Michigan towns invest a lot in their high schools – and they should, because those schools represent them. That’s why you see those signs at the city limits boasting about their Class B state baseball champs or Class D volleyball team – from 1994. I’ve always thought that’s pretty cool – and even cooler for the state champs who get to see it every time they come home.
A town’s pride often carries over to the team’s mascots, like the Midland Chemics, the Calumet Copper Kings, or the Bad Axe Hatchets – great names, every one of them. When you pull those jerseys over your head, you know you’re wearing a piece of your home, your history, your very identity.
But if you play for the Panthers or the Wildcats or – heaven forbid – the Eagles, you’re one of a hundred. Actually, you’re one of 103. That’s how many high schools have those names in Michigan alone.
Ann Arbor’s newest high school is among the unfortunate.
Instead of letting the students pick their mascot, a committee of 50 did it for them. And really, a committee of 50 isn’t a committee. It’s a small village. The committee did what committees do: it picked the lamest possible names.
They called the new high school Skyline, which makes no sense at all, because Ann Arbor doesn’t have a skyline – and if it did, it wouldn’t be in the northwest corner of town, where the school is. No, in that neighborhood, you have a treeline. See the difference? The committee couldn’t.
But the mascot the committee picked is worse. After careful study and lots of discussion, they came up with – yes! – the Eagles! Just like 44 other schools in the state, Michigan’s most common nickname. Awesome.
Which is why I feel grateful to wake up every morning and know that I am … a River Rat!
Yeah, you heard me right. The mascot for my alma mater, Ann Arbor Huron, is the River Rats. And yes, there’s a story behind that.
For well over a century, Ann Arbor had only one high school, whose teams were called the Pioneers. So, when they opened Ann Arbor’s second high school in 1969, Ann Arbor’s first school decided to call themselves the Pioneer … Pioneers! Hey, it rhymes. Get it? And only three teams in our hockey league are called that!
The question was, what to call the new school? They were building it hard by the Huron River, so that was easy: Huron High. Nice.
Now, what about the mascot? Years before Huron was even finished, Pioneer students started calling their new rivals the “sewer rats.” This being the sixties, and this being Ann Arbor, the Huron students weren’t offended, but flattered, converting the name to the River Rats, and claiming it as their own.
The administrators hoped the students would pick the Highlanders or the Hawks, but the counter-culture crowd voted for “River Rats” in a landslide. So the administrators decided to start the school without an official mascot.
The name finally caught on for good during football camp a few years later. Huron was so overcrowded in its early years, the joke went, that even the rats left the building. So when the football players sat down to eat, and a huge, hairy rat ambled into the cafeteria, the football players didn’t need a committee to start their spontaneous chant: “The rat is back! The rat is back!”
So what if the principal later found that rat under Huron’s trademark arch – and clubbed it to death with a two-by-four? Those players, inspired by that rat, beat Pioneer for the first time in 1976, and the name stuck.
Yes, other schools might make fun of us – as I’m sure they do the Hematites, the Flivvers, and the Nimrods, all great names – but they know who we are, because we’re the only River Rats around. And because we have a story, we know who we are, too.
Poor Eagles. Poor Pioneers.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.