Mr. All-World, Requiescat in Pace


by John Baskin

In the first edition of Woody’s Boys, Jim Stillwagon’s chapter was called “An All-World Ass-kicker,” which was how he saw himself, and not without justification. He was, as writer Alan Natali, pointed out, “an undersized tough guy,” and between the two of them, they produced the best sports interview I ever read. It was intelligent, insightful, and hilarious, and it contained the best one-sentence quote on getting hit on a football field: “I ran down on the first kickoff, and this guy hit me so hard, I looked up at the sun through my shoes and landed on my head.”

He died in early February, which sent me to a copy of that early edition in which Stillwagon was edited out almost as soon as it hit the stores. In addition to its humor and insight, it was also stevedore profane, and Stillwagon decided the profanity might harm his business dealings with a new client. We settled the issue by substituting Billy Joe Armstrong, who was more circumspect if not as entertaining, and so Jim was relegated to the first edition where he remains as the best, funniest, and most insightful football interview ever.

It’s unfortunate it didn’t stay with the half-dozen subsequent editions, for the original first edition is difficult to find these days, and the interview still seems a splendid evocation of a guy who was, in a phrase by Natali, “a kind of weird epic street-poet—Homer meets Dennis the Menace meets Sonny Crockett.” It’s hard to believe that Stillwagon himself wouldn’t say now, “Yeah, that’s me. Pay no attention to all the swearing.”

He came to Ohio State from nearby Mt. Vernon because Woody liked that he had thin ankles, said “Yessir,” and that he’d read Moby Dick. (He really hadn’t, but he’d seen the movie.) He told Natali, “I always think, someday after I die, they’ll go, ‘Did he die? Yeah, I remember him. He played for fucking Minnesota, didn’t he?” But in Columbus, they know better, for his teams won three straight Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl, and a national championship, and Jim was the first player to win the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi award in the same year. When Natali interviewed him some twenty years after he graduated from Ohio State, people were still saying to Jim, “You look good enough that you could suit up tomorrow.” And his reply: “Man, there’s not enough fucking tape.”

Some of the best passages in the interview came when he recounts his time with Woody after football. When Stillwagon’s mother died unexpectedly, he discovered Woody in the church, weeping.

“I thought, ‘God, how’d he know?’ Catholic mass on a Monday morning. Unbelievable. My dad looked up at me and said, ‘Jim, your mom got a special place in heaven today.’

“I said, “What’s that, Dad?

“‘Oh,’ he says, ‘when your mom gets to heaven, all the sports fans are going to say, “Damn, Woody Hayes went to your funeral.’

“He wrote my dad letters. He didn’t have to do any of this shit. I don’t know how he knew when my mother’s funeral was, all the way from Columbus. He’d call my dad, and my dad and he would talk. He did things like that for people all the time. There’s ten thousand stories.

“A lot of guys were hosing him, but he never thought that way. At the end of his coaching, he always thought that people were giving a 110 percent. If you were with him, he’d go to the end with you…He didn’t even think there were drugs going on. There were the biggest drugheads in the world during the end. Woody would just say, ‘That doesn’t happen, not here.’

“He wouldn’t even comprehend anybody not doing what he was supposed to do. It was really out of control. You could just see it. It was public. Guys were drugheads. He just couldn’t fathom it.”

So if you really want a good picture of Stillwagon—and Woody Hayes, as well—look for Woody’s Boys, the first edition. It’s a great interview, and forgive the profanity.