Troy Smith’s hotel room was packed. It was 2006, the night before we hosted second-ranked Michigan, and the key members of our top-ranked Ohio State team were crammed into that one room — sprawled out on hotel beds, sitting on the floor, bunched together on desks and table tops. Everyone was either in their sweats or pajamas.
No coach to deliver a speech.
This was our leader. Our senior quarterback who had already beaten Michigan twice and won a national championship in his college career. A guy who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year. The following afternoon, he was going to play his last game at Ohio Stadium in front of the Buckeye faithful — and maybe his biggest. And he wanted all of us to know how important this game was to him.
And how important it should be to us.
He went around the room, making eye contact with every guy in there as he talked about the Michigan rivalry and what it means. You could hear the emotion in his voice. By the time he looked in my direction, tears had welled up in his eyes.
“Beanie,” he said. “If you make a play in this game, and we win, you’ll cement yourself in Ohio State history forever. You’ll be a legend. That’s the magnitude of Ohio State vs. Michigan.”
I was just an 18-year-old freshman, so I was already nervous about the game. I had also been struggling with fumbling issues all season, so I wasn’t even sure if I would get a chance to play. And the last thing I wanted was to find myself in a position to make a game-changing play, only to fumble it away, possibly giving the game away and ending up on the wrong side of one of those legendary plays.
But Troy’s words really resonated with me. Throughout that night and into game day, I kept telling myself that if I got into the game, I would find a way to make a play.
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You really can’t put into words how big Ohio State vs. Michigan is. Troy tried, and I think he did a great job. But it’s something you can’t fully wrap your head around until you experience it for yourself.
When game time arrived and I ran out of the tunnel to take the field, I looked over to the Michigan sideline, and the first person I saw was Derek Jeter.
See, we don’t have a lot of celebrities in Columbus, Ohio, but Michigan had all sorts of celebrities and former players on their sideline … just hanging out.
Don’t quote me on this, but I think I even saw Madonna.
I thought, O.K., if you have big-time celebrities who have no business being in Columbus flying in just for a football game, this must be huge.
On our sideline, I saw former Buckeyes running backs Eddie George, Raymont Harris and Keith Byars — some of the greats who helped make Ohio State football the brand that it is today. Throughout the first quarter and into the second, I was standing near them on the sideline, still kind of in awe, when I heard my running backs coach, Doc Tressel, call my name.
“Beanie,” he yelled. “Get in there!”
I instantly felt juiced knowing that those Buckeyes greats were going to witness firsthand what I could do.
Now, I just had to go out and do it.
It was my first snap of the game. It was tied 7–7 and we were on our own 48-yard line trying to mount a drive. I just kept telling myself, “Make a play, Beanie…. Find a way.”
I lined up in the backfield to the right of Troy, who was in shotgun. I ran to the left, and just as I took the handoff in the backfield, I looked up and saw Michigan defensive end Shawn Crable barreling toward me.
Shawn was a guy I had looked up to for a long time because he was an Ohio kid like me, playing major college football.
Now, he was about to drop me in the backfield for a loss on my first carry in the biggest game of my life.
He got such a good jump off the line that the only thing I could think to do was put a spin move on him and hope his momentum carried him past me and further into the backfield.
When I spun, Shawn flew right by me, and I somehow ended up square with the line of scrimmage, with an open hole right in front of me. My line had opened a gap that was so wide open that I could actually see the end zone 50-something yards away. There was nobody in my way.
I hit the hole, and as I was running down the field, two thoughts entered my mind. The first was what Troy had said to me the night before: “Make a play, and you’ll be a legend.” This was my chance, and I was taking advantage of it.
The second thought was … don’t fumble!
If you look closely, you can see me holding the ball high and tight throughout the entire run to make sure I didn’t fumble it away. I even kept holding it that way long after I had scored.
There was no way I was letting that ball go.
In all honesty, the spin was kind of lucky. I won’t pretend that it was my plan to spin to the one spot on the field where there was an open hole. I was just trying not to get dropped for a loss.
But when I saw that hole, I hit it, and I ran 52 yards and into Ohio State history with the touchdown that gave us our first lead in a game that we went on to win 42–39, sending us to the national championship game.
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It’s hard to believe that it has already been 10 years since that game. I still have people come up to me and say things like, “That was the greatest sporting event I have ever been to in my life.”
When I hear something like that, it makes me stop and think…. I played a key role in the greatest sporting event in someone’s life, and I helped their team win that game, providing them with a lifelong memory.
Ten years later, people still remember my 52-yard touchdown run. And 20 years later, I think they’ll still remember it.
That’s how big Ohio State vs. Michigan is — so big that you won’t even be able to fully grasp its magnitude until years down the road.
When I was growing up in Akron, Ohio, the Buckeyes usually came out on the wrong end of the Michigan rivalry games. They only beat the Wolverines twice in the ’90s, but they started to fight back in the few years before I arrived in 2006. One of my goals was to help Ohio State dominate the rivalry once again.
In my three years as a Buckeye, I went 3–0 against Michigan, and they’ve only beaten us one time since I left. So I guess you could say I accomplished my goal.
But let me give you another example of how intense the rivalry is….
The second time I played against Michigan, it was in Ann Arbor. Now, before I tell you what happened, you have to understand that these are two teams that don’t like each other. There’s been a lot of bad blood spilled in this rivalry, year after year.
