They watched as the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes defied all the odds and embarrassed the naysayers.
"I've talked to many of the seniors before," senior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said. "It is indescribable how our five years have worked out so far. We came into such a great team of guys. No one gave them the time of day, but they worked hard to get to 14-0. We just kind of sat back and enjoyed that ride."
Enjoyed – yes, but they worked hard. All season long, the redshirted portion of the 2002 recruiting class toiled away in practice, but never played a down in any game. They provided fodder for their teammates who were starting, but the freshman couldn't play without losing their extra season of eligibility.
Jay Richardson spoke of his memories, "I remember talking to David Patterson who wasn't here in '02 and I was telling him it would be amazing to come in on top like we did in 2002, being a highly touted class and even though I didn't play as much as I would have liked to in 2002, just to be able to come in and win the championship and be a part of that team, then to be able to get one going out would be the greatest accomplishment any college football player could say they had."
Patterson said in reply, "I've heard those guys say that we've won one before, but we weren't out there. This will be the first time they would be out there. Even playing in the Michigan game at home, this is the first time a lot of guys are big, big part of that."
Indeed, in 2004, the last time Ohio State beat Michigan in Columbus, only a few current starters played critical roles. Troy Smith, Ted Ginn, Jr., T.J. Downing, Anthony Gonzalez, Quinn Pitcock, Patterson, and Joel Penton are the only current players to show up even half way prominently in the box score. Of the group, only Smith, Downing, and Gonzo can make any claims to fame based on their performances.
Starting tailback Antonio Pittman, who logged just seven carries (for 11 yards) in 2004 summed it up succinctly, "They played their part in that (2002) championship run, but this is their chance to play in it."
As if this edition of The Game needed additional dimensions, there will also be a long held and very emotional tradition before the contest even begins.
"It's special just because it's senior day here," explained Downing. "It's going to be sad to call it a career, but I can't complain about what I've been through so far. I've got a good number of rings on my finger, and hopefully after Saturday I'll be able to put another on there."
No senior wants to go out with a loss. They don't want their final memories to be of allowing Michigan to win The Game on their own hallowed turf.
Richardson admitted this had been discussed, "Brandon and Quinn and I were talking that this being our fifth year, we've been here a long time and we've been through a few of these games and we've seen some of our seniors go out on top and we've seen some go out losing this game and we understand that having this game at home means a lot to us, especially it being senior (day) and how big of a deal it is to leave here on top."
Then there is Antonio Smith, a former walk on turned starter and even star. He wasn't starting, and really didn't expect to start here at Ohio State in 2002. He was simply another freshman trying to stay on the team and maybe earn a few minutes of playing time before he left. Just taking the field in this game is a reward for long, grueling years of hard work.
Smiling from ear to ear, he said, "It's just been a great, humbling and long-lasting experience. My five years here, I embrace it. Everything that has happened and the long journey that I have been on, the position I started out in and the position I'm in now, is very exciting to be able to play in this game, to be a part of this great rivalry, to be able to play in the greatest game in history, whatever, it's great to be here."
A more appreciative young man would be hard to find.
Pittman definitely wants to win for his seniors; he wants to send them out right, but he observed, "A lot of players don't get the opportunity to even play for one national championship or go to one. When they first came here they were fortunate enough to be on a team that went to the national championship, and now on their way out they are on a team that could potentially go to the national championship."
Win or lose, this has been a special class. It won't have been a wasted career, and their memory shouldn't be only noted for ‘missed' chances even if they were to lose this afternoon.
Anything can happen once the whistle is blown and The Game begins. Momentum and points can change in a heartbeat and sometimes a single inch of ground gained or lost can mean the difference. Injuries can play a part, such as with Bobby Carpenter in 2005, whose broken leg not only knocked him out of The Game but also the Fiesta Bowl.
So, whether Ohio State emerges victorious or suffers defeat, Pitcock believes, "It couldn't work out any better, being at home and having it be the one and two teams in the nation. It's like a dream come true that you never thought could happen." It's happening. No need to pinch yourself and no need to wait.
Kickoff is in a matter of hours and for 19 seniors – including the 16 fifth-year players – they could be on the verge of coming full circle.