Fans form defensive lines in East Lansing, Ann Arbor

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

In the tense week leading up to the epic football face-off Saturday between Michigan State and the University of Michigan, fans are taking their legendary rivalry to great lengths off the field.

Call it the peers patrol on high alert.

Michigan students, from left, Monroe Chao, Michael Kalmus, Joshua Mammen, Matthew Sikorski, Jacob Margolies, Allie Poles and Lexy Ginsberg defend the Diag.

UM sophomore Austin Fregene is prepared to camp outdoors in the cold to protect the iconic bronze block “M” emblazoned in the ground at the Diag from defacing by suspected MSU vandals.

“The symbol is something we hold near and dear to our hearts,” said Fregene, 19, of Detroit as he sat with his laptop inches away from the M on Monday night. “I’ll sleep out here if I have to.”

And near Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, lookouts are guarding “Sparty,” the school’s mascot, from UM marauders who might dare douse the beloved figure in maize and blue.

When defending their turf before a Big Ten showdown, each university’s emblems are as much at stake as the two historic reputations. As Saturday nears, Spartans and Wolverines are both working around the clock to shield their territories from pranks by age-old adversaries.

In East Lansing, campus tour guides this summer described how students traditionally camp out during rivalry week near “Sparty” — a bronze statue standing about 10 feet tall, weighing several thousand pounds — to ensure it isn’t desecrated by UM marauders.

It’s happened in past years, when the statue was pelted with maize-and-blue paint balls. And last month, pranksters marked the figure with blue and yellow paint and painted the letter “M” on the statue’s chest.

Social media rallies Spartan, Wolverine fans alike

Volunteer guards

But on a rainy Tuesday morning, with most students in class, the only one defending or patrolling near Sparty was a mysterious bearded guy. The middle-aged man, in green sweats, wouldn’t admit he was guarding the bronze-colored representation of a warrior from the ancient Greek city of Sparta, though he clearly was.

“I’m just out here,” he said, refusing to provide his name. “I have no comment.”

Was he protecting the statue from whoever might show up to douse it with Wolverine-blue paint? “Could be,” he said.

The mystery man posed for a selfie with four cosmetology students from Lansing: Shayna Clemons, Nikita Taylor, Alexis Bernuetter and Diana Feuss.

“We’re all out here in support of Sparty,” said Clemons, who added that she is certain MSU will win the clash in which odds-makers have made UM the favorite.

“Right now, it’s 6-0,” she added, referring to the Spartans’ record. “We’re on a streak this year.”

The rivalry is especially acute at UM, which last fall somehow suffered a humiliating defeat: the Diag’s M was spray-painted in the Spartan green-and-white colors.

“It was definitely disheartening,” said Monroe Chao, 18, a sophomore from Bloomfield Hills who was watching out Monday night. “We just wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again this year. So now we have people stationed every single hour of the day.”

Students reserved the spot earlier and since Sunday have been manning the M in shifts. Each hour, visitors will spot a tent bearing the blue-and-white Theta Xi fraternity flag firmly covering the storied marker, around which are dark leather couches, foldout chairs and — most important — a revolving crew of young Wolverines guarding their school’s cherished icon.

Prepared to brave the elements and lose sleep if necessary, filling in spots between classes and chores, they are striving to secure their school, and pride, “making sure nothing bad happens to our sacred, beloved M,” sophomore Sean Kelly said while leafing through his Spanish homework Monday night.

There’s also a philanthropic push behind the effort. The 16th annual Defend the Diag, hosted by Theta Xi and the Delta Phi Epsilon sorority, is a chance to raise money for charity. According to the GoFundMe page, money gathered there and through sponsorships go toward the Greek group chapters’ national charity sponsors: the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for Theta Xi and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation for Delta Phi Epsilon.

“It is about protecting the M, but the overarching goal is supporting these charities,” said Holden Spencer, 18, a sophomore from Dearborn. “It’s for a good cause.”

Still, the UM sentry was focused on not letting their guard down.

Sparty had one lone protector Tuesday morning. Such a defender could have been useful last month, when pranksters painted the letter “M” on the statue’s chest.

‘Tradition and school spirit’

As the sun set amid unseasonably warm air Monday evening, a cluster of students lounged in a tent not far from a flagpole with the UM banner, surrounded by undergraduates riding past on bikes or scrawling kaleidoscope messages in chalk on the sidewalk. A portable speaker blared bass-heavy selections from Jay-Z and Daft Punk while the assorted team hovered over glowing laptops, tackling their physics and organic chemistry homework.

Some took a break to throw a Frisbee. Every now and then, other classmates stopped by to take pictures, offer thanks or even food.

A passerby casually tossed into the cluster a cardboard box with leftover pizza slices, and sophomore Kelly Fin handed them campus-famous chocolate chip cookies from the Mosher-Jordan dining hall.

“It’s just a lot of the tradition and school spirit. It’s something you’ve got to do,” the 19-year-old said about her peers’ patrol. “There is so much excitement.”

Haya Abdelruhman, who was visiting from the UK, grinned and snapped a photo of the fraternity brothers. She supported the tradition, but considered a less-intensive protective measure.

“It’ll be a better idea if someone could tape it over and put some sort of box over it,” she said.

Her uncle, Ammar Hamamy, a UM alum, was more sanguine. “I think it’s a cool tradition ... it’s a spiritual thing,” he said.

Staff Writer Gary Heinlein and the Associated Press contributed.