Right off Interstate 94, wedged just east of pristine Ann Arbor and just southwest of bustling Detroit, there’s a forgotten town of 20,000 called Ypsilanti, Michigan.
If you’ve never heard of Ypsilanti, yes, that’s exactly how it’s spelled. The town’s name derives from one Demetrius Ypsilanti: a Greek war hero immortalized for his service in the War of Independence. Despite all that tradition, as the locals will tell you, natives rarely call it Ypsilanti. Ypsi does just fine.
That’s not all the locals can tell you about Ypsi. In 1960, a little-known pizza shop called Domino’s opened for business there. In 2003, Ypsi’s (in)famous water tower received the honorable designation as the World’s Most Phallic Building. And, in 1986, Ypsilanti saw their home football team secure a Division I bowl victory. That feat hasn’t been achieved since.
Yes, Eastern Michigan University also resides in Ypsi — right beside the penis tower. To say Eastern Michigan dominates town life would be an understatement; not only do over 35% of Ypsilantians qualify as college-aged (18-24), but EMU is by far Ypsi’s largest employer. It seems that EMU brings a beating heart to an otherwise lifeless city — one burned out on the way things are versus the way they used to be.
There used to be a Ford Auto Plant in Ypsi. In fact, after the plant opened in 1932, Henry Ford supposedly roamed its halls. Today, Henry Ford is dead, and so is his plant in Ypsi.
What began as a 63,000 square-foot hub of industrial, wartime America is now a 715,000 square-foot storage space acknowledged as one of the city’s most dangerous buildings.
You might not be surprised to learn that Ford sold the plant in 2007, two years before the company accepted a $5.9 billion federal loan. What you might be surprised to learn is that, at its height of operations in 1982, the Ford Ypsilanti Plant employed roughly 16 percent of the entire city – about 2,000 people. After the plant folded, those 2,000 people found themselves straight out of work and straight out of luck, which is why Ypsilanti’s population plummeted 34 percent over the last forty years. Over a quarter of Ypsilanti households currently earn less than $15,000 per year, and the Census Bureau reports that 30.4% of people living there do so in poverty.
This is not a story isolated to Ypsi, Michigan. This story has played out in the lives of everyday people across the country. Cars were luxuries in 1932; now they’re necessities. Factory jobs were commonplace in 1932; now they’re getting shipped overseas by the day. It’s just a fact of life.
Amidst all that misery, you might forget about Greek heroes and pizza chains. You might forget about Henry Ford and penis statues. You might even forget that Ypsilanti is home to a football team too, and as it turns out, the people of Ypsilanti certainly did.
In 2015, the team’s second year under head coach Chris Creighton, the Eagles finished 1-11 while averaging under 5,000 fans per game. Their defense allowed an inconceivable 317 rushing yards per game, and the year before, their offense surmised a mere 4.46 yards per play. Thus, nobody was surprised when the Eagles finished dead last in the 2016 MAC Preseason Media Poll, and rumors began swirling as to whether Eastern Michigan truly had any business participating in FBS football in the first place. The team earned their only FBS bowl invitation in 1987 – history so distant, the Eagles still called the Hurons. This is a program that has endured two winless seasons, a 22-game losing streak, shoddy attendance, perpetual coaching turnover, and, to top it all off, an embarrassing, profanity-laced tirade, even as it begs for a $27.3 million subsidy. So maybe those rumors aren’t just rumors. At that point, maybe you have no business playing FBS football.
But not so fast.
Nobody saw it coming, but the Eagles are currently building one of the strongest seasons in the modern history of the EMU program. What began as one easy victory against an FCS opponent quickly turned to two wins, then three. Add a road win against the defending MAC champion. Four wins. Add a road win against the current leader in the MAC East. Five.
Five wins for a team critics expected to dissolve altogether. It’s miraculous. It’s monumental. But it’s also not quite enough. Five wins in college football don’t mean a goddamn thing.
Eastern Michigan hosts the Miami RedHawks this weekend in search of their sixth win. If they find it, they enter the elusive realm of bowl eligibility.
There’s nothing overly flashy about how the Eagles are winning – they’re just gritty. In fact, they probably won’t have a 1,000-yard rusher or a 3,000-yard passer this season. EMU protects the quarterback at an elite rate, allowing only five sacks on the season. The Eagles convert their red zone changes, going 35-38 inside the 20. And guess what? After allowing a gaudy 317 rushing yards per game last season, they’re currently averaging only 143. In 2016, there is no team in college football more resilient than the Eastern Michigan Eagles, and Ypsi is taking notice.
Rynearson Stadium isn’t going to be averaging under 5,000 fans a game again this season. Something about the Eagles appears to be drawing the city in. Maybe that something is a resilience they both share.
Just five wins ago, this football team and not-so-football town were seemingly lost and forgotten. For decades, people have fled Ypsilanti – just as critics wanted EMU to flee FBS football. In a rapidly evolving world, Ypsi’s blue collar overstayed its welcome – just as, in the college football arms race, EMU’s tiny athletic budget overstayed its welcome.
Now, five wins later, college football has given Ypsi a reason to hope, and if EMU can secure bowl eligibility this weekend, hope will spring eternal.
People are struggling in Ypsilanti just as people are struggling across the country. You can sympathize, rationalize, and politicize that all you want, but do any of those actions mitigate those people’s struggles? At the very least, Eastern Michigan football is giving Ypsilantians a reason to be excited about Ypsilanti, for however brief a moment. You know what? That means something.
So you won’t find EMU’s showdown with Miami broadcasted on national television this weekend, but nonetheless, there isn’t possibly a college football game with higher stakes. Instead of rankings, conference championships, and playoff spots on the line, it’s the spirit of an entire city. Ypsi might be struggling, but you’ll see absolutely no indication of that on Saturday.
And if they win? Well, let’s put it this way: the Eagles are no Greek heroes, but Ypsilanti might want to consider renaming the city after them anyways.
Photo courtesy – Wikipedia
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