At Woody’s Gravesite

When Michigan Week rolls around, members of Buckeye Nation naturally think of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, Ohio State’s iconic football coach who wanted — deeply, passionately, and unequivocally — to beat Michigan every year.

Recently I was near Columbus’ Union Cemetery.  It’s tucked right next to Route 315, one of the main thoroughfares that fans take to get to Ohio Stadium.  It’s also the location of Woody Hayes’ grave, and I decided to pay a visit.

Ohio State’s famous coach is buried next to his beloved wife, Anne, beneath a simple stone headstone in an unremarkable part of the cemetery.  His headstone, however, bears a memorable and beautiful quote:  “And in the night of death, hopes sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.”

As befits Hayes — a much more interesting, multi-faceted man than the media caricatures of the fiery coach ever depicted — the evocative quote has an interesting back story.  It is a quote of Robert G. Ingersoll, a towering 19th century figure who is little remembered today.  Ingersoll was a brilliant and accomplished lawyer, politician — he famously described Republican James Blaine as the “plumed knight of Maine” — defender of Darwin and the theory of natural selection, and religious skeptic.

The entire quote from Ingersoll, attributed by the 1919 edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Ingersoll’s statement At His Brother’s Gravereads:  “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud—and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word. But in the night of Death Hope sees a star and listening Love can hear the rustling of a wing.”

What better expression of the frail needs of the human condition for reassurance when confronted with the deep void of death?  And what does it say about the purportedly knuckle-dragging football coach when he chooses such a quote to mark his place of eternal rest?

When I visited Woody Hayes’ grave, a fan had carefully placed tiny pieces of homemade candy, in the shape of Brutus Buckeye’s face, on the top of the headstone, and another admirer had perched a small, painfully cute stuffed bear wearing an Ohio State sweater on the front of the marker.  They were part of the graveside scene, next to a military marker and an American flag moving gently in the breeze.  As I stood there thinking of Coach Hayes, I couldn’t help but wonder whether those dedicated and well-meaning fans, perhaps, appreciated only a small fraction of a vast and complex spirit.

Please, Don’t Mess With The Game!

The post-expansion rumblings from Big Ten headquarters are troubling because they indicate that conference officials may decide to mess with The Game.  The latest article quotes Michigan’s Athletic Director as making comments that raise serious questions about whether Ohio State and Michigan will continue to play their end-of-season showdown game.   Michigan’s AD says he would not place Ohio State and Michigan in the same conference, because if they are in different divisions they could play, again, in the conference championship game.  If that happens, he argues that the teams logically should not play in the last game of the regular season, because then they could conceivably have to play back-to-back games.

My concern about Big Ten expansion all along has been that it will wreck Big Ten traditions like The Game.  The Ohio State-Michigan game is generally recognized as the single greatest rivalry game in all of sports.  It is hard for me to believe that Big Ten officials would be so idiotic as to tinker with their annual marquee match-up, but the comments of Michigan’s AD certainly suggest that possibility.

Big Ten officials and others need to realize that a Big Ten championship game played at a neutral site cannot possibly supplant The Game.  Sure, the winner of the Big Ten championship game will go on to the BCS, but that game will be missing what makes the Ohio State-Michigan game so special.

Much of what makes college football the greatest sport of all is the history underlying the match-ups, the storied venues like The Horsehoe and The Big House where the games have been played for decades, the home field traditions, and the collective memories of the joys and heartbreaks that true fans have experienced in the games against their arch-rivals.  Sports fans elsewhere understand the deep feelings at play in these rivalry games.  They watch the Ohio State-Michigan game because they recognize the strong emotions, they appreciate that the players on both teams are playing their guts out because they so desperately want to beat their despised (yet respected) opponents, and they identify with heavenly highs experienced by the fans of the winners and the crushing despair inflicted on the fans of the losers.  The Big Ten Championship Game will have none of that.

Rather than messing with The Game, Big Ten officials should be doing whatever they can to avoid making The Game into just another game.