The sideways glances and upturned noses didn't take long to surround the table of scarlet-and-gray-clad football fans enjoying their evening in early October. They were seated at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Livonia, Michigan, less than 25 miles to the front door of Michigan's Big House, but that wasn't going to keep them from cheering.
After each Ohio State touchdown (there were a lot of them that night when the Buckeyes beat Nebraska 56-14), half the table would yell "O-H!" and the other side would pump its fists and respond "I-O!" They noticed the stares, but that was nothing new. All four families at the table had been seeing those since their sons -- boys raised in the Wolverine State -- committed to play football for the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer.
"We were pretty riled up," says Jacquie Jordan, the mother of starting offensive guard Michael Jordan. "Every time they scored we'd definitely do our call and response. On the last score something mysteriously happened to the TV we were watching. They were about to score, and it just went blip and every single station that had the Ohio State game on it was out. It was hilarious."
The annual regular-season finale brings the animosity between border rivals and traditional Big Ten powers Ohio State and Michigan to a sharp crescendo. Ohio State has four players on its roster from the state of Michigan, and Michigan has 13 players on its roster from Ohio. For the parents of players living in enemy territory, though, the (mostly) good-natured ribbing and slightly awkward moments are a year-round occurrence.
Michigan's freshman punter, Brad Robbins, grew up less than 10 miles from the Horseshoe in Westerville, Ohio, under a roof provided by two parents with Ohio State degrees. When Eric Robbins posted to Facebook last winter that his son had been offered a scholarship by Jim Harbaugh, roughly a third of the responses were positive. The rest had a thing or two to say about the Michigan head coach.
"If you live in central Ohio, Harbaugh is the devil and Michigan can't do anything right," the elder Robbins said. "Being a part of the Michigan group now, it has been an interesting ride."
Eric is a football fan and his brother, Stephen, played defensive line at Ohio State for Earl Bruce once upon a time, but it was Brad's mother, Kristi, who was the hardest sell. She is the bigger die-hard and wasn't so sure she wanted her son being poisoned with maize and blue for a full four years. But after meeting with Harbaugh, she decided the university and its coach were a wonderful fit.
"I even defend [Harbaugh] all the time now when people ask about him," she said, and her Ohio State friends and neighbors have found a good compromise in cheering for Michigan's punter to get plenty of opportunities.
That doesn't mean changing your colors is always a smooth transition. Eric remembers the day after Brad decided he would be a Wolverine, the Michigan fight song was blaring from the family bathroom while he showered. Eric tapped on the door.
"Hey man, we're going to have to ease into this a little bit," Eric said through the door. "That Michigan fight song blaring out of our bathroom is, well, it just didn't seem right."
Mike McCray Sr., a former Ohio State captain, didn't have much choice but to cheer for Michigan when his son, Mike Jr., ascended to the same stage as the Wolverines' captain and starting linebacker this year. McCray said he gets tips and advice from his dad for the whole defense on a regular basis, but McCray Sr.'s days of helping anyone wearing the winged helmet are likely numbered as Mike Jr. wraps up his final season of eligibility.
"Probably after this game and the bowl game, he'll go back over to the dark side," McCray Jr. said of his dad.
Damon Webb Sr. is watching his son's final appearance in The Game this Saturday as well, but the Detroit native and police officer at a local university says he'll be a lifelong convert to Ohio State. Webb, a former Michigan fan, says he has grown too accustomed to all the winning and championships while Damon Jr. has been growing into a star safety for the Buckeyes over the past four years. And that type of not-so-subtle trash talking is just getting started.
Webb Sr. has grown to enjoy the headshakes and funny looks he gets while wearing an Ohio State hoodie to the grocery store, or to work before he changes into his uniform. His new Thanksgiving tradition the past three years has been calling into an Ann Arbor sports talk radio show to "chop it up" with some friendly banter with the hosts.
On game day this year, Webb Sr. will visit a few tailgates hosted by Michigan friends and likely throw a couple jabs then, too. He knows the stakes will be high for those continued bragging rights as his son tries to go undefeated against the Wolverines.
"Oh, especially on social media," Webb Sr. said. "If we lost to Michigan Saturday I might as well just shut down my Facebook page. I'd have to just shut it down."
Jacquie Jordan may not be much for bragging, but she's certainly not going to hide her Buckeye and maternal pride. The Jordans didn't have to shed any allegiances when Michael chose to go to Ohio State. They moved to Plymouth, Michigan, (about 15 minutes from the university) from South Carolina when Michael was starting high school. He was born in Ohio, actually, but didn't live in either state as a young kid long enough to become indoctrinated into either side of the rivalry.
His mother didn't start wearing an Ohio State lanyard and bringing a Buckeye coffee mug to her job at Toyota until he joined the team last year. Her most memorable encounter with the rivalry came on the Monday after last year's controversial finish, when she showed up to work in her "Proud Mom" Ohio State T-shirt and a woman stopped her in the hall to say "how dare you" wear such a shirt in these parts at a time like this. Jordan explained that her son was on the field in an Ohio State jersey over the weekend.
"She was like, 'OK, then you get a pass,'" Jordan laughs. "But at first she was really kind of indignant."
Ohio State players are each given a gold medallion that looks like a pair of football pants any time they beat Michigan. Many players' mothers end up wearing them around their necks. Jordan got her first pair last season and wears them every Friday to work. This being Thanksgiving week, and rivalry week as well, she decided to wear them every day.
She'll be decked out in scarlet and gray again on Monday morning no matter what happens at the Big House this Saturday -- even if she knows she might be forced to relive a loss more times than her son, who at least has the luxury of retreating to friendly faces in Columbus.
"I think about if they don't win, am I going to go work on Monday?" Jordan jokes before remembering that there is at least one universal truth that can bring Buckeyes and Wolverines together. "But Mondays are tough anyway. Mondays are tough for everybody."