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.