Friday, January 2, 2009

Our honor defend, we will fight to the end

The quote is attributed to Jesus: “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.”

I doubt if he was thinking of the Ohio State Buckeyes, but that idea could have easily applied to them as far as my family is concerned, for the team has been held in much higher esteem by my brothers and me since we all left Ohio.

If you live in Columbus, it is hard to escape the long shadow cast by the Buckeyes, even if you could care less about football. Every fall, the place goes football crazy. I don’t know if it’s because there were no major-league professional sports in Columbus until 2000, but every Saturday in the fall, the town’s eyes are on the Buckeyes.

Such was the case in my house when I was growing up, although we were fans in the loosest sense of the word. We followed the Buckeyes not because of any great loyalty to The Ohio State University (only two of five kids were OSU graduates), but because the team happened to be in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, it was hard not to be caught up in the spirit of a town that was coated in scarlet and gray. I remember listening to a show called the Byers Buckeye Bandwagon on Saturday mornings, which was basically one long ad for a local car dealer interspersed with numbers from the OSU Marching Band. Nothing like hearing that brass echoing “The Buckeye Battle Cry” as it could only on AM radio. The first time I really understood how much the Buckeyes meant to the town was when I saw the 1974 OSU-Michigan game on TV, when Michigan missed a field goal for the win and the crowd stormed the field.

While we cheered when they won, the losses were actually good for a few laughs. No figure was—and is—more associated with the Buckeyes than Coach Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes. He was one of the greatest college football coaches in history, with five national titles and 13 Big Ten championships to his credit. But he was often the subject of ridicule in our house for his conservative play-calling and the violent temper that led to his downfall. I remember the 1977 Ohio State-Michigan game where he charged an ABC cameraman following an interception. The camera zoomed in on Woody, he ran towards it, and the next thing you saw was several seconds of sky.

Then there was The Punch that ended his career at the 1978 Gator Bowl. My brother Mike owned the first VCR I ever saw, and he caught The Punch on tape during a newscast. One night, burned out on tapes of horse races, we played The Punch repeatedly and laughed ourselves silly.

Not that we were the Buckeyes’ only critics. Then, as now, few college football teams come under more scrutiny from their fans. Columbus radio call-in shows following a loss to Michigan are unique in their criticism of coaches, players and anything else you’ve got. It doesn’t matter if the Bucks won every other game that season—you lose to Michigan and your job is in jeopardy. The Buckeye faithful never warmed up to former coach John Cooper, mainly because he declared that the Michigan game was “just another game.”

Now that each of us has moved to a different state, we are much bigger Buckeye fans. Whether that’s ironic or appropriate, I’ll let you decide.

It was incredible to listen to my brothers talk about the Buckeyes when we met in Florida for our nephew’s wedding last year. We sat in a restaurant watching OSU play Wisconsin as they analyzed the team’s strengths and weaknesses at every position and talked seriously about how they could win it all. Hard to believe these guys used to call them the “Choke-eyes.”

Why the difference? Because the Buckeyes are not just the local team anymore. They represent something bigger—our family, our roots, and the things that made us who we are today. As John Mellencamp once put it so eloquently, “I cannot forget from where it is that I come from.”


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