By BucFishigan on 21:19:44 12/04/02
IN ALL THE WORLD, THERE WAS ONLY ONE
The last time I saw Woody Hayes was just before he got sick. I was in Columbus, and I asked him if he'd like to have dinner. Woody was one of the most important influences in my growing up; a lot of people didn't like him, but I don't think they understood what he was really like. As a kid I watched him from afar. One of the great joys of my adult years was that we became friends.
I asked him where he'd like to eat, but I knew the answer already. "The Jai Lai," Woody said. The Jai Lai, just a few blocks from Ohio Stadium, was where he always ate when dining out. Even though he was no longer football coach at the Ohio State University, the Jai Lai displayed a portrait of Woody in his coaching clothes, along with a sign saying "In All the World, There's Only One."
I tried to be early for our appointment--Woody was 72, and I thought it would be impolite to make him wait--but when I arrived he was sitting in a chair next to the hostess' counter. I apologized. "That's all right," Woody said. "I've been coming to this restaurant for more than 30 years. I feel comfortable here."
We went to our table. Woody started to talk, and I noticed the slight lisp that always surprised people who had not met him. The conversation got around to the fact that he had never left Columbus for a bigger city; he had been born in Ohio, and that's where he had stayed.
"Well, I'm glad I didn't grow up in New York, if that's what you mean," Woody said. "If I had grown up in New York, I think I would have been much more impersonal. I wouldn't have had so many people in the community looking after me. I grew up in Newcomerstown, Ohio, and when you grow up in a
community like that, they know what you're doing. They know when you do something wrong.
"They know everything about you. They know your feelings, your responses... they'll see you doing something, and they'll say, 'Now, I know you. You're the Hayes' little boy, Woodrow, aren't you?' They might not tell your parents on you, but they'll let you know that they've seen you're up to no good. And it's good for you, to have people watching like that.
"Now Thomas Wolfe, he may have been the greatest writer of all, he was the one who said that you can't go home again because it's changed and you've changed. But I'll never forget what it was like in my home town. We never locked the door. We would come home and there would be a cake on the table-- Mrs. Burris or Mrs. House would have brought it over and left it for us. If it was Mrs. Burris, there was a picture of William Howard Taft on the plate, and if it was Mrs. House there was a picture of Woodrow Wilson. On a blue plate. And we would return it with another cake on it."
Our waiter was a little nervous; on the one hand, Woody was a steady customer of the Jai Lai, but on the other hand, he was the most famous man in Ohio. He ordered a light dinner.
"My health isn't quite as good as it used to be," Woody said. "I used to eat a lot of red meat--roast beef, steaks. Nowadays I can't handle heavy food in the evening. I can't sleep worth a dime. I used to read more, but I can't do it as much now because of my eyes.
"My wife and I have lived in the same house for 34 years. At the restaurant here, while I was waiting for you, everyone who came in, I knew them. But several times I had to ask myself, 'Who the dickens was that fella?' I'm afraid I don't remember names as well as I used to."
Near the end of the meal, the talk got to the subject of winning. Woody had always been known for his fierce pursuit of victory. Now, though, he said, "You're asking me if there is anything that is as important as winning. And I think the answer is yes. There's something that's even more important than winning."
I asked him what that was.
"There are some lines by a great orator," he said. "My dad used to quote him. He said it better than I ever could:
" 'And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.' "
He was speaking softly.
"You see," he said, "the important thing is not always to win. The important thing is always to hope."
He appeared tired. His wife had dropped him at the restaurant, and he said he would call her to pick him up. It was a snowy night, and I said that why didn't I just drop him off in my cab.
So we rode together to his house, and we pulled in the driveway, and Woody opened the kitchen door and walked inside. It was the last time I was ever to see him.
When the news came the other day that Woody had died, I kept thinking about that night. Most of the world had such a misconception of him. The words kept repeating themselves in my mind:
"And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing."
I found myself crying. That surprised me. I hope he knew how much he meant to me. Your past has a way of disappearing on you. I'll never forget you, Woody.