That’s the only way I can describe what Ohio State football means to kids who grew up like I did.
If you follow college football, you might already know the most famous numbers in Buckeyes history. You might even remember where you were the first time you saw their scarlet and gray jerseys flash across your TV screen.
#27 Eddie George. Wearing the crop-top jersey with the double wristbands, running over linebackers
#45. Andy Katzenmoyer. Patrolling the middle of the field with his mirrored visor. His uniform number always seemed like it was grass-stained. Archie Griffin gave his blessing for Andy to wear the number he had made famous.
#75. Orlando Pace. Putting on a clinic every Saturday.
#99. Luke Fickell. The toughest guy on the field. He later served as my linebackers coach and taught me so much on and off the field.
I could go on and on. If you grew up in the ’90s, you know what I’m talking about. But if you grew up in the ’90s in southwest Ohio, another number might also be special to you.
Maybe it was the number of your cousin, or of an older kid from your town, or of a family friend.
For me, it was, Jerry Rudzinski, number 35. Jerry grew up in my hometown, and he went to the Catholic high school 10 minutes from my house. So when I was a little kid, I heard all about how good he was. And when he ended up going to play for the Buckeyes in ’96, it seemed surreal. Columbus was only 90 minutes away, but Jerry going there to play was the first time I realized, in a distant way, unaware to him, I had a connection to the team.
I guess before I saw Jerry on TV, saying you wanted to be a Buckeye was like saying you wanted to be the president. It just didn’t seem possible. Playing in Columbus was an unattainable dream.
Jerry wasn’t the biggest guy, but he started at linebacker for three seasons, and by his senior year he was a captain. Every time I’d watch him make a tackle I felt pride knowing that he had grown up down the road. It felt real to me.
I remember when the movie Varsity Blues came out, in 1999. I watched it with my brothers and realized for the first time that these small towns in Texas would shut down for high school football on Friday nights!
When the movie Friday Night Lights came out five years later, it was over. Everybody associated that culture with Texas. But let me assure you that we are just as nuts about high school football in Ohio. It’s not like that everywhere in Ohio — but in a lot of places, it really is: Archbishop Moeller, Elder, St. Xavier, and all the other Catholic powerhouses around Cincinnati. And then up north, there’s St. Ignatius in Cleveland. So many huge schools produce D-I guys every single year. The level of competition in Ohio is on par with what you’ll find in Florida, Texas and California.
I went to Centerville, a public high school, and we were always playing those Cincinnati schools in the playoffs, and man … we’d be playing sometimes against schools with an all-male enrollment of 1,600.
There really is just something about Friday nights in Ohio. Something in the air. And that culture has been cultivated over generations. And, as a high school player, the pride I felt was a lot like the pride I felt at Ohio State. There was that feeling of, Let’s hold the line. We can’t be the one’s to mess this up. Let’s keep this tradition going.
I think that’s what’s so special about college football. You go from being a 16- or 17-year-old kid watching these guys on TV to being a young man suiting up with the very same players — in what seems like an instant.
When I was a freshman at Ohio State, I looked at the seniors like they walked on water. Mike Doss. Donnie Nickey. Cie Grant. Tim Anderson. These guys were not only gods, but they were also from Ohio. The closest thing I can compare it to is playing with Brett Favre for two years in Green Bay. You see these mythical creatures on TV for so long, and then one day you’re lining up next to them. It’s a huge responsibility.
We ended up winning the national championship my freshman year. I could tell you a lot of things about that year on the field, but all of that stuff is kind of boring. When I think about that team now, I think about how confident the upperclassmen were, and how much fun they had on and off the field.
And that’s really my only advice for this year’s Buckeyes going into the College Football Playoff: Remember to enjoy the ride.
Our 2002 team took our preparation super, super seriously — we worked hard, we lifted after practice, we made sure to be accountable to one another. But when we were actually playing? Man, we were having fun. We had each other’s back, but we also made sure to have a good time — if you got blasted by a guy during a play, no one was going to let that go. As soon as you got popped, the first thing you thought was, Ahh, they’re gonna get me for that. I think that looseness defines any championship team. Watching the Cubs celebrations during the World Series reminded me of how you can have fun in the most stressful athletic situations possible.
I know that’s cliche, but it’s true: remember to enjoy the process. Every part of it.
Don’t get too caught up in all the hype. The truth is, it’s not life or death what you’re doing out there. If you feel anxious or nervous, remember that that’s a good thing. It means that you are passionate about the great spectacle that is college football. Win or lose, all us former players have your back no matter what.
If you do win it all, the championship isn’t going to solve all your problems. Your life will go on. Eventually, you’ll leave Columbus for the real world. You’ll still have all the same little problems. Your life won’t be perfect.
But still, that one thing, that one year.…
Well, it will course through your veins. It’ll course through the blood of every man on the roster. You’ll all have that bond for the rest of your lives.
Ask me what I remember about 2002 now and the first thing that comes to mind is something that happened after every home game.…
It’s late, hours after the final whistle, and I’m still at the stadium with my old roommate and buddy Nick Mangold. All the fans and media are gone. Nick and I are walking through the empty stadium, through the parking lot where a few tailgaters are still going strong and down the hill to the house where we lived.
To get to our house, we have to walk right through campus. At that point, the pads are off and we’re just students again. People are all over the streets in scarlet and gray. There’s a feeling in the air. You can hear it and sense it coming before you even get to campus.
The feeling of strolling through campus in our sweatpants, taking it all in, being part of it all … that’s what I remember.
The rest is just a game, win or lose.
Have fun. It goes fast.