to the Palace to Little Caesars Arena. He once attended 36 of 41 home games — purely for business purposes while entertaining clients, of course.

But right now Minbiole knows what he’s missing sitting on his couch and not watching the Pistons’ young players in person, because he has watched it before.

“I wanted to see the physical transformation of these players,” he said. “I try to remind my kids: Do you realize how good Grant Hill was? He was amazing. He’s in the five best players I ever saw wear the uniform.

“But as you’re getting rid of him you’re now bringing in these pieces. Who is Ben Wallace? What is a Chucky Atkins? And I liked seeing the energy these guys showed because they had something to prove.”

The Goin’ to Work Pistons, and the Bad Boys before them, turned into something special in front of Minbiole’s eyes. But the key was that he got to see it for himself, the evolution of players, how they developed with the ball and away from it. How they grew as a team.

“What I’m missing now is I can go where the camera takes me,” he said. “But am I seeing all the extracurricular activity that is going on with these young players? We saw (Dennis) Rodman driving into the crowd. I mean, that was the most famous thing he did before he became this fantastic defender and rebounder. And those cameras learned to follow him and we saw some of the ancillary things these guys do.

“I want to watch Isaiah Stewart box a dude into the first row, to make sure that whether I got the rebound or not, somebody else wasn’t (going to). That is a talent and a physicality he’s got.”

That’s what Minbiole wants. He wants to see the journey that leads to the eventual destination of a championship.

But that’s not what Minbiole has gotten this season. It’s been a lot of sitting on the couch and trying to watch the game closely by avoiding his phone and putting away his iPad. He might text his son, Keith, in Grand Rapids, if he knows he’s also watching the game. But otherwise it’s a struggle to block things out.

“I really try to minimize the distractions,” he said, “but it’s almost impossible to do so.”

What Minbiole wants is what most fans want after a year of being kept away.

“I think we’re so hungry for being able to turn to somebody you don’t know and high-five them after a dunk,” he said. “Screw social distancing and transferring whatever. I never high-fived so many people as when the Pistons were winning and doing great in playoff games.

“That joint camaraderie, especially in an era when we are divided on everything, we could all come together for the Pistons. We will when the time comes.”

Doug Rader tries to watch as many Detroit Red Wings games as he can these days. But it’s hard for the longtime fan from Canton who lived through the Wings’ glory days and the dizzying, euphoric heights they reached a few years ago, when they won four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons.

“I watch it on TV and I’ve got surround sound,” said Rader, 39. “That’s about the best it can be. I watch it with my son. Just in our family room.

“I pop in and out because it’s easy to do other stuff. I wish I could tell you we watch every game, but they’re hard to watch. They’re so hard to watch. Now, 15 years ago I did watch every game. Twenty-five years ago I definitely watched every game.”

Even after a 10-month hiatus for the Wings caused by the pandemic, Rader has struggled to watch his team since it resumed action in January with very limited spectator attendance. Whoever said absence makes the heart grow fonder probably didn’t have to live through a Wings rebuild that’s now in its fifth season.

It also doesn’t help that besides suffering through bad hockey, Wings fans also have been severely limited from doing that suffering in person. And attending the games in person and enjoying the entire sensory experience is what Rader misses most.

“The noise and the speed of the game does not translate well to TV,” he said. “I feel like when you watch any of the sports on TV, I mean they’re all good but I feel like for people that I’ve taken either to the Joe or (Little Caesars Arena) to watch the game that weren’t necessarily hockey fans, when they see it in person they talk about how great of a game it is. … It’s not just set plays, it’s a flowing game and I think it’s just much more exciting to watch in person.”

Rader has two favorite memories of attending Wings games. One is when he took his son, Cameron, who was 3 at the time, to a game during the 2016-17 final season at Joe Louis Arena. His other favorite memory happened May 4, 1997, when he was at the Joe and watched Slava Kozlov score the triple-overtime winner against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals on their way to their first Stanley Cup since 1955.

“That was awesome,” he said of Kozlov’s goal. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard it louder there.”

Of course the Joe is long gone. So are the echoes from those heady times when the cheers were deafening and bounced off the walls and into fans’ souls.

Experiencing those highs is a double-edge sword for fans like Rader because living through a team’s greatness makes enduring the drought even harder.

 “Yeah, long time with the Wings,” he said of his fanaticism. “But boy, oh boy, the last couple of years have just been tough.”

But Rader does find at least some consolation in knowing his struggle isn’t as mighty as that of some of his fellow Detroit sports fans.

“But if you talk to a Lions fan,” he said, “ ‘Oh, the last 50 years have been tough.’ ”

Actually, it’s been 63 years. But who’s counting?

