Oh boy! It doesn’t get any bigger than this! Do I have to even mention the event I’m speaking of? Seriously? Until I meet than special lady and have my first little Ethan enter in to this world, this is the most exciting time of my life, and nothing else even comes close. Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks this college football season, there’s a little showdown in Columbus, Ohio on Saturday that is going to go down as the biggest regular season game in the history of college football, no kidding.
And while I know I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m an unapologetic Ohio State homer, I’m sure some of you are saying to yourself that there have been bigger games in college football before, but you couldn’t be any more wrong if you wore socks on your hands everyday.
This is it. Ohio State-Michigan is huge. Ohio State-Michigan for a conference title is mammoth. Ohio State-Michigan when one team has a chance for a spot in the national championship game is monumental. But Ohio State-Michigan with both teams undefeated, ranked #1 and #2 for all the marbles is the Everest of college football heights.
Go back to my column about 4 weeks ago if you want to know the specific details: history of the rivalry, win-loss numbers, greatest games, coaches, players, it’s all in there. But I intend this column to stand for... Well I don’t know what it’s going to stand for besides hyperbole and two straight sleepless nights from a certain SouthernCollegeSports.com columnist (me) who hasn’t been pacing himself this week at all.
As I try to let my active mind settle on to any one thought for more than an instant, I’m reminded of the very first Ohio State-Michigan game I attended. Boy I was excited. The year was 1997. Michigan was undefeated and Ohio State had lost only once. Charles Woodson was the best player on the field that day, and I’ll never forget the both awesome and blood curdling sound the Big House made when he ran a first quarter punt back 70+ yards to paydirt. I’d never heard anything like it before in my life. I knew it was a big game. In fact, to me - an eager 17 year old junior in high school - it was the biggest game in the world at that time. All those years of them beating us with our undefeated rcord on the line, and this game in ’97 was to be our revenge... Not so much in the end.
Sitting in the stands that day was one of the equally best and worst experiences of my life. My sister, who is currently cheerleading captain at Ohio State, was the only family member in the good graces of the blue faithful that day as she wore her customary Michigan starter coat. The rest of the family were on our own.The scene was chaotic. There were Michigan banners, flags, shirts, sweaters, coats, hats, gloves, RV’s, and signs everywhere we went in Ann Arbor. There couldn’t have been a more special place to watch a big football game could there?
In 2002 I was a bright college senior at good ol’ Miami University. My sister was in her first year at Ohio State, I was about to graduate, and the Buckeyes were #2 in the country going into the biggest game ever (or so I thought). While spending the night at my sister's apartment on the Friday before the game, we went around the neighboring houses and took part in the incredible revelry that had seemingly spilled out into the front yard of every house on the block. I met a young redshirt freshman named T.J. Downing hanging out at one of the parties. I saw another redshirt named Brandon Mitchell, Quinn Pitcock, and some others as we made our rounds from party to party and participated in the wild scene.
When trying to go to bed (I had a game to get to in the morning after all), a light sleeper like myself had no chance as “O-H!”s and accompanying “I-O!”s went back and forth at 3 in the morning...4 in the morning...5 in the morning...6 in the morning with out delay or ceasing. “This game is going to be bigger than I thought,” I decided after spying the sun and realizing I wasn’t going to get much, if any, sleep that night.
When it was finally time to walk to the stadium in that cold, late November morning, it was obvious that something very special was in the air. I’d been to the ’97 game in Ann Arbor, but this was an entirely different animal altogether. It was like Christmas morning for adults. In my gut, the feelings I used to get as a youngster as I walked down the steps from my bedroom and into a living room filled with Santa Claus’ treats and toys on Christmas morning was the exact same feelings I had as I walked across campus. First down High Street (Ohio State’s main street across from campus), then through the heart of campus past Mirror Lake (a beautiful fountain filled pond on campus where students jump inside for good luck on the Thursday before the Michigan game) and toward the massive stadium. And everybody else I encountered on my walk seemed to share the exact same feelings.
“I don’t think I’ve adequately prepared myself for how big this game really is,” I told myself, but I couldn’t wait to find out what it was going to be like.
Almost 2 hours before the game, the awe-inspiring edifice that has come to be known as the Horseshoe was nearly filled with people. I had been there before, but not for a Michigan game. And this was the biggest of all Michigan games as far as I was concerned.
