I felt many different things during yesterday’s Ohio State-Michigan game. That is what comes from watching your team put its unbeaten record on the line against its long-time rival in a battle of seesawing scores and emotions. At various points, I felt elated, exhausted, annoyed, anxious – pretty much all of the emotions you would expect a serious college football fan to face during such a game. However, there was one thing I felt more than any other, perhaps surprisingly so: I felt old.
I recently hit a birthday that seemed to place me firmly in the “late 20s” category, no longer a young, irresponsible girl fresh out of college, but now decidedly on my way toward serious adulthood. In a matter of days, I’ll be moving into a house that does not belong to my parents for the first time. I recently celebrated my five-year college reunion and will soon be set for my ten-year high school reunion. I hardly even qualify as a “newlywed” anymore. To top matters off, my right knee has been starting to give out occasionally: although the ailment does not appear to have been brought on by age, it nevertheless feels like a small taste of the bodily breakdown yet to come.
Still, none of these things were responsible for the “old” feeling I got while watching OSU and UM engage in their annual slugfest. There is another statistic that is likely responsible for that, namely the amount of years I have spent following college football. I can point to one game that began my career cheering for Ohio State: a football matchup against Michigan State in the autumn of 1998.
I was then barely twelve years old, and my father had made a passing suggestion to me while we watched the Sugar Bowl earlier that year that since I was born in Ohio, I ought to cheer for the Buckeyes. The idea sounded good to me, and when the Buckeyes made it to #1 in the country the following season, it seemed like a particularly good time to jump on the bandwagon. Much to my father’s chagrin, it also happened to be the week that Ohio State was playing his alma mater.
I picked the wrong game to become a Buckeye fan. Likely overconfident, the undefeated OSU squad suffered an embarrassing loss that ended their national title hopes. By the end of the game, I was in tears: it was not a very promising start. For reasons I may never completely understand, I decided to keep cheering for Ohio State, and fifteen years later, it seems like there was never a time when I didn’t root for the scarlet and gray.
I have experienced more ups and downs than a child on a backyard trampoline: three trips to the BCS national championship game (two losses and one glorious win), two seasons without going to a bowl, numerous Big Ten titles in both football and basketball, wins vacated in both sports for NCAA violations, two Final Fours, three coaches fired, exhilarating wins over Michigan, and one particularly painful loss to the same.
Some people thought the game against Michigan yesterday would be easy, but I knew better. Back in 2003, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend “The Game”, which took place that year in Ann Arbor. Make no mistake: it is a hostile environment of the first degree, a mass of 112,000+ united in their disdain for all things “Ohio”. (They find it somewhat clever to drop the word “State”, perhaps thinking that as in their own state, there is a big difference between “Ohio” and “Ohio State”. The difference, of course, is that there is only one real football team in the state of Ohio.) Any victory there, be it by 1 point or 21, is a job well done.
We came into that game with one loss already, but still with a chance to clinch a Big Ten title and a second consecutive trip to the BCS national championship game. We had also beat the Wolverines the past two years in a row, seemingly putting the troubles of the ‘90s behind us…but it was not to be. I was once again reminded that day of the fickle nature of success and just how hard it is to get a win in this rivalry, especially on enemy soil.
As the final seconds ticked away and the Michigan players celebrated their victory, the big screen displayed a message of congratulations on winning the Big Ten championship, only it wasn’t being displayed for us. That was the one and only time that I had to watch another team’s fans rush the field, and it was an ugly sight. Too hemmed in to leave, we had to stand there and watch, and watch, and watch…
Am I being a bit melodramatic? Yes, but that is what makes a story interesting. Yesterday, as I watched my team struggle to keep up with a Michigan offense that once again seemed to be relishing the chance to electrify the home crowd, I couldn’t help being reminded of that day in 2003, and I hoped that the result would not be the same. But even as I felt the old nerves come back, I also felt a something else: a sense of being above it all, as if I possessed the antibody to confront that particular malady. “I’ve seen it all,” I thought to myself. “If we lose this year, so be it. I am in this for the long haul. I know how easily disappointment can be turned into ambition.”