David Samuels still has the ticket stub from the last game at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 27, 1999. He’s not exactly sure of its whereabouts, but he’s fairly certain it’s tucked away in a photo album somewhere in his West Bloomfield home.

More important, Samuels has his memories of that final game. They are his dearest from his intense devotion as a lifelong Tigers fan. Samuels, 68, was on vacation with friends in Las Vegas that weekend when he realized the home finale would start at 4:05 p.m. on a Monday. His flight wouldn’t land until about 8 p.m., so he returned a day early.

“I left at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, caught three Southwest flights back and I was sitting there with my son (Justin) and a friend of mine,” he said.

Samuels, 68, didn’t even have tickets, but he managed to buy three in the lower deck in left field.

“I don’t even remember what we paid and I don’t care,” he said. “But it was way more than the (face value),  obviously. We just wanted to be inside for that game. Anywhere.”

In the bottom of the eighth inning, it was all worth it.

“And here’s the moment,” he said, “Robert Fick came up with the bases loaded and I told the guy in front of me, it was getting dark and I told him, ‘This is like the scene from “The Natural” and he’s going to hit it over the right field roof.’ And the guy turns around and goes, ‘Fick?’ And I go, ‘Yeah, yeah. First pitch.’ ”

Sure enough, Fick hit the first pitch he saw off Jeff Montgomery in the bottom of the eighth inning, helping the Tigers to an 8-2 victory over the Kansas City Royals in the final game at The Corner.

To Samuels, Comerica Park falls short of Tiger Stadium. It’s a little plain with an outfield that’s too deep for his liking. But he still loves the atmosphere and soaks it all in when he attends about six or seven games each season, usually with his son. Samuels likes to arrive about an hour early so that he can walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. He’s a food traditionalist and prefers a hot dog, peanuts and a diet soda.

Besides appreciating the game and its nuances, Samuels loves talking to fans around him.

“So we’ll end up talking to people down there, high-fiving and making remarks,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. It’s a good atmosphere. You’re out there, the weather’s good, you’re relaxed, you’re going to see a ballgame.

“I love all the sports, but baseball’s my No. 1 love. I like to talk to people so it works out pretty good at the games,” Samuels said.

That’s why it was especially hard on Samuels last season when Tigers fans weren’t allowed to attend games at Comerica Park.

“We watched every game,” he said. “Every game was on TV, so we just kind of watched every game. It’s kind of sad. It’s been sad for every game because you can’t go there. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

For Samuels, that meant listening on the radio if he was driving home, and then watching every game on the television in his family room as he and his son provided their own commentary.

“So we don’t just sit there and watch,” he said. “We critique it and makes comments. We’ve been doing that for years. It’s fun. We understand the game.”

Even though the Tigers were often unwatchable last season as they continue their rebuild, Samuels was undaunted. He watched. Again and again. Because Samuels’ love for his team and his sport endured and it was the only way to fill the void created by empty stadiums.

“I will say that people tell me I’m nuts,” he said. “I probably watch the game more than most people. I don’t watch it for an inning or two, then leave and come back an hour later. I like watching the game and I love baseball.”

Mike Reid has a name for the Michigan football fans he tailgates with every fall.

“I call them my Michigan family,” he said, “as corny as it is.”

Only it isn’t. It’s endearing and it’s true because the longtime U-M season-ticket holder has spent countless Saturdays tailgating on a fairway at the Michigan Golf Course doing exactly what family does at gatherings: Sharing food and stories and making memories while watching his kids play and grow up.

Reid, 51, is a diehard Wolverines fan who can recount nuances of historic games. He has kissed the 50-yard line at Michigan Stadium. He still has a newspaper clipping from his picture appearing in the Akron Beacon Journal following a 20-14 win over Ohio State during the 1997 undefeated national championship season. And when he says the words “Bo and Woody” there’s almost a hint of reverence in his voice.

Mike Reid, top left, poses for a selfie while he attends a Michigan football game with his family at Michigan Stadium.

Mike Reid, top left, poses for a selfie while he attends a Michigan football game with his family at Michigan Stadium.
Photo courtesy of Mike Reid

But the most special part of Reid’s connection to Michigan football is the game-day ritual that starts with tailgating. For noon games, he leaves his Lyon Township home at 6 a.m. and he’s at his tailgating spot by 7 a.m.

“We’re usually one of the first in line,” he said. “We set up and we have breakfast. Sometimes one guy brings quiche, sometimes we bring burritos. We cook out there. We have a grill, we have an oven. We don’t lack for food the whole day.

