587 straight Michigan football games attended – an article of John Levinson ‘73

Above: John Levinson and Kathy Levinson in 2018 before a game. Image courtesy of John Levinson.

Recently, Deborah Holdship of Michigan Today published an article that featured our very own John Levinson ’73. To read the article on Michigan Today, CLICK HERE. Otherwise, keep reading below!

Article by Deborah Holdship, Michigan Today

“Self-help gurus love to remind us ‘it’s the journey, not the destination’ that brings true joy in life. The journey is where we overcome obstacles, acquire wisdom, and become the heroes of our own stories. The destination, the gurus say, is merely a mirage designed to keep us moving. It doesn’t even exist.

Usually, it takes a life-changing moment to generate such an epiphany, and it’s the rare individual who lives it daily. But spend some time with John Levinson, BBA ’73/MBA ’75, and one will encounter this principle personified. Levinson has attended 587 consecutive U-M football games since 1976. His outrageous streak may have begun as a whimsical numbers game, but early on, he discovered his quest was about so much more than setting any record.

‘I do it because I like it,’ says Levinson, a self-described workaholic and plastics executive who grew up in Birmingham, Mich. ‘It’s good to put your heart into whatever you’re doing. You’ll have a better outcome, a better experience.’

He’s taken that attitude on countless planes, trains, RVs, and buses to every Big-10 stadium and bowl-game venue. He has endured his share of blizzards, downpours, gridlock, and crazy fans.

‘It’s all about the adventure, and some adventures are more complicated than others,’ he says.

Going deep
John Levinson, center, at the CFP National Championship Game on Jan. 8, 2024. He is flanked by brothers Dave Levinson, also a Michigan grad (1975 and 1977), and Rick Levinson, a graduate of Western Michigan. Image courtesy of John Levinson.

Ironically, as he reflects on game number 587, a national championship for his beloved Wolverines, Levinson embarks on the most complicated adventure of his life. Recently diagnosed with ALS, the indomitable sports fan – the one who refuses to watch games on TV, the one who declines to sit in a posh suite – can feel his destination is nigh.

‘It’s my goal to keep going until I can’t,’ he says, noting that the 2024 Ohio State game at Columbus would be his No. 599. ‘I’m not going to give up before I can’t do it, but I won’t know until I get there. I don’t know what limitations I will have, and I need to be cognizant of my support group.’

That group includes his wife of 46 years and fellow alum/super fan Kathy (Kennedy) Levinson, BS’ 75/MBA ’77. He relies on Kathy, his Delta Chi brothers, and the staff at Michigan Stadium to help navigate parking, golf carts, elevators, walking sticks, leg braces, walkers, and, one day, possibly, a wheelchair.

‘Maybe it’s extreme, but it’s allowing me to deal with this stupid disease and my diagnosis,’ Levinson says. ‘Next year, I could be strapped to a bed. If you don’t have a goal, if you don’t have something to strive for, you will just fall off. It’s a blessing to know what you want and to go for it. I’ve had a very charmed life.’

They call it the streak

Levinson traces his love for college football to his first Ann Arbor tailgate on Keech Street. (He can still remember his grandmother’s sandwiches.) Levinson was just 7 at the time, tagging along with his super-fan grandfather, a 1917 alum who held the season tickets Levinson now has. The travel bug hit at age 14 when his grandfather brought him on an alumni excursion to Chicago. And the numbers game began when he decided to emulate Birmingham business owner Hugh Rader Jr., a former director of the Alumni Association and leader of the transportation committee. Rader is memorialized on the Wolverines’ “best lineman” award. In 1980, he ended a streak of 350 consecutive games when he opted to take a trip to Hawaii instead of the Ohio State game in Columbus.

At that point, Levinson was riding his own attendance record and decided: ‘I’m going to beat that guy.’ The last game he missed (other than the COVID lockdown) was the Wolverines’ loss in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1976, against an Oklahoma defense featuring the Selmon triplets.

But even when he surpassed Rader’s total — Levinson’s 400th game was a brutal loss to Purdue — he could not break the streak. The benefits, he claims, have all been worth it.

‘It’s not for everybody,’ he says. ‘You have to go into it with an open mind.’

