Football, Ohio Style A sportswriter and his state saw themselves in stoic, grind-it-out teams

August 03, 2003

For us Buckeyes the Rose Bowl always had a hallucinatory quality.
Why, in the dead of winter, was the sun shining in Pasadena? The
annual New Year's Day travelogue always felt a little bit like a
fever dream to us. Too many palm trees, shirtsleeves, people with
hats that did not have earmuffs attached. We'd sit in our
basement rec rooms watching this in mild disbelief. Didn't
college football demand the dignity of (at least) a drizzle?

It never seemed quite fair, and in fact it hardly ever was. We'd
send our Buckeyes out there every year (or at least our
Midwestern brethren from Michigan), and, aside from unseasonable
weather, they'd suffer some underhanded treatment on our behalf.
USC was the worst--passing the ball, skittering way off tackle.
What was that about? You slog through a gray autumn playing
football like a man, week in and week out, and then...this is
your reward?

In Ohio we did football right. We did it in mud, rain and snow,
and we didn't use much finesse, either. Not to say we didn't see
the excitement in a well-passed ball, but, really, didn't that
kind of play have the feel of a moral shortcut? Knowing that our
fathers were working the line, to no more satisfaction than a
steady paycheck, always made it difficult to appreciate so cheap
a thrill.

Three yards and a cloud of dust was always used as a pejorative
(especially when it came to that damned Rose Bowl), but
restricted to competition with like-minded conservatives, it was
rather more glorious. It was a cultural preference to plod ahead
with as much security as possible, knowing you were in this thing
for the long haul. The kind of folks who did not experience
self-realization when in the presence of a well-tilled field or
nicely rolled steel generally did not stay long. Moved to
California, probably.

Our football lacked imagination, we concede. But the unspoken
agreement among ourselves--that we would offer no undue trickery
in our attempts to get ahead--was reassuring. There was an
anticipated fairness to it. I always felt this accounted for the
unnatural popularity of football in Ohio. We would submerge our
skills (at least some of us must have been able to throw a pass)
in the interests of democracy. Implicit in the
three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust lifestyle, after all, was the
idea that we'd all be there when the game was over, sharing the
same modest lives forever, and without complaint.

Of course, that all changed. And I blame the Rose Bowl. Other
things, too, like the factories that guaranteed our fathers'
security shutting down, but mostly the Rose Bowl. We had to
admit, sitting in our basement rec rooms, that it might be fun,
after all, playing football in our shirtsleeves. And a little
razzle-dazzle couldn't hurt. I noticed the Buckeyes began to
recruit passers and, in any event, Woody was long gone.

Myself, I played out the string as long as I could, thinking I
could do no better than grow up to cover football in Ohio. Maybe
for the Akron Beacon Journal. The Buckeyes, that would be sweet!
Maybe a trip to Pasadena every couple of years. My first job,
which I believed placed me on that fast track, was in Massillon,
where high school football is important enough that newborn boys
are given toy footballs to bond with in their incubators. I
inquired about the possibility of someday covering the Tigers,
but my sports editor, who would type 30 inches on the halftime
show as a warmup for the main event each week (and who would get
a boulevard leading to the Massillon stadium named after him),
looked at me rather alarmed and said, "Good Lord, no!"

So for as long as I was there I typed up the bowling column (not
so insignificant in that part of Ohio), the equivalent, I
suppose, of my father-in-law's factory work, although probably
not as satisfying in the long run. Eventually I gave up on the
idea of ever covering the Buckeyes. Now that I'd had a chance to
look around, Ohio football didn't seem all that interesting. (I
blame the Rose Bowl.) I picked up and moved to California. First
year there I covered USC. That January in Pasadena the Trojans
beat the Buckeyes by a point, on an extremely pleasant day, as I
recall.

SI senior writer Richard Hoffer grew up in Ohio.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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