“It’s honestly one of the things I look forward to the most is the tailgate. And I don’t mean that I sit there and get drunk all day. It’s more about just the food and hanging out with people. Most of the people at the tailgate I only see them for the tailgates. We don’t live close to each other, so we see each other six, eight times a year,” he said.

Reid has two older children in their 20s and two younger, school-age children. Some or all of the kids tag along at the tailgate. There’s plenty of space on the fairway to play football or bocce ball and even fowling, which is bowling with a football. Yes, it’s a real thing.

But safety restrictions kept fans from tailgating and attending games at the Big House last season. In late July, Reid attended an outdoor graduation party and came up with a plan.

“So a couple of the people from the tailgate came,” he said, “and they said, ‘We still want to get together for home games. We can’t go to the game, but let’s get together at someone’s house, we’ll rotate, we’ll tailgate  and we’ll get together still.’

“I kind of invited people over for the first game and for (some) reasons whatsoever it never materialized. We talked and said we would but we never did. I think I hung out with some friends, but we never got the tailgate group together. That was unfortunate because I’d love to.”

Reid tried to make the best of it while watching Michigan struggle to win twice in a six-game season.

“For the Michigan State game, I invited some people over,” he said. “We went down to the basement. I have a basement that’s mainly Michigan-decorated. … We had pizza, someone brought White Castle, which is always a popular tailgate dish. We had mini-sandwiches, meatballs.

“It was a fun day until the game started because Michigan played awful and lost. But it was good to get some people together. It was kind of a smaller party.”

Try as he might to recreate the tailgating experience he loves, Reid found it far from normal.

“Every game did feel kind of like a road game,” he said. “It was just weird. It was just a different feeling.”

How could it not be? The ritual and pageantry that goes along with college football is what makes it so dear to fans — and the people they share those experiences with.

“I miss the games, I miss the people that we sit by,” Reid said. “I don’t even know them, but I know them for six days a year. I miss the games, obviously, the atmosphere, the helmets, all the cheers that we do throughout the game.

“But really I think what I miss the most is the tailgate. And again I’m not a drinker. I rarely drink a lot. It’s just the camaraderie, hanging out with the people I never see.”

Michigan State football fan Laura Varon Brown, second from left, tailgates outside of Spartan Stadium before the COVID-19 pandemic with family and friends while using a popular portable Spartans bar.

Michigan State football fan Laura Varon Brown, second from left, tailgates outside of Spartan Stadium before the COVID-19 pandemic with family and friends while using a popular portable Spartans bar.
Photo courtesy of Laura Varon Brown

Everything about Laura Varon Brown’s Michigan State football tailgate is epic.

The food. The drinks. The bar. (Yes, she has a portable Spartans bar). Even the planning is epic.

And why not? She’s had plenty of practice. Varon Brown, 59, and her husband, Jeff Brown, have had season tickets at Spartan Stadium for 35 years, which has given them plenty of practice with their group of six faithful tailgaters to get things just the way they want them.

“In the summer, we have a tailgate planning party,” she said. “It’s very elaborate. … We very meticulously plan and theme every tailgate. And then on game day we get there at least three hours before the game. And we bring our grills and every year we’ve added something new.”

When Varon Brown and her pals first started tailgating, it was, well, a little spartan. Just a small grill with everyone sitting outside their cars.

“And now we have a big tent,” she said, “we have heaters, we have a bar that we bought, a Spartan bar with a big Spartan umbrella. So we’ve added something every year.”

And the spread? Let’s put it this way. The mere thought of hot dogs and nachos brings swift repudiation from Varon Brown.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “No, no. God, no.”

This is the tailgate other tailgates hope to be when they grow up.

There’s Varon Brown’s cilantro-marinated flank steak. Her friend makes a show-stopping shrimp boil that includes sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob that is spread out on a long table. There are two grills and a stove. The meals often have themes like Italian food or perhaps the cuisine represented by the location of the visiting team.

“And then we have a specialty drink every time,” Varon Brown said.

One of the favorites for early games is a Bloody Mary bar with bacon, pickles and celery.

“Yeah, it’s really fun and elaborate,” she said, “and they’ve gotten more elaborate over the years.”

Of course, it all came to a halt with the pandemic. Early last summer, Varon Brown’s group was fairly certain the tailgates would be slammed shut, if there even was a season.

“The thing is we know this year, obviously, people have dealt with much tougher things than being able to tailgate,” she said. “And we have a group of people who appreciate that, but it’s been hard. It’s been tough not having that social aspect of it. But that’s where the tailgate terrace came in.”

Michigan State football fan Laura Varon Brown hosts a socially distanced gathering at her "tailgate terrace" in Bloomfield Township to watch a Spartans football game during the 2020 season.