Carlos Osorio/AP Images
Well, when we arrived at the stadium in Ann Arbor, it was about 8:30 a.m. on game day. Kickoff was at noon. So we get to the locker room, and it’s pitch black. We flipped on the light switches.
The electricity wasn’t working.
Now, it could have been a coincidence — I mean, it could have been. Anything’s possible.
Or, some folks at Michigan could have been playing with the electricity so we couldn’t get dressed and out on the field in time for warm-ups.
I’m not gonna point any fingers, but I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you think it was a coincidence or not after you hear what happened next….
As we sat in the locker room, a couple of our guys had to do their “business,” so they went into the bathrooms. The sinks were working perfectly. The water was running, everything was good.
But the toilets wouldn’t flush. It was like the water was cut off from every toilet in the locker room, but not from anywhere else.
So at this point, it’s like 9 a.m., and we’re sitting there, three hours away from kickoff, in the dark, and the whole locker room smells like shit.
The good news was that the power came on after about 30 minutes.
The bad news was that the toilets didn’t get fixed until we came back in at halftime.
Like I said, I’m not gonna point any fingers. Could they have been having electric and plumbing issues on the same day, at the same time, during the short period in which we were using the visitors’ locker room?
I guess anything’s possible….
Now, I’m happy to say that if Michigan was trying to mess with us and throw us off our game, it didn’t work — especially with me. I remember our head coach, Jim Tressel, came up to me before the game, and he said, “You know what? It’s wet and rainy, so you’d better be prepared to carry the ball a bunch today.”
Well, not only did we get out of Ann Arbor with a 14–3 win, but I rushed 39 times for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the process.
So I guess we got the last laugh.
I know I did.
Paul Sancya/AP Photo
The third and final time I got to play against Michigan, it was a blowout. They were in a transition period between Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke at head coach, and they came into Ohio Stadium and got beat down, 42–7.
Michigan went 3–9 that year, which made the rivalry game a little less fun — because, let’s face it, you want your rivals to be good. You want the game to mean something. One of the reasons Ohio State vs. Michigan is the greatest rivalry in sports is because both teams are consistently competing at the highest level of college football, and there are few programs that can rival the history of the two schools.
Hate Michigan all you want, but you need them to be good. Otherwise, the rivalry doesn’t really matter.
That’s why I think this year’s matchup, along with No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle in 2006, is one of the most important games in the history of this rivalry. One of the greatest things about Ohio State vs. Michigan is that the two teams usually meet when everything is on the line. And with a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup that could determine which team gets into the College Football Playoff and which is left on the outside looking in — well, the stakes don’t get much higher.
So listen up, Buckeyes: What you do on Saturday will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. Like Troy said, if you make a play, and your team wins, you’ll cement yourself in Ohio State history forever. You’ll be a legend.
This is why you chose Ohio State, and why Ohio State chose you.
This is your legacy game.
Many of you will go on to the NFL after you leave Columbus. If that’s the case, Saturday’s result will definitely follow you, because you’ll probably run into a lot of Wolverines at the next level, and you’re definitely gonna want those bragging rights.
When I got drafted by Arizona in 2009, there were a couple of Wolverines on that Cardinals team who I had played against back in 2006 — Steve Breaston and Alan Branch. And you can bet that I never let them forget that we beat them, and that I never lost to Michigan.
We could be talking about anything — Cavs vs. Warriors, for instance — and one of them would come at me, and I’d be like, “Get outta here. Did you ever beat me when we were in college?”
And they wouldn’t make a peep.
Steve still owes me photos of him in Ohio State gear after he lost a bet we made one year. Alan paid up when we bet on Ohio State–Michigan and he lost. But Steve?
I’m still waiting….
It’s Michigan week — the week you dream about when you commit to play football at Ohio State. For you seniors. I hope you enjoyed Michigan week and all the things that make it so special. I hope you took in the traditions, like “the best damn band in the land” coming out to practice and letting you march with them. I hope one of you got the prestigious honor of dotting the “I.” I hope some of you got on the drums or grabbed a tambourine and took advantage of that moment.
Because, let me tell you, that’s one of the things you’ll look back on years down the road, and stuff like that is what you’ll miss the most about playing college football.
I hope the coaches brought in a great Buckeyes legend to explain the importance of the Michigan rivalry. One year, when I was playing, it was Jack Tatum — God rest his soul — one of the baddest men to ever strap on a helmet.
I hope you enjoyed your Senior Tackle — that last, ceremonial hit on a tackling dummy or sled before your final game against Michigan.
And for you underclassmen, especially you freshmen … take it all in. You’ll get other shots at Michigan, but don’t underestimate the importance of a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup. I know I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of that No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup back in 2006, and Saturday’s game is right up there in terms of what it means for Ohio State, and the Michigan rivalry as a whole.
Don’t get intimidated by the celebrities. Don’t get caught up in the moment. Don’t get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game. Just go out there and find a way to make a play. If you do, and your team wins, you’ll cement yourself in Ohio State history forever.
You’ll be a legend.
But no matter what happens, Saturday will be a day you will never forget for as long as you live.
Make a play, and you’ll be a legend.
— Chris “Beanie” Wells (2006–08)