And yet, when the time came, I couldn't help myself.
Unlike last year when it was uncharacteristically warm for late November, winter's bite had come early to Columbus and covered the ground with about five inches of snow. The fresh, white blanket made the little house on Cardiff Road look like something out of an old Currier & Ives painting while icicles dangled from the iron gates and concrete portals of Ohio Stadium.
By now, my car practically knows the way north on Olentangy River Road, past the strip malls and restaurants, and I turned left into Union Cemetery, slowing down just enough to take a good look at Chic Harley's majestic marker. It's a tall, granite stone with Chic's likeness at the top inside a red Block "O," a fitting tribute to Ohio State football's first superstar.
The rapidly setting sun was playing a game of hide-and-seek with a wispy layer of clouds, so I quickly drove up the small hill and left toward Section 12. And then, there it was again – the now-familiar black granite marker at Lot 37, Space 4. I always get a rush of disparate feelings whenever I approach the headstone with the large, bold lettering and the scripted quote from Emerson. Sometimes, it feels like I am trespassing at a sacred place I don't really belong. Other times, I hear the rustle of the trees and get the feeling I'm supposed to be there.
I got out of my car, put my hood up over my head and approached the snow-covered marker. Out of the corner of my eye, I was startled to see three deer – a large doe and two fawns – walking about twenty yards from me, their brown fur and deep, dark eyes a sharp contrast to the white surface of snow. The doe stopped suddenly and looked at me for a long time, seemingly contemplating my presence as much as I contemplated hers. After several minutes, though, she lost interest and moved on into the growing darkness.
"Beautiful, aren't they?
I nearly jumped out of my skin, startled as the words came from behind me.
"I would think you would be used to me by now," the gruff voice said with a slight trace of laughter. I turned to see what I had come to see – a gray-haired man wearing a black baseball cap, red windbreaker, gray trousers and black football cleats. A chilling wind whistled through the pines and I cupped my hands together, blowing on them and trying to keep them warm. Meanwhile, the old man shook his head.
"It's all in your mind, Son," he said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's only cold if you think it's cold."
I stood there shivering nonetheless, but finally found the courage to say, "I didn't think I'd see you this year. You said last year …"
The man drew closer. His eyes narrowed to a squint behind his silver-rimmed glasses as he demanded, "What exactly did I say last year?"
"You said that you didn't think you'd be back this year. You said it gets harder every year, that there are rules."
The man then cocked his head slightly to the right. "And didn't I also say that I'd be around? Didn't I say that I'd be around whenever we beat That School Up North? Didn't I say that?"
Suddenly, my memory kicked in. "Yes, I remember. You did say that."
"You bet I did," he replied as a satisfied look came over his face and he turned to look at the granite marker. Both of us stared at it, just he and I, standing there in the snow for several minutes before, like always, my curiosity got the best of me.
"I just wondered what you … um, what he would think about tomorrow's game. Not many fans are giving Mich … I mean, not many fans are giving That School Up North much of a chance."
The man pursed his lips and slowly shook his head in disgust.
"They're not, huh?" he said. "Well, let me tell you something. They have no idea what they're talking about. I always got kind of a chuckle out of those people who thought all you had to do was show up. I also had a word for those people: Defeatists. They're the ones who go through life thinking they're owed something. They don't know the meaning of hard work. They walk around with their hand out, and when they don't get their way, they want to cry about how they've been mistreated. Those kinds of people have no place on a football team."
"Oh, I didn't mean any of the players thought that," I said. "I meant the fans. The fans are ones that are saying that."
"Fans," he grunted. "Fans are fickle. I know we have some of the greatest fans in the world, but a lot of them are frontrunners. They're with you in good times when you're winning, but when things aren't going so good, they're nowhere to be found. They think they can do a better job than the coach and they've never played a down of football in their lives. You know, I got to the point where I didn't much care what other people said. If that rubbed somebody the wrong way, then I'm sorry, but I never felt I had to level with anybody other than myself. As long as I felt like I was treating my young men the right way, trying honestly to help them get an education, I didn't care much what the fans said because I always thought – and I truly believed this – that I could step into whatever they were doing and do a better job than they would ever do on the football field."
I nodded, but still offered, "Well, it's true that the other team isn't playing very well right now. They don't seem to be able to run the ball, their offensive and defensive lines are a mess, their quarterback plays like he's hurt …"
The rest of my thoughts were waved off as the man began to pace back and forth.