Michigan State football fan Laura Varon Brown hosts a socially distanced gathering at her “tailgate terrace” in Bloomfield Township to watch a Spartans football game during the 2020 season.
Photo courtesy of Laura Varon Brown

Varon Brown’s group came up with a plan to move the tailgate to the deck of her Bloomfield Township home. Thus, the tailgate terrace was born, where everyone gathered and where the epic tailgate continued thanks to inspired ingenuity.

“It started slowly where we added some furniture,” she said. “We got an awning and then we had a tailgate-planning (socially) distanced party in the summer — and then it all got shot to hell when the season was on and then it was off and then it was delayed.

“But we ended up having at least four nice tailgates during the season. We had our shrimp boil. We had our cilantro flank steak. And of course the Spartans weren’t very good, but that Michigan game made our summer. I mean, it could have ended right there. They beat Michigan, we had a beautiful tailgate. It gave us a sense of the season.”

Varon Brown decided to cap the group at eight and made sure everyone wore masks on the tailgate terrace. They had a television mounted on a wall with a weatherproof cover. Her 5-year-old restaurant-style propane heaters were invaluable.

“They’ve tipped over. They’re on their last leg,” she said. “We’ve gone through so much propane. … But those were a godsend.”

So yes, it was a sense of the season for Varon Brown. But everyone knew it wasn’t the real thing. It couldn’t approximate some of Varon Brown’s favorite memories of attending MSU games, like when she started crying when she saw her oldest daughter, Molly Varon, sitting in the student section for the first time over a decade ago.

The tailgate terrace also couldn’t provide the kind of thrill she got from legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, near the end of his tenure, stopping at her tailgate to chat with her uncle Joe Sanders, a big Wolverines fan from Columbus, Ohio.

“And Bo Schembechler walked over and spent like 15 minutes with Uncle Joe,” Varon Brown said. “But what are the chances of that happening when Bo Schembechler just walked through the parking lot? It was crazy.”

Three decades later, Varon Brown and her friends did their best to make their tailgates wondrous affairs. She made the most of it but couldn’t make up for what she missed most at Spartan Stadium.

“My friends,” she said softly. “Just the release of the friendship, it’s just so nice. And, obviously, the winning seasons are awesome. But let me tell you, we’ve had some long rides home.

Oh, and there was one more thing. Something only a raucous stadium filled with 75,005 joyous fans rooting at the top of their lungs could offer.

“Our scream therapy,” Varon Brown said. “We don’t get that. If any year you could use your scream therapy, it’s this year.”

Michael Nathan knows he lives a charmed life.

The longtime Wolverines basketball fan from West Bloomfield has been best friends since second grade with Paul Blavin, a well-known alumnus and donor at Michigan. Blavin endows an eponymous scholarship program at the school and the Blavin Tunnel that leads from the U-M locker room to the floor at Crisler Center is named for Blavin’s father.

As you can imagine, Blavin’s season seats at Crisler Center are amazing. They’re in the first row, directly behind the television announcers at center court. And Nathan, 56, gets to use them frequently, courtesy of his good friend.

It gets better, too. The seats come with several perks like parking and a coat check and a club with so much cachet Nathan isn’t even sure of its name, but he knows the entrance has frosted-glass doors and is tended to by two ushers.

“It’s just the best,” he said of Crisler. “I love the band and the pageantry and the scoreboard and all the stuff, the Maize Rage, which is directly across. My wife (Lauren) loves going, too, because she just gets a kick out of all the stuff that goes on between the whistles and the timeouts. I just love the atmosphere, and it’s good basketball since (John) Beilein got there.”

Michael Nathan and his wife, Lauren, attend a Michigan basketball game at Crisler Center.

Michael Nathan and his wife, Lauren, attend a Michigan basketball game at Crisler Center.
Photo courtesy of Michael Nathan

Nathan should know. Long before he got to sit in Blavin’s seats, he was enthralled with U-M basketball since the Johnny Orr era. He speaks of Mike McGee as though he can still see him hitting everything from anywhere on the floor. And when Nathan’s older brother took him to see Michigan beat Nebraska in an NIT game at Crisler in 1980, that was it. He was hooked.

“I was only 10 or 11,” he said. “I thought it was the greatest thing ever. So I’ve just been able to continue to do that all these years. It’s special.”

His fondness only grew as a U-M student in the mid-1980s.

“I remember going to the games back in ’85 and ’86 with Roy Tarpley and Antoine Joubert,” he said. “It hasn’t changed. It’s gotten only better.”

That’s what made this great season so hard for Nathan. He and devoted fans like him weren’t there to enjoy it with the team.

