The 2003 National Championship Game (IV)

Russell, right before kickoff

Game Day!

We woke up early, and the adrenalin began to surge immediately.  The boys went outside and started to throw around a football, and it seemed pointless to hang around The Boulders.  So, we decided to head down to the stadium area some eight hours before the 6 p.m. game time, to check out the atmosphere.

WIV, Russell, and me at the pre-game tailgate

We arrived in Tempe and already the area was abuzz.  Huge areas for pregame parties were marked off by Tostitos signs — it was the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, after all — and those weird air-powered dancing figures dotted the landscape.  There was lots of scarlet and gray visible as we walked along, and it was clear to all that the Buckeye Nation had shown up in force.  We had a lunch at some packed eatery near the stadium, then walked some more until we found a tailgate with many of our friends.  We drank some beers, talked some serious football, and counted down the seconds until kickoff.

Everyone’s energy level was through the roof, and we wanted to get to the game.  I was particularly interested in doing so, because I had just learned that one of my friends had been bilked out of thousands of dollars by a shyster ticket broker.  I knew I wouldn’t rest easy that my ticket, which I had purchased through eBay, was genuine until it had been scanned and we passed through the turnstiles.  To my relief, the ticket was legit, and we entered the stadium.

We walked around and found exactly one men’s room in our area of the stadium.  At that moment, I resolved to fully empty my bladder and to drink nothing more until the game was over, because I did not want to miss one second.  After taking care of that business, we found our seats in one corner of the end zone.  Although we were sitting in the Miami student section, most of the people in the immediate vicinity were Buckeye fans.  The Miami kids who were there did some trash-talking, but it was mild, good-natured stuff.  The stadium was a beautiful setting, framed by mountains and a clear blue sky and the setting sun.  The pregame activities were interminable, and Russell and I hooted when Jerod (or however it is spelled) of Subway fame made his appearance.

After what seemed like forever, the game stated, and my immediate concern was that the Buckeyes not get blown out.  It didn’t take long to see that the Buckeyes did indeed belong on the same field with the mighty Hurricanes.  The OSU defense made the first statement by sacking Miami’s quarterback, and for the rest of the game they seemed to hit him every time he went back to throw.  The offense eventually got untracked, and for a time it seemed like the Buckeyes might actually pull away as the Stadium rocked with deafening O-H-I-O cheers during commercial timeouts.

But Miami came back, the game went into overtime, the controversial flag was (correctly) thrown, and finally we saw Miami line up, on fourth and goal, having to score to extend the game.  The final play happened right in front of us, and it was a beautiful thing to see Cie Grant come in clear to grab the Miami quarterback and to watch as his pass fluttered harmlessly to the ground.

The happy foursome celebrate a championship

Suddenly, the place was pandemonium.  The Miami fans had mysteriously vanished, and the Ohio State fans cheered, watched the presentation of the National Championship trophy, listened to the band, and cheered still more.  When we finally left the stadium it was pitch black, and we wandered aimlessly, hoarse but happy, talking about the game and drinking in every last instant of the atmosphere.  We finally rolled back to The Boulders at around 3 a.m. to drink yet another beer and watch more TV — and even then it was impossible to sleep.

It was a day that I will never forget.

The 2003 National Championship Game (I)

The 2003 National Championship Game (II)

The 2003 National Championship Game (III)

The 2003 National Championship Game (III)

Finally — finally! — January 1, 2003 arrived.

Russell at the San Diego Zoo

Russell and I boarded our plane, flew to San Diego, got our rental car, and drove to the Paradise Point Resort & Spa.  After checking in, we dropped off our bags and decided to explore Balboa Park and the excellent San Diego Zoo. We enjoyed the pandas, giraffes, elephants, and swimming hippos, then journeyed to the Old Town area of San Diego for a terrific Mexican feast at a somewhat run-down restaurant.

The next morning we got up early and drove east, over the mountains and into the desert, under a brilliant blue sky.  The drive east from San Diego is filled with classic Americana, including a ’50s diner where we ate lunch, rest stops that warn you to watch for scorpions and rattlers, and a Best Western “Space Age Lodge” that is supposed to look like a spacecraft.  Along the drive we listened to sports talk radio, and the prevailing view was gloom and doom for the Buckeyes and predictions of a royal butt-kicking.  Eventually we switched off the radio and decided to listen instead to Rage Against The Machine’s War Within A Breath and its encouraging refrain (“Everything can change . . . on a New Year’s Day.”).