The atmosphere in the stadium was beyond description. There was a heightened sense of awareness shared by everyone around me, and everyone around them, and everyone around them until it made its way around to everyone who was lucky enough to have a seat that wonderful day. “Where is he?” I said out loud as I looked for a friend I’d made tentative plans to meet at the game (this is before I had a cell phone). Block O, where my ticket was, was a first come, first seat student section, and he was late. “I’m looking for my friend but I can’t find him,” I said to a guy standing next to me. “You’re here. That’s all that matters,” he said. And he was right.
As the team warmed up on the field before the game ,chants of “O-H...I-O” and a certain song chronicling why “we don’t give a (darn) for the whole State of Michigan” ('cuz we’re from O-H-I-O, incidentally) would spontaneously sprout from different sections all over the stadium. The game couldn’t come soon enough.
Each time the team would huddle or come together, for whatever reason, there was pandemonium, and then 100,000 people screaming in unison “Lets Go Bucks, Let’s Go Bucks!” until the team broke and went back to their stations, and then ultimately back to the locker room for the team — and the seniors' — last grand entrance. After “Script Ohio” of course.
The Michigan game is also Senior Day at Ohio State. And every senior is announced individually to the crowd before running out of the tunnel in the North endzone and into the waiting arms of his parents. One final and very special entrance before strapping it up to bang heads with Big Blue one last time.
The 2002 team had an excellent senior class, but one player stood cut above the rest. Before the season Mike Doss shocked fans by tearfully announcing that he, a two time All-American, was coming back for his senior season to win a National Championship at Ohio State, a move signifying the faith he had in second-year head coach — and future Buckeye god — Jim Tressel’s program to get to the promised land of college football. Tressel then rewarded Doss, who was on his way to becoming Ohio State’s first 3-time All-American in a number of years, with 12 straight wins to start the season heading into this very big game.
And on that fateful, blustery, November late-morning in Ohio Stadium, the throngs of Buckeye worshippers stood and showed their collective appreciation with thunderous applause as the 60-yard long “Tunnel of Honor” made up of a few hundred former players on either side collapsed in unison to greet and offer encouragement to the soon-to-be 3-time All-American Doss as he made his way toward his mother and family, whose financial situation was the reason he considered leaving school early, for some final loving words. “As if the game needed any more emotions,” I thought to myself amid wild yelling for the captain of our great defense.
The game was an absolute blur after that. I remember the stadium erupting when amazingly talented and troubled freshman Maurice Clarett ran onto the field for the first offensive possession. It had been uncertain whether or not he’d play in the game because of a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the previous two all-too-close victories, so when he ran out, we all knew that we’d have some semblance of an offense that day. On one of his first carries (Maurice was an incredible back), he tore off for a 20+ yard gainer that would have blown the roof off the stadium if it had one. The next carry, a no gainer, and he gingerly trotted off the field with a slumped shoulder and in definite visible pain. The stadium went deadly silent. When he went back in a few plays later and scored on a bounce off the right side, there was unbridled joy once again.
Doss and the defense then took the momentum Clarett created and held the Wolverines out of the endzone (despite UM severely out-gaining and out-possessing our offense) before Maurice Hall scored the go-ahead touchdown on a play Tressel hadn’t called all year, and Will Allen intercepted Navarre’s last gasp effort with no time on the clock.
Burn Columbus Burn!
The fallout from that game was well-documented on news channels, newspapers and message boards in the months leading up to the Fiesta Bowl game with “unbeatable” Miami. The Columbus Police and Fire Departments were kept busy all night with young furniture and dumpster arsonists as well as other drunken deviants tipping over cars and causing all sorts of mayhem in the streets.
After getting back from a night out with the cheerleaders and finding out about the craziness in the streets, I finally had a good grasp on just how big of a game it had been.
Looking back on that experience and knowing what I know now, I can honestly say that I can’t fathom what it’s going to be like when I get to Columbus Wednesday night. I have this weird idea that I somehow understand, on some small level, why people say that the birth of their children is a “miracle.” Because no matter how much you prepare for it, expect it, or anticipate it, it’s always infinitely more incredible than you could have ever possibly imagined. It’s something you’ve never before experienced, so there’s no frame of reference or way to truly prepare for what happens. I have a funny feeling that something similar will happen for us lucky fans this Saturday. Not just Buckeye fans, but everyone associated. A game like this has never happened before in the 103 years of Michigan-Ohio State football games. How can we possibly know what is in store?
I guess I’ll just have to wait and see. And I can’t wait.
Enjoy the game.