DETROIT — Jim Harbaugh heard the noise.
No, not that kind of noise, though he heard that, too, and promises that there are “lots of ways to travel” and that some choose the ground, and some choose the air, and that Gen. Patton did his thing on the ground and Neil Armstrong did his thing through the air and that just because his Wolverines have mostly run the first two games doesn’t mean his team won’t pass, too.
Good. Let’s move on.
Or rather back … to the first kind of noise, the kind of noise that builds, then roars, the kind of noise that reverberates anticipation and celebration and eventually adulation.
The kind of noise Harbaugh heard Saturday night from the Michigan football sideline in Michigan Stadium, so warm and cocooning and, well, human, that he removed his headset several times to listen.
To take it in.
He smiled as he talked about what he heard during his team’s victory over Washington, that he was so moved by it he took the time to uncover his ears.
“The enthusiasm. The school spirit. First and foremost is the student section that is just wrapping around the whole southwest corner and into the south end zone, creeping toward the 50 yard-line and growing and loud. On the first play of the game, Washington (had a) delay of game penalty.”
It was, he added later during his weekly news conference, “awesome with a capital “A.” And it was, especially relative to how so many think about the (again, relative) noise inside Michigan Stadium, a place that doesn’t hold the best reputation for its aural environment.
Maybe it was the Maize-out. Or the night kickoff. Or the joy of reconvening after a couple of years. Maybe it was all those things.
Rugged attitude for Michigan football's offensive line originated with this drill
We missed it. Craved it, even, the swelling cacophony of throaty connection.
I’ve been thinking about the power of such noise the last few weeks, since football’s return, also since the return of fans at the U.S. Open, traditionally the loudest venue in tennis, where, on Sunday evening, one of the more beautiful ovations you’ll ever hear washed over the sport’s best — and most polarizing — player.
There, in Arthur Ashe Stadium, toward the end of a painful loss in the championship match, after coming so close to making history, Novak Djokovic finally heard the noise he’d been waiting to hear his entire career.
All his life, the metronomic Serbian had been chasing the kind of embrace his talent and relentlessness deserved, the kind of embrace his contemporaries, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, receive the moment they step off a plane.
Djokovic wasn’t just attempting to become the all-time leader in major victories — the three of them were tied at 20 entering the U.S. Open — he was also trying to become the first male tennis player to win the Grand Slam since Rod Laver did in the 1960s.
Whether pressure or exhaustion got to him is debatable. Whatever it was, he wasn’t quite himself, and the crowd sensed he didn’t have his usual elastic and indomitable game.
And when he sat during the changeover in the third set, having lost the first two, a game away from losing the match, he buried his head in his towel and just about sobbed.
He hadn’t expected the packed stadium to chant his name, to stand and roar, to wrap him in all that decibel-fueled love as he sat in near defeat, having failed to make history. He’d always been the foil to Federer and Nadal, the villain robbing the two most popular men’s players ever of their perch among the clouds.
Finally, he was the hero.
“They pleasantly surprised me,” he said. “I did not know. I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I’ll remember forever. I mean, that’s the reason on the changeover I just teared up. I mean, it’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slams.”
On the contrary, a human, connected to all those other humans, grateful for the chance to watch athletic performance. It felt similar under the lights Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Perhaps you saw the images, a valley of Maize, a river of green, eclipsed before the kickoff by red, white and blue. A nod to 9/11, to its two-decade passing, to those who were lost and forever changed.
Sports stopped back then, too. But only briefly, as everyone agreed, the desire to be seen and heard was essential.
For almost a year, we’ve lived without that fundamental connector, without that sound, without the noise. I was reminded of that again over the weekend, as a coach took the time to remove his headset to listen and savor, as a tennis player covered his head with a towel.
Noise is the currency of our sporting venues. Whether you root for Michigan State or Federer and Nadal, we can surely all agree on that.