Levinson has learned countless lessons along his epic journey. Here are just a few:

WINNING IS GOOD ‘I enjoy being associated with the winner,’ Levinson says of the Michigan fandom. ‘This is an amazing team that should be rewarded for their efforts. Not too many people get to say they are a national champion.’

SHARE WHAT YOU LOVE Levinson was the first-born son and first grandchild on both sides of his family. ‘I got a lot of positive reinforcement, and I could deal with adults better than most teenagers. I watched and admired smart, successful, good people like my grandfather and [Rader]. They exposed me to things and gave me opportunities. It’s important to find something you’re interested in. If you don’t have passion, you’re not going to win.’

TAKE JOY WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT … even as Jim Harbaugh leaves Michigan for the NFL. ‘When you read the blogs, you get the idea that Michigan fans are never happy. Well, if you’re not happy now, jump off the bandwagon because this is not for you. You’re not going to win a national championship every year. If you’re going to bet your life on that, it’s not a very good bet.’

NOTHING COMPARES TO OSU IN 1969 Levinson says, ‘That was the best game. Best game. It has never changed, and I doubt it ever will.’ He sat in the OSU end zone in 1968 to witness the Buckeyes’ blowout victory of 50-14 and knew that Michigan was a huge underdog the following year. ‘As the game got closer, the mood on campus changed and I was telling everybody, ‘We’re gonna win this game.’ I started the ‘Goodbye, Woody’ cheer in the student section. That was the game when I decided, ‘I’m gonna make sure I do this as a hobby.”

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS Levinson played college lacrosse but was never the star. It was all about the team, the team, the team. ‘I did the garbage work and the grad students from Harvard and Yale did all the scoring.’ In 2016, while securing funds to rebuild the Delta Chi fraternity house, he discovered his loan officer was the lacrosse team’s second-string goalie and Michigan grad, Charlie Crone, whom he hadn’t seen in 40 years. Levinson got the loan. ‘I’m living proof of the Michigan connection.’

MARRY WELL ‘Soon after we got married in 1977, one of our first joint purchases was heavy-duty raingear from the Army Surplus store. As a young, married couple, we agreed we should invest early.’

NEGOTIATE YOUR TERMS When he was hired 37 years ago as CFO at the industrial plastics firm RheTech in Whitmore Lake, Levinson made it clear he would be taking no Saturday meetings during the college football season. He’s now in his 17th year as president.

THE END OF THE RAINBOW IS REAL As an MBA grad with an eye on the auto industry, Levinson initially worked for multinational companies with the goal of taking their best practices to grow a small firm. Today, RheTech competes against companies 10 times its size. ‘All I cared about was, ‘Can I take a group that is down here and bring them up with me?’ And we did.’

HE IS A PURIST ‘I am much more about the game experience than the social aspect of it. I don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t want to be in a suite having to talk to this customer or that bigwig. I love being outside. I always said I would be six-feet-under before I sat in a suite, but this mobility issue may get me to where I can’t live up to what I promised. I love the stadium atmosphere, and I’m lucky that the staff at Michigan Stadium looks out for me. They are by far the best. Leaders and best!’

TV IS HIGHLY OVERRATED Levinson prefers to visualize the whole field, the whole game, the whole experience. ‘It’s not just about some streak. It’s an intricate chess match with lots of pieces, and if you’re watching TV, all you see is one camera angle at a time: Where is the quarterback? Where is the ball?’ COVID was his worst nightmare, forcing him to endure the small-screen experience and put an asterisk on his extraordinary attendance record.

IT ALL COMES DOWN TO CULTURE ‘To me, Jim Harbaugh is a much greater coach now than when he came to Michigan. And it’s not because he won a national championship, but because he fixed a culture that wasn’t working,’ Levinson says. ‘He was able to self-correct and get the culture right. Most of us don’t do a really good job of that. But if you’re not going to adapt in life, you’re probably not going to have a very good life.’

ALS DOESN’T COME WITH A TIMELINE ‘I was gifted with will, desire, whatever you want to call it, more than most people. I think maybe the reason that I was chosen to suffer with this particular case is because I need to set a good example for others in similar circumstances. I decided, as a leader, that I’m going to do the best I can possibly do and not fold my tent.'”