A SPECIAL DELIVERY FOR THE OLD FOOTBALL COACH

Dear Bo:

Well. It’s been awhile. Since your death, one year ago Saturday, there have been so many times I’ve wanted to talk to you. But I can’t. So I’m writing. When you were alive, I knew if I wrote something in the paper that got your attention, you would find me.

So here I am. A letter to a departed coach. I already can hear your phone call, dispensing with “hello,” barking into the receiver as soon as I pick it up: “Hey! What kind of WASTE of SPACE was THAT?”

To be honest, I’d love to get that call.

But I can’t. So I’ll keep typing.

It’s Michigan-Ohio State weekend, Bo, and I’ll say it straight up: I don’t think this game will ever be the same. It is now the event that followed your death. It’s a showdown played through a ghost. You could have died any other Friday and it would have been less poetic, less ironic, less indelible – and I know you hate it when I use words like that, but it’s true. The day before the Big Game. One year ago.

It’s still so hard to believe.

The world according to Bo

You’re around, of course. In image. In photos. On film. To be honest, Bo, there seems to more of you now than ever: an HBO special that features you and Woody Hayes, books about you, TV tributes, even a commemorative coin that they’re going to flip before the game. If you ever worried about being forgotten, you can put that to rest.

And if you thought your passing might cast a kinder, gentler hue on this football rivalry, forget that, too. It’s just as nasty. Just as huge. Your friend and protégé, Lloyd Carr, has been having a pretty tough season. Lost the opening two games of the season, the first to Division 1-AA Appalachian State. Your name came up when that happened, in sentences like, “It’s a good thing Bo didn’t live to see this.”

But Lloyd rallied his team, as you knew he would, and the Wolverines won eight in a row despite a rash of crucial injuries. They come into Ohio State weekend with a chance at the Big Ten title. You always said that was all that mattered, right? A Big Ten title? A Rose Bowl? So there is salvation in a Michigan victory.

Sports salvation, not, you know, the big kind. I should watch my language in a letter like this.

Etched in our memories

Hey, Bo. There are still people talking about your funeral. I can’t remember as many laughs and tears in the same place. Or as many large necks. Many of your old players are limping now, carrying big bellies, talking about hip replacements, but, man, do they love you. And do they remember every story, every mishap, every temper tantrum. I swear, there are more people on earth doing Bo Schembechler impersonations now than ever. Maybe because you can’t hear us.

Uh … you can’t hear us, can you?

I know you’ll be watching Saturday’s game. If we can invent high-def TV down here I can’t imagine what you’ve got up there. Just remember. I know you coached the maize and blue for two decades, but don’t blow a fuse. Ohio State is really good again. Michigan is hobbled by injury. And as we all know, winning or losing a football game is not the end of a world.

No, the end of a world is much more sudden, more subtle, more depressing. It happens when someone you are used to seeing and hearing is no longer in sight, no longer heard. It happens when you lose someone that made life more colorful and more vital.

Your wife, Cathy, tells Channel 7 in a special tonight that she keeps the last pair of shoes you kicked off under the table where you left them. I understand that. We all tried to freeze you in some way.

I guess my way is to write this and imagine you reading it, those glasses down your nose, you shaking your head and calling me some sort of name. But smiling.

It was a Friday that you died. But Saturdays are when you lived. In football, to miss is a bad thing, miss a tackle, miss a field goal. But we miss you anyhow. And this Saturday we’ll miss you more.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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