Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Short, Private History of the Big Game

I don't know when it started, but deep in the recesses of early childhood I was taught to revere the man. My father would regale me with tales of Great Americans: Washington Crossing the Delaware, Lee and Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, St. Woody Hayes leading the Ohio State Buckeyes against the hated Michigan Wolverines in the famous 1950 Snow Bowl.

In my family, St. Woody Hayes had the special aura usually reserved for presidents and Popes. A light shone around him, and he blessed all who crossed his path. His shadow fell on small, sickly children and they were instantly healed, growing up to become big, strapping linemen. He carried a football around with him that seemed like a natural body appendage, and we longed just to reach out and pat that football, knowing that we would be better human beings if we could just touch it for an instant.

We actually ran into him one day in the early 1960s at Lazarus, a downtown Columbus, Ohio department store. Woody was buying Christmas lights, as I recall, and we were behind him in the checkout line. My father could hardly contain himself. He was so servile and obsequious that he almost bowed. "This is my son, Andy," he proudly told the old coach. Woody was gracious, kind, and avuncular. "It's wonderful to meet you," he told me, patting me on the head. "Stay in school."

I was six years old. Having recently discovered the wonders of the alphabet, I resolved to take him up on his advice. But I never forgot that moment. And I never lost sight of the fact that the third Saturday of November was a high holy day, better and more important than Thanksgiving or Christmas. That was the day of the annual Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. At that time the game wasn't even televised, so I huddled near my radio, listening to every play on WMNI, the Voice of the Buckeyes.

It all culminated in the national championship year of 1968. Sister Mary William, my eighth grade teacher, assigned us an essay entitled "The Greatest Day of My Life." I wrote about November 23rd, 1968, the day the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines 50 - 14 en route to the Rose Bowl and a victory over O.J. Simpson and the USC Trojans. That was the Michigan game in which Woody, up 48 - 14 late in the game, went for a two-point conversion after a touchdown, and made it. "Why did you go for two when you were already ahead by five touchdowns?," reporters asked Woody after the game. "Because I couldn't go for three," he said. It was a glorious day, and at that point it was the pinnacle of my youthful existence. What the hell. I was only thirteen.

Then we moved. Chicago was a pro sports town. To my amazement and chagrin, no one seemed to care about Ohio State vs. Michigan. "How 'bout dem Buckeyes?," I would say, an expression as commonly understood as "Good morning," in Ohio, and I would be met by puzzled stares. People only cared about the Cubs and the Bears and the Bulls. The only college to speak of was Northwestern, an egghead university where they couldn't play sports worth shit. Even so, my dad and I dutifully drove up to Evanston every other year and watched the Buckeyes dismantle the Wildcats. Midway through the fourth quarter, when the score was usually something like 70 - 3, a desultory chant would arise from the Northwestern stands:

That's all right, that's okay
You're gonna work for us someday

It might have been true, but at the time I didn't care. The Buckeyes, and Woody, were the best.

I moved to Athens, Ohio for college, and for a few years there I lost sight of the Big Game. I had other things on my mind; Jesus, Kafka, Shakespeare, weed, girls, not necessarily in that order. I still made it down to the dorm lounge to catch OSU vs. Michigan, but dorm lounges are dorm lounges, and the game was more of an excuse to party than to pay attention. The Archie Griffin years are a mystery to me. But I still followed Woody, was aware of his endearingly passionate antics; storming out onto the field and harranguing the officials, snapping the occasional sideline marker over his knee. Woody was a card.

In the late '70s I moved back to Columbus to attend grad school at The Ohio State University. And I missed -- totally missed -- my first OSU vs. Michigan game. It was a fairly traumatic experience. I was working part-time at a Christian bookstore, and the owner insisted on playing soothing classical music -- Mozart and Bach, mostly -- for the erudite, pious patrons. I begged him. "Look," I said. "Just this one time, let's play the radio. Everyone will understand. These are folks who care more about St. Woody than they do about St. Augustine." But he wouldn't budge. I fumed through multiple playings of the Brandenburg Concerti. The biggest game of the year, possibly of my life, was happening a mere mile from where I grinned like an automaton at all the pathetic customers who actually had the audacity to shop for theological works and Precious Moments figurines while history was being made. It was hard to maintain that grin.

Then, the end, that tragic denouement in which Woody was finally proven to be a crazy, deranged old coot. After losing to Michigan at the end of the 1978 season, Woody actually coldcocked a Clemson player who had the temerity to intercept an Ohio State pass near the end of the Gator Bowl. My friends and I watched in horror and amazement.

"Did Woody just punch that guy?" somebody asked.

"No," somebody else responded. "At least I don't think so. He couldn't have."

"No, but he did," somebody else opined.

And he really did. You can watch it here.

And that was it. Woody Hayes, one of the three greatest Americans to ever live, according to my father, was fired ignominiously.

Shortly afterward I got married, and fairly early in our marriage Kate and I ventured, with some trepidation, up to Ann Arbor, Michigan. The bumper sticker that I used to have on the back of my Chevy Nova, the one that read "Directions to Ann Arbor: north 'til you smell it, west 'til you step in it" proved to be surprisingly accurate. It was my first time in the heart of darkness. And I was stunned. Ann Arbor was a charming college town, full of great bookstores and music stores and ethnic restaurants, and although I kept waiting for the slavering, blood-thirsty zombies to emerge from darkened doorways, it never happened. I've gone back a few times since, and each time I've had a blast. It dawned on me that perhaps I had been fed a load of incredibly biased propaganda.

