As the Observer went to press, the U-M football program looked well positioned in its perennial quest for a Big Ten championship. Comparisons to the 1997 squad that won the national championship came easily—particularly when those former players and coaches attended the October 15 home game against Penn State to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their undefeated season. 

For me, the reunion brought back memories of the championship celebration on January 11, 1998, a grand affair in Crisler Arena filled with trophies, speeches, the traditional gridiron music of the Michigan Marching Band … and a closing shower of 10,000 maize-and-blue balloons dropping down on the stage and arena floor.

To those who know me as a fellow townie, a church administrator, a WCC instructor, a supporter of the Pioneer band program, or a popular local magician, it might come as a surprise to learn that I’m also the guy behind that balloon drop. It was a homecoming of sorts for this lifelong U-M fan—a way of playing my part in a family tradition and part of my unique U-M destiny.


That tradition began with my maternal and fraternal grandparents. In 1943, Bill and Esther Hakala left their mining roots in the U.P. to take positions at the U-M. My grandparents’ university-provided house was directly across Huron St. from where the Power Center sits today. Around the same time, George and Faye Hurst relocated their family here from Vernon, a hamlet about an hour north of Tree Town. One of Grandpa Hurst’s first jobs was gatekeeper at Ferry Field, the earlier home of Michigan football. 

Daryl Hurst enlisted five fellow balloon artists to inflate 10,000 balloons, hand-knotting each one. He had to coax them out onto Crisler Arena’s catwalks to do the drop, but the result was as spectacular as he’d hoped.

When my dad’s twin brother Robert returned from WWII, his father got him a temporary job on the grounds crew. That led to Bob’s full-time role as head of maintenance, taking care of the football stadium, the baseball diamond, and the track complex. His inside position provided a plethora of childhood memories, from playing in the mounds of cinder and dirt under the old cement bleachers to family baseball games on the expansive open practice fields. My parents’ first date was a track and field meet at Yost Fieldhouse, and eventually they, too, found lifelong careers at the University. I used to accompany my dad to games and then walk around with him afterward as he locked up the stadium gates. Those days and occasional nights gave me a sense of being an insider with a special connection to the football program.

When I was barely a teenager, I got my first after-school job as a part-timer on the Michigan Stadium maintenance crew. A small band of us boys from Forsythe Junior High would do odd jobs and help with the tarps on rainy game days. We were joined by a larger cadre of adolescent boys on Sundays after games to do a full sweep of the seating areas. It was often a cold and messy task, but it also provided opportunity for hijinks using half-filled coffee cups as “grenades” and unopened mustard packs as spurting projectiles.

My high school years at Pioneer were largely focused on playing clarinet, including performing on Hollway Field in the marching band. While seated in the bleachers on those Friday night games, Michigan Stadium loomed large across the street, and I dreamed of being in the Michigan marching band. 

But during those high school years, I was also establishing my professional magic career, and by the time I started at the U-M in the fall of 1972, my Saturdays were already booked with birthday parties and other gigs. My dreams of high-stepping out of the tunnel during pregame would have to be fulfilled by my daughter decades later. 

I married my high school sweetheart, Kay D’Addona, in 1974, and the following year we opened the first of a series of storefronts in town that kept us busy on all those fall Saturdays. Every season I would rely on Bob Ufer to bring me the excitement on the radio in between customers or magic shows on the road. 

Over the decades, my magic career gave way to balloon decor, and in 1994 I became one of the first 100 certified balloon artists in the world. I found myself reconnected with Michigan football in 1989 when Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan hired me to fill coach Bo Schembechler’s bedroom and bathroom with balloons floor to ceiling. I was also becoming the regular decorator for U-M Catering and the pregame Victors Club events in Crisler Arena—creating oversized football and marching band players out of maize-and-blue balloons.

Then, in that wonderful 1997 campaign, U-M won a share of the national championship (which at the time was determined by an Associated Press poll). Following an undefeated season and a win in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, the U-M athletic department threw a celebration a week after the team’s return from Pasadena.

I was elated to be called upon to drop 10,000 maize-and-blue balloons on cue, but I couldn’t do it alone. I tapped into the expertise of several of my colleagues from the Detroit area. We spent the day before the event laying out the nets on the court, carefully securing the corners and edges with cable ties, and weaving the all-important ripcord down the center seam. Next we hoisted the nets one by one into position, careful not to snag them on the myriad hanging lights, guy wires, and HVAC components. The day of the event we inflated all 10,000 balloons, hand-knotting each one.

I had correctly calculated that it would take a half dozen people six hours to get the job done. What I had not anticipated was the difficulty of getting my five cohorts out onto the catwalk with me, high above the basketball court. It required a lot of effort to drag crates full of balloons and supplies, along with two five-gallon-
bucket electric air inflators, up to the top row of seats in Crisler and through the restricted access door. Then suddenly, as I finished making my way out from the sidewall to the narrow catwalk above the scoreboard, I realized I was alone.

I looked back in astonishment at my fellow balloon pros, all of whom were staring in apprehension at the open-grid walkway and deep canyons below. I had no fear of heights, but evidently they did. 

I wish I had been clever enough to paraphrase Coach Bo: “Those who stay on the catwalk with me will be champions.” Instead, I walked back to where the others were standing and, like a patient and reassuring parent, accompanied them out to where we would do our work. 

It took awhile for everyone to get used to the unsettling height. But once the pumps started up, the familiar drone of rushing air, expanding latex, and squeaky knot-tying put everyone at ease.

With a rush of adrenaline, we pulled the ripcords on cue to release the hoard of balloons. They cascaded down on coach Lloyd Carr, Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson, MVP Brian Griese, Bo Schembechler, and the other VIPs, along with all of the Michigan football players gathered below us. The crowd went wild as the band played “The Victors.” A cadre of news photographers caught the moment of bliss as these husky Michigan men held up their trophies in a shower of maize-and-blue balloons.

Coming down from the catwalk, I shared high fives with the small contingent of balloon friends who had done the drop. 

Schembechler’s mantra, “the team, the team, the team,” swirled in my brain as we marveled at the impact that those falling balloons had on the crowd. 

It was a moment we would remember for the rest of our lives. Those of us who had been on the catwalk felt like we were champions, too.