Paul Bunyan Trophy holds special meaning for Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk
Jon Falk has walked through the Michigan football museum at Schembechler Hall for the past year, routinely taking notice of an empty display case.
The glass-enclosed case holds historical memories of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but is missing a wooden statue of a mythical lumberjack that has become the face of the annual in-state showdown.When the Paul Bunyan Trophy is missing, Falk isn't pleased.
Since joining Michigan's football staff 35 years ago, Falk has witnessed nine Michigan losses its Big Ten counterparts. Each loss brings the same result: A 12-month stay in East Lansing for the hallowed piece of hardware, which has been played for since 1953 after former Michigan governor G. Mennen Williams commissioned the trophy.
The Wolverines and Spartans renew their rivalry on Saturday in East Lansing (noon, Big Ten Network). The Spartans took possession of the trophy last year following a 35-21 win at Michigan Stadium in coach Rich Rodriguez's first season in Ann Arbor.
"The value of Paul Bunyan's Trophy increases when you don't win it," Falk said Wednesday. "When you lose that trophy, then all of a sudden everybody realizes how valuable it is.
"Rich (Rodriguez) realized how valuable that trophy is, but its (value) is moreso as we get ready to go to East Lansing and try and win this football game."
Each Michigan-Michigan State game holds a special meaning for Falk, Michigan's equipment manager since 1974. He needs only glance over a list of games between the Wolverines and Spartans and the memories flood back.
There was Michigan State's 1978 win that marked Kirk Gibson's final rivalry game with the Wolverines before he went on to lead the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers to World Series championships.
Another Falk favorite, the 1989 showdown - a 10-7 Wolverines victory - is remembered for Michigan's goal-line stand when the Wolverines kept the Spartans out of the end zone on four straight plays.
There was the year when Michigan State equipment manager Bob Knickerbocker forgot to pack the trophy, forcing Falk to drive back to East Lansing to retrieve it after a Michigan victory.
During one trip to Michigan State, Paul Bunyan's ax broke when cargo shifted. Falk ended up in Michigan State's wood shop mending the trophy with invisible tape and a screw, reconstructing the trophy before it ended up in the victors' locker room following the game like nothing had happened.
"When you see that ax and it's broken, you think, 'Oh, my God'," Falk said. "There are two things you never want on your watch. One, you hope the Paul Bunyan trophy never gets broken and can't be replaced or that the Little Brown jug can't be lost."
Falk's memories of the Michigan State games go beyond the trophy.
In 1997, Falk was asked to restrain then Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who leapt high after Charles Woodson's memorable one-handed interception in front of the Michigan sideline.
The victory helped secure a Michigan victory that kept the Wolverines unbeaten en route to a shared national championship.
"The referee comes over to me and says, 'Jon you have to keep these players back. You have to keep coach Carr back,'" Falk recalled. "And I said, 'I just saw a 52-year-old man jump six feet up in the air and you're going to ask me to go up to him and ask him to step back'?
"The referee just looked at me and laughed."
This year, Falk knows there is plenty at stake heading into Saturday's game in East Lansing. The Spartans have lost three straight games while Michigan is 4-0 and ranked No. 23 in the Associated Press polls.
This week, Michigan's players are intent regaining bragging rights with a win over the Spartans. Last year's 14-point Michigan State victory not only remains fresh for Rodriguez's players, but for a Michigan State team that is attempting to beat Michigan in back-to-back years for the first time in 42 years.
"(Last year's win) was great," Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones said Tuesday. "You know, it was a really great feeling, and even more I felt like it was the greatest feeling for the seniors because those guys had not beat Michigan since they had been here.
"So it was more gratifying for them than it was for me, I felt like."
Falk said he loves the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry not only for the mythical state championship it represents, but for the memorable moments the rivalry has produced. Yet, as much as he has seen happen on the field, Falk cherishes the moments in the locker room after a Michigan victory.
As players walk in and see the trophy waiting for them, Wolverines' players and coaches take turns hoisting the wooden statue into the air, celebrating victory.
"Paul Bunyan is a valuable part of Michigan history, a valuable part of Michigan State history," Falk said. "And when you win that (game), the team that wins earns a piece of history in this series."
Michael Rothstein contributed to this report. Jeff Arnold covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at 734-623-2554 or email@example.com