No matter. Come the third Saturday of November the denizens of Ann Arbor are my mortal enemies. It has always been this way. It may always be this way. For most of my marriage we've decamped to a state park in southeast Ohio for the Thanksgiving holidays, four days of hanging out with Kate's family -- a time that has often coincided with the Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. It's isolated down there, eighty miles from anything, and trying to pull in the OSU-Michigan game has often proven to be problematic. Nevertheless, I've done what I can, adjusting and re-adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to try to eliminate the snowy reception. I've made it through the mediocre Earl Bruce years, suffered through the debacle of the John Cooper years, and ultimately triumphed through the Jim Tressel years; five victories in a row now, and counting, most certainly counting.

I watched the game yesterday, this time in the comfort and privacy of my family room. The HD TV signal came in just fine. Truth be told, I lost interest about midway through the third quarter, when it became apparent that the game would be a rout, and that the Buckeyes would win quite easily. There was something a little sad and tawdry about the proceedings. For the first time in my lifetime my dad wouldn't have his eyes glued to a TV set. My dad was gone, and Woody was long gone, and Michigan sucked. I'm glad the Buckeyes won. I would have been far more glad if both teams had come into the game undefeated, the way they seemed to do every year when Woody and Bo were duking it out for the Big Ten championship, and often a national championship. I've figured out that there have been quite a few "Greatest Days of My Life" since that 1968 stomping, and it's been good to gain that perspective. But I watched the game yesterday and thought about Woody and my dad, and how a game -- The Game -- has framed my life. I was thankful for the memories, including the fresh ones of watching Beanie Wells barrel down the sidelines and into the end zone.


Scott Meek said...

I'm a lifelong Wolverine fan, albeit, a bit disheartened this year. And yet, this blog post still made me smile. Andy, your writing skills are amazing, even if you are a crazy Buckeye. :)

senormedia said...

Was there ever any attemped explaination of that punch?
Woody is initially screened out by the sideline players on the film, and then he appears hanging onto the Clemson player.
Maybe he though the guy going out of bounds took a shot at him standing on the sidelines?

Pilgrim said...

Those Rosebowl games were the highlight of our Thanksgiving weekends, when I was growing up, after we actually got a television.

I ran into Woody once, on the streets of OSU (near Baker?), in the late 70s-early 80s. I greeted him, and he returned it. It was one of those events you don't forget. He continues to be an icon.

During the years I spent around OSU, there were always people who had stories about friends who interacted with him for a more extended time, in service roles. He had the reputation of being a very nice, kind man.

Andy Whitman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Andy, This is beautiful. Just beautiful. And my life strangely parallels yours, right down to the selling Precious Moments during The Game details. A bit spooky, really.

My dad took a military history class with Woody once, just for the "I took a class with Woody"ness of it. He was star-struck, of course, and couldn't remember any details. But I also remember, when Woody died, my dad recalling that he gave the only cogent explanation of the Franco-Prussian war that he'd ever heard.

That and that he had a hellova right cross.

Andy Whitman said...

From almost everything I know about Woody, which is admittedly informed by an infatuated Columbus media, Woody WAS a good, kind man. Nobody has anything bad to say about him as an individual, and there are legions of his former players who would walk through fire and/or lay down their lives for him. He really did have that kind of impact on others' lives.

It's so unfortunate that his last public act was so dreadful. You can't punch people on the other team. You just can't do it. I'm sure Woody regretted that for the remainder of his years.

Martin said...

Andy, I'm glad to see that the moratorium on non-music posts has already expired, even if it means I lost the interoffice betting pool on how long you would stick to it.

It occurs to me that Woody would've loved this game: only 16 pass attempts, eight completions and three of those for touchdowns.

Meanwhile, here in Washington we have the Apple Cup, which promised to be the wormiest anyone could remember: the winless Huskies against the 1-win Cougars; the conference's worst offense against that nation's worst defense. They went at it like, well, Cats and Dawgs. The Huskies built a 10-point lead by halftime and had to be feeling pretty good about themselves ... but three missed FGs and some blown pass coverage enabled them once again to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Final score: 16-13 WSU in double overtime. It's a shame anyone had to win this game, really.

Natsthename said...

HAH! I knew you'd post about something other than music! :-)

I recall that '68 Rose Bowl win as well. The boys in my class at St. Peter's in Hamilton, OH all wore their red gear to school when we went back after Christmas vacation, even though our school uniforms were strictly blue. The nuns looked the other way, just this once. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about or why my dad and brothers were yelling in the family room.

I ran into Woody in the ROTC building when he taught in there. It was late '83 or early '84. He was gracious and smiling and I will never forget his face. My son, born on campus, has been a fan his whole life, but never attended a game until this season. He's pretty impressed with Tressel, but Woody is an icon.
Fabulous post, Mr. Whitman.

Anonymous said...

The story I've heard about "that punch" was Woody was a diabetic and his insulin was not at the proper dose, which can cause all kinds of problems, including anger. I can't remember the source of this story so I'm not sure how reliable it is. While it's true Woody had a temper, it still seems out of character for him to punch a student. This story seems to explain it.

Mark K

Andy Whitman said...

I am also a diabetic. I'm gonna ride this for all it's worth. It wasn't my fault. It was the insulin.

Andy Whitman said...

"I love football. I think it's the most wonderful game in the world. And I despise to lose." -- Woody Hayes

To my knowledge (and I've looked and tried to find out), Woody never explained The Punch. It happened. It cost him his job. It wasn't the first punch Woody threw at a football game, either. In the 1977 OSU-Michigan game, Woody punched an ABC cameraman for getting in his way.

Woody had a temper. He was an incredibly driven man. It's what made him highly successful. It was also his downfall.