College football inspires a passion that is second to none in this country. Kids grow up rooting for a school, and that bond is unwavering throughout their life. That bond causes unlikely partnerships and friendships, and has the power to turn rivals into family. I’d like to tell you about one such story.
Growing up in Columbus, you can’t escape the aura of Ohio State football. I didn’t even care about football as a kid, but I watched Ohio State vs. Michigan every year. In third grade, I bet some classmate $100-a fortune to a third grader-that Ohio State would beat Michigan. OSU lost, and I cried in the corner of the kitchen.
When I got older, and started following football more, Ohio State was the team I naturally gravitated towards. In college, four of my floormates and I crawled into a car on a whim, and drove from Dayton to Minneapolis to see Ohio State play Minnesota. It was easier to get tickets in Minneapolis than Columbus, and I really wanted to see Eddie George play in person. Eddie George is my favorite Ohio State player of all time. After the game, we managed to get on the Metrodome turf, and just missed getting a photo with Eddie. I was crushed.
As a young man, I became a die hard fan. In Atlanta, I met a friend who was an OSU grad, and we went to American Pie every Saturday to watch games with the alumni group. 2002 was an amazing season-every game was close, and the tension in the bar was palpable. When Craig Krenzel hit Michael Jenkins on 4th and 1, you could hear the cheers two blocks away. I watched the Fiesta Bowl against Miami by myself-partly because I was moving to Seattle a few days later, and I had a lot to do, and partly because I knew they were going to get crushed by Miami (ESPN’s latest “greatest team ever”), and I knew I didn’t want to be around people when it happened.
It didn’t happen.
When I moved to Seattle the next year, I wore my OSU gear like a badge of honor-Jim Tressel was about to take OSU on a remarkable run throughout the 2000’s, and I was a proud fan. I would joke with my friends about Oregon and Washington and their “adorable little rivalry”. I’d be astonished at the futility of Washington football, and how nobody in Seattle really seemed to care. In hindsight, I was probably kind of a dick.
One spring afternoon in 2004, I walked into Fremont’s Red Door to meet up with some friends. As usual, I was wearing my Ohio State shirt, but this time, the reaction was different.
“BOOOOOOO!” a voice shouted. “Who’s THIS guy wearing that Ohio State shirt?! Who wears THAT in public?!”
I walked up and gave the friend I came to see a hug. Her girlfriend was standing in a huff with her arms folded and a very sour look on her face.
“Hi, I’m Dwight.” I offered my hand.
“I’m Bridget,” she said, shaking my hand. “I hate Ohio State.”
Bridget informed me that she went to Michigan for grad school, but she grew up a huge Penn State fan. She hated Ohio State’s “arrogance” and “thugs” that made up the football program. I hated Penn State’s holier-than-thou attitude, and their cantankerous head coach who managed to get away with running up the score and grabbing officials, yet everyone laughed it off, because it’s “JoePa being JoePa”. I especially disliked their fans, who were known, at best, for throwing urine-filled balloons at opposing fans. I might have hated Michigan, but I at least respected their fans. I HATED Penn State fans. Despite all of this, we quickly became friends-the one person I knew who understood what it was like growing up in the football-crazed Midwest. We were on an island, surrounded for people who rooted for things called “Seahawks” and “Mariners”…as long as they were winning, of course.
Not a lot of people know this, but Bridget and I went on a date once. Of course, Bridget being Bridget, she didn’t actually realize we were ON a date, which I realized halfway through dinner when we spent the entirety of the evening talking about Penn State football recruiting and the Detroit Pistons playoff game that was on TV. She was very excitable. It was super cute. We joked later that it was probably good that she didn’t realize we were on a date, because we would have been the living embodiment of that ESPNU commercial with the OSU and Michigan couple:
That next fall, we officially became football buddies. She would go to Sport with the Penn State alumni group, and I’d watch my OSU games at home, and we’d talk about the games at the end of the day. At the time, Michigan and Penn State were both doing well, and she would excitedly root for both. This was unforgivable, of course, but it was Bridget, so I let it go.
In October, Penn State was playing Ohio State, so I agreed to go to Sport with her. The bar was split between the Ohio State and Penn State alumni groups, so we agreed to watch the first half on the Ohio State side, and the second half on the Penn State side. It should have been a fun time. But the Ohio State fans were awful to Bridget, who got super excited whenever PSU would make a play. They grumbled and cursed at her, and applauded when we left. It was embarrassing. At halftime, we moved to the Penn State side, and in contrast, the group was extremely welcoming. We had some playful ribbing with each other, but it was very respectful, and they were far friendlier to me, than the OSU guys were to Bridget. They changed my opinion of PSU fans, and hopefully I did the same to their opinion of OSU fans. These guys, at least, were passionate, die-hard fans, but managed to keep things in their proper perspective.