At The Boulders

As we approached Phoenix we were pleased to pass a town called Buckeye.  It seemed like a good omen.  We rolled into The Boulders, met up with Danny and John, and explored the beautiful grounds.  Then we went to a honky tonk bar to have dinner, join some fellow Buckeyes, and watch Iowa get stomped by USC in the Orange Bowl.  The mood of the Buckeye faithful was one of jittery anticipation.  Even with a few beers under my belt it was tough to fall asleep that night, knowing that the big game was less than 24 hours away.

The 2003 National Championship Game (I)

The 2003 National Championship Game (II)

The 2003 National Championship Game (II)

The game day edition of the Arizona Republic

The 2003 National Championship Game posed some daunting logistical challenges.  How to get to tickets?  How could I possibly get to the game without having to take out a second mortgage on the house?  Once we got to the Phoenix area, where would we stay?

The tickets were the toughest issue.  I didn’t have season tickets, nor did I make four-figure donations to the Ohio State Athletic Department or Alumni Association that might permit me to get some.  I could use a ticket broker, but long-suffering Buckeye fans had bid the cost of tickets through the roof, and there was an undercurrent of concern that fraudsters offering phony tickets might prey on Ohio State faithful.  (This turned out to be a valid concern, as one of my friends learned to his chagrin that year.)  So, in hopes of getting a ticket for a somewhat reasonable price, I used eBay for the first, and only, time.  I found a pair of tickets purportedly being offered by a Miami student, bid and re-bid, and ultimately got the ducats for $980 — more than three times face value, but still below the apparent market price being quoted by brokers.  A few days later, the tickets arrived.  They looked genuine, but I wouldn’t know for sure until we got to the stadium on game day.

Once we had the tickets (apparently), the travel pieces fell into place.  Air fare from Columbus to Phoenix had been jacked through the roof, and all flights were packed.  So, I looked into the possibility of flying into some relatively close airport, like Las Vegas, San Diego, or Tucson, and renting a car.  I ended up getting round-trip tickets to San Diego for a reasonable price.  And when word got out the Russell and I were going to the game, one of my friends from work, the saintly Dan Minor, asked if Russell and I would like to stay with Dan and his son John in a condo at The Boulders resort in Scottsdale.  That was one of the easiest decisions I ever made!

The weeks after the Buckeyes’ victory over Michigan had been busy with logistics.  Now, with tickets and travel plans in hand, Russell and I enjoyed the holiday season, all the while waiting for our January 1, 2003 departure date.

The 2003 National Championship Game (I)

The 2003 National Championship Game (I)

Looking back now, it’s hard to recapture the complex mix of emotions that gripped Ohio State football fans during the 2002 season, but the story demands that we try to do so.

One of our National Championship Game tickets

The team had made it through an undefeated season relying on a stout, deep, hard-hitting defense led by safety Mike Doss, the tough running of oft-injured, talkative, controversial freshman sensation Maurice Clarett, and the careful and clutch quarterbacking of Craig Krenzel.  The Buckeyes had eked out hard-fought, nailbiter wins against Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue (thanks to the “Holy Buckeye!” play), Illinois (in overtime), and finally Michigan.  The team had stared defeat squarely in the face on multiple occasions but had, somehow, always come out on top.

Running the table during the regular season was great . . . but the national media didn’t give the Buckeyes much credit.  Some called them the “Luckeyes” and argued that they had barely beaten mediocre opponents.  And the team that the Buckeyes would be playing in the national championship game would be the formidable Miami Hurricanes, possessors of an unbelievable 34-game winning streak.  Miami had crushed Nebraska in the 2002 BCS National Championship game, and they were the overwhelming favorites to pulverize the Buckeyes in the 2003 game.  And while Ohio State fans professed confidence, there was a strong undercurrent of nervous concern.  Ohio State’s defense looked awfully strong, but what if the Big Ten offenses were just weak that year?  If Ohio State fell behind Miami, how could the run-oriented offense possibly catch up?  Could the game quickly turn into an embarrassing blowout?

So, Ohio State fans had to make a decision on whether to go to the game or not.  It would, of course, be a costly exercise to get tickets and travel to and from Tempe, Arizona.  But it also would be the first time the Buckeyes would play for the national championship since 1968, when I was 11 years old.  Who knew whether it would ever happen again?  Even if there was a chance of humiliation at the hands of the Hurricanes (and their fans), there also were other, more important considerations at play — like really supporting your team, and putting your money where your mouth is, and perhaps having a chance to share in what would no doubt be a sweet, always-to-be-cherished memory of an historic triumph.

So, Russell and I decided to put all fears aside and give it a go.