In the spring of 1971, my family moved from Akron to Columbus, where Dad began working as the general manager of a car dealership. He quickly recognized that everyone in Columbus, regardless of their politics, religion, or general viewpoint, could agree on one thing–Ohio State football–and he assembled a mass of season tickets to Ohio State games so he could build relationships by handing out the prized ducats to the dealership’s business partners and other managers. Fortunately for the kids in the family, Dad had enough tickets to allow us to go to the games, and I went to my first Ohio State game in the fall of 1971.
Before then, I had only been to high school football games. In Ohio, high school football is a big deal, but going to Buckeye games at Ohio Stadium was different by orders of magnitude. The massive gray stadium, the huge crowd of more than 80,000 roaring fans, the band, and the cheerleaders all made home games at Ohio State an entirely different experience. I don’t remember who Ohio State played in the first game I attended, but I was hooked immediately. And even though the Buckeyes weren’t very good that year, Ohio State fans knew that the season could be salvaged if the Men of the Scarlet and Gray could just knock off Michigan, at Ann Arbor, in their end of the season match-up. Michigan came in as a heavy favorite, but Ohio State gave them a very tough game. The Buckeyes fell just short, losing 10-7, in a game most people remember because Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, incensed that the officials didn’t call pass interference at the end of the game, tore up a yard marker and had to be physically restrained by coaches and players.
That set the stage for 1972, when the game would come to Columbus. Both Ohio State and Michigan were good that year, and it was clear that The Game would decide which team would be the Big Ten champion. I was so excited about going to The Game that I had trouble sleeping the night before and got up even earlier than normal. At Ohio Stadium, the atmosphere was electric–far more charged than at a regular Ohio State game–and the roars of the crowd when the Buckeyes made a great play were deafening. I sat in the closed end of the Stadium, right next to the scoreboard, using a single ticket that Dad had picked up. The game was a rugged, hard-hitting defensive battle, as the Ohio State-Michigan games traditionally were in those days, but the Buckeyes pulled out the win, and the joyous celebration in the Stadium when the game ended and the victory bell rang was just short of a riot. I’m pretty sure the end of that game was the first time I was hugged by an absolute stranger.
Being a sports fan has its ups and downs–Cleveland sports fans, regrettably, have lots of bitter experience with the downs–but when your team wins a big game against its archrival, the surging feeling of absolute elation is impossible to describe. I still remember that feeling from that first Ohio State-Michigan game, on a crisp autumn day in 1972. It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago.