The world is full of conversion tales: people who switched from Christianity to Islam, Democrats who decided to become Republicans, Samsung fanboys who ran to the Apple store when their Galaxy Note 7 exploded. (You lie, Christoph Waltz! Loved you in those Tarantino films though…) To that list I will add one more – the tale of my decision to cheer for The Ohio State University in college athletics.
To most people out there, this may seem a moot point. Who cares which football team is my favorite? The rest of you may question why I choose to highlight my preference for the Buckeyes so soon after they received a 31-0 thrashing at the hands of Clemson University in the College Football Playoff, a most embarrassing fate indeed that capped off an unspectacular postseason for the previously vaunted Big Ten (but really 14) Conference. But I say, what better time for me to show support for my team? They clearly need it!
Here are the facts: I was born in the city of Columbus, Ohio to two Michigander parents who had been temporarily displaced so my father could complete his medical residency. I lived there for less than a year before those parents moved back to Michigan, naturally taking me with them. This essentially made me a kind of dual citizen: I was born in one state but grew up in another, the first complicating factor.
Further complicating matters was the fact that my parents both graduated from Michigan State University, and their sporting loyalties are chiefly with that institution. However, the default loyalty for most people in the state of Michigan is to the University of Michigan, probably because its football program has been historically better. Thus, as I entered adolescence, there was perhaps a question over whether I would choose to cheer for the Spartans or Wolverines, if indeed I was interested in sports at all.
As it turned out, I was quite interested in sports, most particularly football. Yet, at the age of twelve I made the somewhat momentous decision to align not with the Wolverines or the Spartans, but instead with the Buckeyes of Ohio State. I thus chose the place where I was born over the place where I grew up.
At this point, you may still be thinking, “So what? Who cares what team you cheer for?” Well, the answer is that there are actually quite a few people who care what team I cheer for, and they let me know it from the time I had my “conversion”. You see, Ohio State is not just another school to people in Michigan, nor even just another conference rival: it is essentially the rival to end all rivals. The yearly battle betwixt the University of Michigan and Ohio State University on the football field is considered to be one of the fiercest rivalries in American sports, even meriting its own HBO documentary.
Growing up, I did not know any other Ohio State fans my age. I only knew a couple adults who cheered for Ohio State due to some connection they had with the place way back when, but they were not people I hung out with regularly. Thus, cheering for Ohio State was a relatively solitary activity. I well remember the first time my father graciously took me to an Ohio State football game, and I was almost shocked to see the number of people wearing Buckeye gear. I had begun to doubt their existence. Making matters worse was the fact that my choice of team earned me the (mostly joking) antipathy of not a few people. Over the years, I’ve even had complete strangers make comments to me if I was wearing something with the words “Ohio State” on it or if they saw a sticker on my car.
So what did I gain from becoming an Ohio State fan? There must have been some reason why I was willing to put up with all that teasing and place myself at odds with everyone around me. My mother always joked that it was my form of “teenage rebellion”, but I think that the decision to cheer for Ohio State has actually affected my life in some significant ways.
First, becoming a Buckeye was one of the first steps in the creation of an independent identity separate from that of my family and friends. It came at an age when people tend to do that anyway, but I think in a very real sense choosing to become an Ohio State fan gave me something that was uniquely “mine” – a choice that was all my own.
Second, becoming a Buckeye resulted in an increased assertiveness on my part. Quite simply, it had to, because people would often give me a hard time – usually self-assured males. I was more shy as a youngster and avoided conflict like the plague. I had little confidence in my own abilities. But when someone attacked my team, it forced me to respond, and this helped me to grow a bit of a backbone. What made things easier is that beginning with my sophomore year of high school, the Buckeyes went on a real tear against the Wolverines: they would only lose “The Game” twice in the next fifteen years. That made it harder for people to come up with genuine criticisms of my team’s performance.
Third, becoming a Buckeye gave me an increased resiliency. I suppose this one could more apply to my decision to follow football rather than Ohio State in particular, but when you have followed sports for long enough and experienced all those ups and downs – the dizzying victories and crushing defeats – you start to adopt a more philosophical approach. When I was still a teenager, a 31-0 loss would have put me in a bad mood for a week, but I have learned to bounce back from these things much better, a lesson that has benefitted me in many areas of life.
Fourth, becoming a Buckeye led me to a broader interest in sports. At first, it was just football, but soon I began following basketball, tennis, golf, baseball…you name it. The busyness of life has prevented me from keeping up with all of these sports regularly into adulthood, but I think I can say for certain that had I not started cheering for the Buckeyes, I never would have attempted to play basketball beginning in eighth grade. Now, I wasn’t actually good at basketball, but it was another positive source of personal development, and I attribute that partially to being a Buckeye.
Finally, becoming a Buckeye has helped me to develop friendships. This may seem counter-intuitive, as putting myself at odds with practically everyone around me growing up would not seem like a good strategy for winning friends and influencing people. Yet, when people heard me explain why I was a Buckeye and saw that I was not overly arrogant about it but rather tried to be conciliatory, I think they had a respect for my choice, even if they did not agree with it. When I got to college, there were lots of Ohio State fans whom I could bond with, and now that I actually live in Ohio, it’s an easy way to have conversations with people. Perhaps more to the point, all the earlier things on this list made it easier for me to converse with my male peers in a friend-to-friend kind of way.
Were all these other things not true, my decision to convert to “Buckeyedom” could still be justified on the grounds that since I began cheering for Ohio State, they have been the winningest football team in the Big Ten and one of the winningest in the country, as far as I know trailing only Alabama. They have won two national titles in comparison with zero for any other Big Ten team. This is not to insult any of the other quality football programs out there, but merely to point out that my choice has paid dividends, both in terms of short-term enjoyment and long-term personal development. Therefore, I say, “Go Bucks!”