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A Lesson in Football : Outclassed 49ers Lose Game to Michigan They Will Always Remember

October 01, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

It is Friday morning at 7:30 and the California State University, Long Beach, football players, who have hungrily awaited this trip, are at Long Beach Airport. They look uncomfortable in ties and shirts strained by protruding chests, bulky shoulders and thick necks. They sit listening to music through earphones, while Coach Larry Reisbig, aware that the University of Michigan is a 42-point favorite in tomorrow's game, paces.

They file onto a Jet America DC-9, which, despite the tonnage these 50 players add, lifts off.

"We're probably the underdog of the century," says quarterback Jeff Graham, sitting in the back of the plane as it hums along its northeastly route. "We're going to play tough football and see what happens. It's too bad if they don't take us seriously. The pressure's on them to blow us out."

He looks through the Michigan media book at photos of players who, unlike himself, play before crowds not of 3,000 but 100,000.

'The Ultimate Atmosphere'

"Anybody would be envious," he says, scanning the long lists of All-Americans, bowl appearances and attendance records. "That's the ultimate college atmosphere. This will be a taste of what big-time college football is all about. But when you get past the tradition and prestige, it's just 11 on 11. If by some chance we pull it off. . . ."

The players awake from naps to look down through oval windows at Lake Michigan and the skyscrapers of Chicago. After turning the plane toward Grand Rapids, Mich., the captain says over the intercom, "I understand we have the football team from California State University, Long Beach; I'd like to wish you the best of luck."

Passage through three time zones has drastically shortened the day, and it is late afternoon when the 49ers land at Detroit's Metro Airport. Two buses parked on the Tarmac wait to take the team to Ann Arbor for a practice.

Review of Films, Strategy

At 7 p.m., the players check into the Airport Hilton Hotel, eat and go to meetings. They watch Michigan on film and review strategy with coaches.

The big offensive linemen walk through blocking formations. Watching them in the carpeted corridor are the East Michigan District of Wesleyan Women, all 330 of whom "have been touched by Christ," says the group's registrar, Joyce Chaplin.

"Maybe we should get their autographs," one of the women wonders aloud.

On pay phones, the players call home.

"Love you guys," defensive lineman Mike McCauley tells his parents in Oregon as he hangs up.

In Room 204, Graham sits in bed watching TV and eating Vanilla Wafers. Dan Bailey, the team trainer, attaches the wires of an electrical therapy machine to Graham's leg. He has a deep bone bruise in his calf.

'This Is the Big One'

"If we were playing Weber State or Montana State this would be a nice weekend off for me, but this is the big one," Graham says.

Down in his first-floor room, tailback Michael Roberts recalls his first look this afternoon at Michigan Stadium.

"That stadium takes the breath away from me," Roberts says. "All those seats, right there, really close.

"All summer I've been thinking about this game. We have athletes like everybody else; we can play football with anyone. All we lack is depth."

As the 11 p.m. curfew nears, some of the linemen, unfilled by dinner and knowing they probably won't sleep well anyway, order pizza.

"Once in a lifetime," says Brian Smith of tomorrow's game.

The Christian women, crowded on an elevator, say that since they are Michigan fans they won't be able to pray for the 49ers.

The day of reckoning arrives chilly. At 10:30 a.m., after being fed and taped, the 49ers board two buses for the half-hour ride to Michigan Stadium. Reisbig sits behind the driver of one of the chartered Greyhounds; muted music escaping from earphones is the only sound.

The flat Midwestern landscape passes, just weeks away from losing its summer green. Along I-94, the auto industry reveals itself: a Cadillac plant in Willow Run, a Ford plant in Ypsilanti. Farther west, corn fields go by, their stalks reduced to stubble. A billboard advertises Ann Arbor Buick and then, amid thickening traffic, that city is reached.

Scalpers wave tickets. Pregame partiers in blue and yellow drink in parking lots. The buses pull up to the stadium and a player breaks the silence: "This is it . . . go Niners." Another yells, "Strap it on" and a third's cry is, "Biggest upset in history."

In the shirts and ties they wore the day before on the plane, the 49ers, scrutinized by fans in "M" hats, file off the buses and enter a gate. From nowhere appear the Michigan players--all in blue blazers--marching behind their coach, Bo Schembechler, to their dressing room.

Graham goes straight down a long tunnel onto the field of artificial grass and stands in the middle of the 50-yard line. Endless rows of empty blue benches tower around him. He says, "I've got a chance to own this place."

49er Rooters on Hand

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