“I watch these games on TV now,” he said during the season, “and my heart aches a little bit because nobody’s there to enjoy this really fantastic season they’re having, unprecedented.”

But Nathan has made the most of it. He’s remained committed to watching the team at home with his son, Noah, a recent U-M graduate. Nathan talked Lauren into ditching their family room armoire so they could replace their 46-inch TV with a wall-mounted 75-inch 4K screen.

“It’s life-changing,” he said with a little laugh before admitting Lauren gets to watch “Outlander” on the big screen.

“So a lot of times we’ll just watch it on that and that’s really all I can do,” he said. “And a lot of texting during the games with my friends. It’s during and then after the game and some trolling on Twitter and things like that.”

In the 20-plus years Kathy Stiffler and her husband, Mike, have had season tickets the Breslin Center to watch Michigan State basketball games, she’s had one requirement for her seats.

They must face the Spartans bench so she can watch Coach Tom Izzo.

Stiffler, 59, has an interesting connection to Izzo. They both grew up in same area of the Upper Peninsula: Izzo in Iron Mountain and Stiffler in nearby Norway. Their mothers attended Norway High School together. And Stiffler can still remember what it smelled like inside “Izzo and Sons,” the family’s shoe repair store in Iron Mountain.

Stiffler loves everything about Breslin. She has been a “sucker for the national anthem” since the 9/11 attacks and appreciates the job MSU does with the song and the presentation, often from members of the armed forces. Of course, she loves watching the highly successful team, too.

“But my favorite thing besides, of course, watching them play, because they’ve been just an amazing team for so long, is I am a huge Tom Izzo fan,” she said. “So he is entertainment in and of itself to watch him.

“So everywhere we have sat I have made sure we were across from the MSU bench because I want to be able to watch him, too. For me it isn’t just about the awesome play, it’s about Izzo and I like to be able to see, I want to be able to see his expressions.”

Yes, even for a college basketball coach, Izzo is plenty famous for his fiery and entertaining nature on the sidelines.

Kathy Stiffler, third from right, hangs out with friends from the Upper Peninsula during halftime of a Michigan State basketball game at the Breslin Center.

Kathy Stiffler, third from right, hangs out with friends from the Upper Peninsula during halftime of a Michigan State basketball game at the Breslin Center.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Stiffler

That’s why it was especially hard for Stiffler to stay connected with the Spartans this year. No anthem. No Izzo. Not even the Izzone.

“Well,” Stiffler said, “there’s nothing. There is nothing to replace the experience of being at the Breslin. When it gets rocking, I mean there is nothing like it.”

In fact, it was such a challenging year and season for Stiffler that she almost lost track of the games altogether.

“Sometimes, I forget they’re even playing,” she said during the season, “because it’s not like it’s something I had to put on calendar because we need to be there. I’ll be surprised when I get a notification, like, ‘oh, my gosh, they’re playing tonight.’ And that’s just so odd to me because I was obsessed with them in the past following them so closely.”

For a long time, Stiffler planned her days around games at Breslin. She and her husband often had a pregame meal near the stadium at Harrison’s Roadhouse or at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center. Sometimes they would meet friends for drinks before or after a game.

Even for those dreaded late starts on a weeknight game for national TV, Stiffler made the effort to show up. And she never regretted it.

“Sometimes, it would be a 9 o’clock game on a Tuesday night and you’ve got to be at work the next day,” she said. “So that was always a challenge. But what I found was I would start dreading it to get there on a worknight, and then the minute I got there I’m like, ‘This is awesome. Why was I stressing about it?’ ”

Instead, it’s just Stiffler and her husband watching games in the family room of their DeWitt home.

“Yeah, there’s nothing exciting about it,” she said. “He’s in his chair and I’m on the couch. I wish I could tell you we have this great routine, but it’s not exciting.”

The only excitement that remains for Stiffler is in her voice. You can still hear it as she speaks about her favorite moment at Breslin.

“So, I’m obsessive about senior nights,” she said. “I go with pockets full of Kleenex because I boo-hoo through the whole thing because you get so attached to these young men and these players. Certainly, Cassius (Winston), his year last year was just unbelievable. I would never miss senior night. I rearrange everything to be present for senior night.”

Like a lot of fans, Stiffler’s beloved ritual has been taken away from her because of the pandemic. It’s left her with the poor substitute of watching games on TV — a disconnected experience that’s sadly fitting in our socially distanced world.

“I don’t know how to explain it because it’s not like I didn’t watch away games on the television and got super motivated,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the lack of connection because you’re not there or it’s just the weird times or it’s just this down year.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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