BO’S SPIRIT LIVES AT BIG HOUSE

When loved ones die, we like to remember them doing the things they liked best. We picture them reading in their favorite chair, teeing up a golf shot, tinkering under a car hood. We picture them looking up from these tasks, smiling and waving a final good-bye.

If you yearn for one more moment like that with Bo Schembechler, then you will be in Ann Arbor today at 1 o’clock, in a stadium they call the Big House. It will be Michigan’s farewell to the best college football coach it ever had. And it is exactly where it should be.

You always can see an old coach on a football field.

Even an empty one.

In the past few days, Bo’s body has been in an ambulance, a hospital, a funeral home and a cemetery. His body, but never his spirit. His spirit always has been with his family, his friends, his players – and his game.

And so his spirit will be there today, in that stadium, where he waged 21 years of football battle and where he so loved running out of the tunnel and hearing “The Victors” played by the band (“the greatest fight song ever written,” he would boast) that he often referred to it as a near-religious experience. He said nobody could go through that run and not come out a Wolverines fan.

Well, today, thousands of Wolverines fans likely will fill those seats, in weather predicted to be perfectly suited to football, and they will hear from those who knew Bo and see giant-screen images that recall Bo and at some point, they may, in their minds’ eyes, see Bo loping out through that tunnel one more time.

We find those we lose in the places we most remember them.

There’s a lot of that going around.

The empty office

On Saturday, in Columbus, after the Michigan-Ohio State showdown, in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room, Jon Falk, the longtime equipment manager for the Wolverines, spoke of how he’d call Bo after every game.

“I feel like I’m supposed to call him now,” Falk said.

Falk often would drive Bo home from the practice facility or the stadium. In the last few months, he would offer to take Bo’s arm in case his feet were unsteady. He would say, “Do you need some help, Bo?” and Bo would glare at him and set his jaw and say something like, “You bleepity bleep, I don’t need any bleepity help.” And, of course, all of these comments were said in chummy affection. And now Falk had no one to say them to, and his face had the sad look of a rider who lost his horse.

But Falk will say them anyhow – in his mind and heart. In Falk’s mind and heart, Bo will be on the other end of the phone, barking what went wrong, trading comments and quips. He still will be walking to his porch, snapping insults, slapping his back. He will not truly be gone – he’ll just take up new residence, inside Falk’s memory.

Same goes for Lloyd Carr, U-M’s coach. He didn’t need to call Bo after every game. Come Monday, Bo would be just down the hall, in the football building, and if the two men wanted to talk, they had only a few steps to travel. They had been doing it that way for years. But it was not that way this Monday.

This Monday, instead of going to the football office, Carr joined the rest of Bo’s friends, family and former football partners at an Ann Arbor church for a funeral. And instead of visiting Bo’s office, he visited his grave.

But Carr will talk to Bo again – in his mind and in his heart. In his mind and heart, Carr, in some private moment when he looks down the hall at the now-empty office, will shrug with Bo, yell with Bo, laugh with Bo.

So will Bo’s family, his wife and children and grandchildren. So will his ocean of friends, many of whom were in town the last few days, retracing the places where they spent time with the legendary coach.

We find those we lose in the places we most remember them.

A grand finale

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the words “passed away.” And I’ve decided they are simply the wrong words for Bo Schembechler. First of all, “passed away” is a terrible phrase for a guy who much preferred to run. And, more importantly, passed away implies gone, and Bo rarely has been as front and center as he has been the last few days. His image is everywhere. His stories are on everyone’s lips. His visits, acts of kindness and cherished conversations – some of which, for years, have been kept inside private remembrances – are suddenly gushing forth.

Everyone has a Bo story.

Today would be a fine day to tell them. The stadium would be a fine place to do so. Bo often said he retired too soon, and seeing that stadium populated one more time with the old man as the center of focus would be nice, even if Bo himself would never want that kind of attention.

And, at some point, maybe in the final ovation, pieces of Bo’s legend will fall everywhere, like snow that melts into your coats and hats, and the place will be filled with memories of him coaching, laughing, visiting a hospital, counseling a child, speaking at a banquet, hugging a former player, throwing a big meaty hand around someone he liked and gruff-voicing the person’s last name as if it were a magical password.

We find those we lose in the places we most remember them. This is where Bo would most like to be remembered. A football field. And as you leave, look hard down the tunnel, and see if you can’t see the shadow of a big man, waving so long.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

He will sign copies of his latest best-seller, “For One More Day,” at 11 a.m. Friday at Borders Express at Great Lakes Crossing in Auburn Hills and at noon Saturday at Borders Express at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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