A Son Remembers (please forgive the length)

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By Writer on 15:10:45 07/16/02

Talk about Ohio State’s greatest victories and similar summer distractions often take me to a place filled with great joy – and sorrow.

It was at the tender age of 14 I discovered my love for sports, as my father introduced me to Ohio football as it was supposed to be played: by the Ohio State Buckeyes and Cleveland Browns.

That fall, my father surprised me with tickets to see Ohio State for the first time: it was 1968 and OSU, led by a sophomore quarterback named Rex Kern, beat Oregon as we cheered from seats high up in the closed end of the horseshoe.

Over the next two years, my stomach would do flip-flops on Mondays as I thought about each upcoming Saturday game, who the opponent was, and daydreamed about how well the Buckeyes would fare.

Most of the time those Saturdays were spent listening to a local radio station (part of the OSU radio network) as the game played out. It was seldom that I got to see my beloved Buckeyes play on television, except for the Michigan game, of course.

The outcomes of those games mostly brought a smile to my face, with one very traumatic exception: in 1969 when a turncoat Buckeye named Bo led Michigan to an improbable win against then No. 1 Ohio State, 24-12.

I was inconsolable for days…

When the football season of 1970 dawned, I was filled with confidence and optimism, just knowing my senior-laden Buckeyes, again ranked first in the country, would beat every team they played. I was especially confident that those hated Wolverines would fall, because they had to play in Columbus and revenge would be sweet.

The season passed much too quickly that year as the Bucks, led by All Americans John Brockington, Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon and Mike Sensibaugh, dominated their opponents.

The offense that year averaged 29 points, while the defense only gave up 12 per contest while forcing an amazing 32 turnovers.

Victories included a 56-13 thrashing of Texas A&M in the opener, 34-10 over Duke, 29-0 over Michigan State, 28-8 over Minnesota and 48-29 over Illinois. Entering the finale with Michigan, Ohio State was a perfect 8-0 and would face a UM team that had nine wins and no losses.

I got butterflies in my stomach just thinking about the match up, knowing everything would be on the line that day: a Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl berth and a possible national title.

All seemed fairly ordinary for me as Michigan Week began. I was a typical high school sophomore, doing well in some classes and struggling in others (why does Geometry exist, anyway?)

Little did I know that I was about to get the surprise of my young life.

That Monday, my mother came home from her job at a dentist’s office and told me that she was able to get two tickets for the Ohio State-Michigan game from her boss, who was a season ticket holder. My dad and I would be attending the game that Saturday in Columbus.

Most of what happened the remainder of that week is a total blur. All I recall is how s-l-o-w-l-y the time passed. It seemed as if Saturday would NEVER come, and those butterflies just kept getting bigger and bigger…

After more than an hour’s drive, walking up to Ohio Stadium on that crisp November day was amazing.

Everywhere you looked, scarlet and gray were in vogue. The sounds of recorded band music filled the air, mixing with the smells of grilled hamburgers and hotdogs; the tailgaters were into some serious eating and drinking.

I recall laughing aloud when we got close enough to see a sign on the ‘Shoe that said (in bold blue letters) Ann Arbor is a Whore! And included a drawn map of Michigan with a giant screw going through it.

The game itself remains mostly a blur in my mind as well.

Our seats were fantastic: we were on about the 40 yard line in C Deck, on the stadium’s east side, and had an unobstructed view of the entire field. I recall it being at least an hour before kickoff and the stadium was already full.

When the marching band came through that tunnel, the roar of the crowd was as loud as anything I’ve ever heard. I remember my chest swelling with pride, tears forming in the corners of my eyes, my arms and legs tingling, and thinking that anyone who didn’t get gooseflesh from this must be dead!

The game went much too quickly, but it was an unbelievable feeling just to be inside the stadium on that day. I remember my nerves were totally on edge as the Buckeyes, led by a very sticky defense, managed a slim lead at halftime.

Being young and emotional, I was on my feet cheering loudly for most of the game. My father, on the other hand, sat quietly and watched. I remember thinking how out of character this was, and I recall at one point asking him if he felt okay.

He reassured me that he was fine, and told me to enjoy the game.

Ohio State’s talent was too much that day as the Bucks ended up scoring 10 fourth quarter points to win the game 20-9. Stillwagon, Tatum and company were overpowering, holding a vaunted UM attack to just 10 first downs and only 37 yards rushing.

Highlighting that quarter was the sound of an entire stadium singing in unison: “I Don’t Give a Damn About the Whole State of Michigan.” Then the goalposts came down as the clock hit zero and fans rushed the field.

Our hour-long drive home was completed in an odd silence, talking very little about the game and listening to the radio. For some reason, my dad seemed distracted.

When we arrived home, we found all of our family, friends and neighbors had gone to a friend’s home, as an impromptu Rose Bowl party had erupted. After eating and socializing some, our family went home to sleep.

The next morning, my mother told me, my brother and sister that dad had suffered a heart attack during the night. He was recovering, but it would be a while before he could come home.

Looking back, it was clear to me that his symptoms had started during the game. That’s why he had been so quiet and looked out of sorts. It was equally apparent that he had suffered stoically through those symptoms, not wanting to ruin my very special day.

My father would continue to battle heart disease for the rest of his life, surviving at least two more serious attacks, before his heart finally gave out 19 years later, and just days before my 35th birthday.

At the beginning of each OSU season, I think a lot about my dad: About how much he loved Buckeye football; and how OSU sports were a connection that would stay strong between us until his untimely death at age 60.

Although I miss him terribly and he was taken much too soon, his legacy of cherished memories is alive and well in my heart.

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