"You really don't have any idea, do you?" he said as he clenched his jaw. "Unless you've been there, you don't have any idea. What happened yesterday or last week or last year doesn't mean a damned thing. When you go into a game like this – a great rivalry game against a great opponent – you'd better be damned sure you're ready. Thinking you've won a game before it's even been played? That's the damnedest most foolish thing I think I've ever heard."
The old man was really getting going now, walking back and forth, clenching and then unclenching his fists as he paced.
"Apathy is what it is," he continued. "You beat a team a couple of years in a row and everybody gets to thinking you're going to beat them every year. Apathy is what it is. Yep, you betcha. It's apathy and that's something you have to avoid like the plague."
"Well," I offered, "Ohio State has won nine of the last 11 and has this long winning streak going ..."
"You see?" he shot back. "That's what I mean. Apathy."
He shook his head and started in again.
"Apathetic people are going nowhere, and they take a lot of people with them," he said. "That's right. They take a lot of people with them. We all have a tendency to be lazy, and I don't know whether it's body chemistry or mind or a little bit of both, but we all have a tendency to ease off at times. That's why we need good teachers and good coaches to push us a little bit. We all have to be pushed. The fact that I'm a football coach … It's a competitive thing. I just despise losing. But I despise apathy even more."
Trying to strike a lighter tone, I said, "Maybe I shouldn't have brought up the winning streak. After all, it was your teams in the Sixties …"
"I never did give a damn about winning streaks," the man said. "To be honest with you, I didn't like 'em one bit. Oh, I never liked losing. Never liked it one bit. No, sir. But you start winning a bunch of games in a row, and all of sudden you think you don't have to work quite as hard as the other guy. You begin to believe you're better than everybody else. Well, let me tell you something. Nothing cleanses your soul like getting the hell beat out of you every once in a while."
I smiled and nodded as he continued.
"Of course, winning is why you work and sweat and prepare so hard. There's nothing in this world like the feeling you get from winning. And there's nothing like the feeling you get from losing. It's the bitterest pill you could ever swallow and makes you sick to your stomach. It gets in there and rolls around and gnaws at you, and you quickly realize there's nothing in this world you won't do to erase that feeling. Then you come to this game. The Game. There is no other game in college football that even comes close in comparison, and you realize there isn't anything you wouldn't do to win it.
"And I get so goddamn sick and tired of people saying the Big Ten is weak. What those fellas on that sports channel know about football you could fit on the head of a pin. They're the kind of people who are paid to sit around all day on their brains. The Big Ten is not weak. I'd like to see some of those Southern teams come up here sometime and play in November with the wind swirling and the snow blowing sideways and the field as hard as a rock. I'd like to see then what would happen to all their so-called finesse and speed. Why, they'd go running home with their tails tucked between their legs. The Big Ten is weak, huh? That's a laugh. I'd like to see that Mark May character say that to my face just once. Uh, huh. Just once. He'd never say it again, I can guarantee you that."
That produced a warm little chuckle. And then I asked, "OK, what about tomorrow? What's going to happen?"
He looked at me with a stern smile. "I can't predict the future, but I can tell you this: If we go into that game with our heads on straight, single-minded, well-prepared, with respect for that other team's players, they won't beat us. And that's another thing that has bothered me in recent years. People don't seem to respect the rivalry anymore. I remember hearing someone laugh and say their 12-year-old son doesn't understand why the game is so important because we beat That School Up North all the time. I would advise that man to buy his son a history book and teach him why this game has meant so much to so many people for so many years. I despise the fact that people take any victory for granted, but I especially despise it when they take a victory in this game for granted. I just can't stomach that.
"When you take the field, you have to realize you are part of something special. You have to realize you are part of something that existed long before you were born and will exist long after you are gone. And then, when the game is over, no matter the outcome, you wake up every morning for the next 365 days with one thought in mind and one thought only: "We have to beat those sons-of-bitches."
A familiar church bell chimed in the distance.
"Well, I guess you know what that means," the man said. "I have to be getting back."
I nodded and said, "Thanks, Coach. I always look forward to this time of year. Thanksgiving was my dad's favorite holiday and some of my favorite memories are watching the Ohio State-Michigan game with him. I think, at this time of year, there are a lot of people who are thinking about loved ones who are no longer with us, and I just wanted to say that you provided a lot of great memories to a great many of us over the years. Thank you."
The old man stood up straight and pursued his lips one last time.
"That is very kind," he said. "It was my great pleasure to serve a fine university for twenty-eight years, and if what we did and what we accomplished brought joy to others in any form, please tell everyone that I am humbly grateful."
He turned to walk away, but paused for a moment and then walked back toward me.
"Oh, and you can tell them one more thing," he said.
"You tell them the old coach said to take That School Up North and kick their ass."