Michigan Alumnus

From Russia with Love

For a journalist overseas, U-M football is a source of solace.

HAMMERING SNOW, MOSCOW DARK, and I was making myself scarce in a casino basement. This was the only place in town showing Big Blue. They put the game on a screen overhanging the slot racks. I took a chair against the wall. Kept one eye on the football field, another on the hustlers flinging chips across the baize.


An article of mine was hitting soon, and it was getting me no sleep. Weapons, war, false diplomacy. It felt like I had gotten too close this time. Getting close was why I had moved to Russia. For the stories that made everyone else pretend they weren’t interested. And here I was wishing I wasn’t so curious.


Big Blue settled my rattling. We scored a quick touchdown, a long passing play, the hash marks chalking up the screen. Michigan Stadium rose to noise, occasioning the old recall. It was a long time since I was cranking out game stories at the Daily, pasting up headlines at 420 Maynard. A long time since Tyrone Wheatley objected to my column, put the word out that he was looking for payback. Big tailback, small geek … a bad match. An old Daily column, long  forgotten. An old threat, left unpursued.


Now I was in the territory of no threat at all. Only penalty, and my phone was ringing off. I heard “The Victors” playing someplace close. I answered my call. The voice said that it would be wise to ditch my article. “Did you really have to go and look at the weapons depot?” he asked. Tisk-tisked me. I didn’t say that we were already going to press. I asked about Dima. He said Dima was dead. Finished with a dense, “good luck.” I had been worked over once before for a story. A small-time touch-up. Not worth the details. I knew what was out there, one flight of stairs to the Moscow flurries.


I had fallen in with an enlightening crowd. Officers in the tax police. Mafia issue. Customs officials who never went to work, graft beneficiaries, high-style living. Bolshoi ballerinas, Kremlin bureaucrats, guys who sold things on the side. Nighttime people. For a time, my people. A long way from home, from Ann Arbor, which was up there on the TV, and for my purposes appropriately sunny.


Back when, I was a coffee slinger in the recruiting office. Found my way into that cramped old game-day locker room. Who was padding up around me? Desmond, Elvis. Lloyd and Les … my roommate Ritter, strong safety with all the brains. I walked with them that day. Down the tunnel to its pinhole end, diminished by their dimensions, gathered to their whole. Among them still.


I was back there again, on the sidelines, watching it up close. Watching the casino plasma. We built a cool lead by halftime. Beneath the TV, a big man hit cherries. The slot machine steamed, coins rattled into the dish. I was with Big Blue. This was a game, and it would end. I would have to get out onto that street and face whatever was coming. A car had been cruising my apartment stack. They liquidated people for lesser offenses.


The screen dimmed at the quarter break. Here it came again, “The Victors,” playing over the commercial. That was no TV tune. I looked around to place the sound. A guy at a nearby table grabbed his phone. The fight song fell away as he talked into his hand.


He was sitting with a few others. I leaned in, asked why his phone pumped out “The Victors.” They were Russians. They smiled. They rattled off scores and players and big games. They knew Big Blue. None of it made any sense. Not in this town, where you couldn’t find a football to toss around on a fall afternoon.


They said they had picked up the game in Ann Arbor, along with advanced degrees in business. “But how did you end up at Michigan?” I asked. They stared hard at me. It was a foolish question. “Because it’s a great school,” one of them said. That made sense. We clanked glasses. Moscow felt a little warmer, Ann Arbor plenty closer. The game came on again and we sat back together, set for the rest. Whatever came would have to wait. There was still a quarter to play.