The following week, Penn State played Michigan. Bridget was conflicted all week. She was going to root for Penn State, of course, but her mother went to Michigan, so she had a vested interest there. Michigan won after Lloyd Carr successfully lobbied for an extra second at the end of the game, and Mario Manningham delivered the dagger to Penn State. I knew Bridget would be devastated, so I called to check on her.
No answer. I called again. No answer.
She didn’t answer the phone until the next evening, because she was too torn up to do so. She’d spent the previous night in tears, and didn’t want to talk to anybody. She’d never root for Michigan again after that.
“Holy shit,” I thought. “I’m a fan, but I would never get THAT emotional about my football team. Sheesh.”
January 2007. Florida had just finished tap dancing on the corpse of Troy Smith. I had a group of friends over to watch the game at my new girlfriend’s place, but by the end of the game, I had retired to another room, because I couldn’t stomach another minute of Fox’s fawning coverage. Bridget was there to console me. She understood. Football friends on an island.
2008 and 2009 continued Ohio State’s futility on the national stage. ESPN at this point, was reporting with glee every time Ohio State lost a big game-to LSU, to Texas, to USC. And after every loss, I’d be inconsolable. After every big game loss, I’d pack up all of my Ohio State stuff into what I’d called “The Bastard’s Box”, and refuse to open it again until the start of the next season. And after every loss, Bridget would call and check on me. After the 2009 home loss to USC, I’d had enough. USC would score on a last minute drive, ESPN would start happily singing about how Ohio State Can’t Win The Big One, and I quietly got up and left the room. I was done.
“I’m dead inside,” I told Melissa. “I can’t do this anymore. I care too much.” She was worried about me. I wasn’t going to stop watching the games, of course, but I was going to stop living and dying by the boxscore. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter. I was about to get married, things were going well in my life, and I was able to put sports in their proper perspective. I wouldn’t get this upset over football ever again.
It’s been hard being an Ohio State fan over the last year. Finally seeing my team beat an SEC team in a bowl game, only to have it wiped out, the tattoos-for-trinkets scandal, watching ESPN spend the entire summer raking Jim Tressel and Ohio State over the coals, seeing Terelle Pryor bolt for the NFL and trashing the school on it’s way out-nobody was more ready for the season to start than me. Except for Bridget, of course. She didn’t understand why everyone was piling on Ohio State over what seemed on its surface to be an insignificant transgression. I don’t know if she’d admit it, but I think she might actually root for Ohio State to win games now. I know I root for Penn State more than I used to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Bridget the last few days. She came over on Monday, and she’d just found out this whole Penn State scandal, and was confused and hurt over the whole thing. For the first time, someone was snooping into her family. The media was camped out on Joe Paterno’s doorstep, and this time, they weren’t looking for a playful soundbite. They were out for blood. I hurt for her, because I know she loves that school and team with every fiber of her being. I’ve had to stop reading message boards and blogs, because the Internet, being the Internet, have reduced the scandal, the school, and the team into one repulsive nickname: Pedo State.
This morning, I awoke to a ESPN alert on my phone. “Joe Paterno to retire, effective end of the season.” I immediately texted Bridget to see how she was doing.
“I’m going home tomorrow.”
I wasn’t surprised. The family needs to be together in times of tragedy, and as silly as that sounds, I know how much that school means to her family. It’s easy to sit behind a computer and scoff at the type of people who could possibly hold a vigil outside of Joe Paterno’s house after all of this. It’s easy to sit behind a computer and say the whole school should be razed to the ground, and the entire administration thrown in jail. I’ll admit, before the gruesome details came down on Saturday, I took a little satisfaction at seeing the holier-than-thou Penn State fans get knocked down a peg. But then I thought about my experience with the Penn State alumni group. And I thought about how personally I took the attacks on my team over far less transgressions. And I thought about the person who has become like a little sister to me. I don’t know if Bridget and I would have come as close as we have without sports. Hell, I might have looked right past her had she not goaded me into a football argument at a bar seven years ago.
I can’t imagine how I’d feel if this was going on at Ohio State. When the dust is settled, this is going to go down as the worst story in sports history. It took 20 years for Maryland to rebound from Len Bias’ death-the scars from this are going to linger for a generation. It just reminds me that at the end of the day, for all of the passion and pagentry of this game that I love, it’s just that-a game. But it’s a game that reaches far, and touches many.
NOTE: I’m trying to blog 50,000 words in the next 30 days, in honor of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I’m way behind schedule, but I’m going to keep at it, nonetheless. I don’t like writing novels, but I like writing about me, so I’m calling it my personal NaNoWriBlog.
Word Count: 2,031
Total Word Count: 5,173