Yet, as we first gained the lead and then proceeded to give most of it back, I could not shake the old feeling, the same sense of prolonged anxiety that has so often accompanied me over the past fifteen years as I have watched God only knows how many fast breaks and extra points and three-point plays and onside kicks. Perhaps the antibodies were not yet so strong as I might have hoped – I was old enough to have seen it all, but not old enough not to care.
As Michigan scored a touchdown with half a minute to go and was one point away from overtime, there was a sense of inevitability about it all. Of course, how could it have ever been easy? These things never are. You close your eyes and clench your fists and hope for the best. What else can a fan do? And as Michigan coach Brady Hoke raised two fingers into the sky, indicating his desire to go for the two-point conversion, it seemed equally inevitable. It was a bold move, but one that seemed appropriate for the enormity of the moment.
In the last seconds before Michigan snapped the ball and quarterback Devon Gardner led the attempt for the go-ahead score, my mind drifted back to years past. I saw another field and another Michigan quarterback one play away from victory, only this stadium was farther south and the crowd was distinctly more red.
Trailing by four points, Michigan quarterback John Navarre had led his team down the field against a stingy Ohio State defense back in 2002. Within striking range of the end zone, the Wolverines had one last play. Fail to score a touchdown, and they would be going back to Ann Arbor disappointed, leaving their rivals to celebrate their perfect season. Succeed, and Ohio State’s dreams, which had hung by a thread all season, would be utterly crushed.
I was much younger and much more superstitious then, although I think it is safe to say that the kind of season we had that year would have been enough to make anyone believe there was some kind of invisible force at work keeping us alive each week. When Michigan snapped the ball, I couldn’t bear to watch. I shut my eyes and said a prayer.
Navarre took aim at the end zone and fired toward his receiver. Then, as the entire Buckeye nation held its breath, OSU defensive back Will Allen jumped the route. He intercepted the pass and clutched the ball to his chest as he fell and the clock ticked down to zero. I only ever saw it as a replay, and even today that replay is capable of lifting my spirit on any occasion.
Why was it that this particular play came to my mind as I awaited the outcome of yesterday’s game? Who knows? Perhaps it was wishful thinking, or maybe it was a genuine premonition. Either way, I was not about to close my eyes this time. I watched Devon Gardner take that snap, look to his right, spot his target, and let the ball fly. It was headed for the intended receiver, but before it could get there, history seemed to repeat itself.
Ohio State defender Tyvis Powell jumped forward and caught the ball, the first time all day that one of Gardner’s passes had been intercepted. It was the lone bright spot of the game for the OSU pass defense, and it came at the most opportune moment. For the second time in my career as a Buckeye fan, an interception on the final play of the Ohio State-Michigan game had preserved our perfect record.
More than once during the day’s festivities, I found myself thinking, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” In football as in fashion, everything old is new again. At a time in history when the pass is favored over the run, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde gained the most yards for any OSU player in the history of the rivalry. Somewhere in the great beyond (whether in heaven or hell is surely a matter of debate), former OSU coach Woody Hayes must have been happy to see that his “three yards and a cloud of dust” strategy was still a success, although it certainly works a lot better when your running back manages “eight yards and a cloud of dust”.
As I drove across Michigan on my way back home, it seemed clear that there really is nothing new under the sun. Then I got a strange message about the Alabama-Auburn game. Apparently, on the final play of the game, Alabama had attempted a field goal that would have allowed them to win the game by three points. The kicker missed and the ball fell into the arms of Auburn player Chris Davis, who proceeded to run it back 100+ yards for a touchdown, giving his team a six-point victory. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s one I’ve never seen before.” Maybe I’m not so old after all.