2016: Kalamazoo’s Turbulent Year in the National Spotlight
You could make an argument that 2016 was the most memorable year in Kalamazoo's history. Sadly, some of it was for all of the wrong reasons. But despite two horrific events that happened in the first half of that year, the second half of the year left Kalamazoo with something proud to remember for a long time.
On the evening of Saturday, February 20, 2016, news began to circulate about a series of apparently random shootings around the city. By the end of it all, six people were killed, two were injured, and Kalamazoo was thrust onto major national news outlets as the latest American city left reeling from a mass shooting. Following the arrest of 45-year-old Jason Dalton, the incidents became known as the 'Uber Shootings' as he had conducted the crimes in-between picking up passengers for the ride-hailing company.
Just a few months later, another major tragedy unfolded. On June 7, 2016, a pickup truck crashed into several bicyclists just north of Kalamazoo in Cooper Township. Five people were killed, four suffered serious injuries, and once again national media outlets converged on Kalamazoo to cover a devastating story. The driver, who was under the influence at the time of the crash, was arrested and later sentenced to prison on multiple counts.
Both incidents humbled the residents of Kalamazoo, but also brought solidarity and resolve. Community support for the injured victims and grieving families of those who were lost poured in as the city again tried to come to terms with what happened and do what they could to help.
Soon, the city would experience something unexpected that would help bring a hurting community together even more and aid in easing the pain of these unspeakable events. Enter the 2016 Western Michigan football team.
On Saturday, September 3rd, 2016, the Broncos opened their season on the road as underdogs with a match-up against Northwestern. The earliest signs of an unforgettable season were seen as for the first time since 2008, WMU defeated a Big Ten opponent to start 1-0. The team then reeled off four more victories. Something special was in the making, but it was only getting started.
Entering their sixth game, Western Michigan was ranked in the AP's Top 25 for the first time in school history at #25. They were beginning to get some national attention. As they continued winning, many of them blowout victories, they moved up in the rankings each week. Their impressive season even led to a late season visit by ESPN College GameDay to Kalamazoo for the first time ever. Thousands attended on a snowy Saturday morning on the WMU campus.
By the end of the season, they were undefeated at 12-0, ranked #14 in the AP Poll and #21 in the College Football Playoff rankings. After winning the MAC Conference Championship for the first time since 1968 over Ohio, they moved to 13-0 and jumped to #12 in the AP Poll and #15 in the CFP, continued uncharted territory for the Broncos.
The atmosphere in the city was electric. Broncos banners and flags blanketed the city. And then the excitement peaked when it was announced that Western Michigan was invited to play in a major bowl game, another first for WMU. They faced off with Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl at the 105,000 seat AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on January 2nd, 2017. Despite losing their only game of the season at that bowl game, they were competitive and it capped a season that Bronco fans and the city of Kalamazoo would never forget.
It could never take away the pain and the sadness of the events earlier in the year. But the magic of Western Michigan's 13-1 season touched not only football fans, but the city of Kalamazoo at at time that it needed it the most. 2016 started out as a year that had a possibility as being remembered in Kalamazoo for the two horrible tragedies. But the infectious performance by the city's biggest sports team helped end the year on an uplifting note and put Kalamazoo in national headlines for something everyone could be proud of and feel good about.