As a boy growing up in central Ohio, the 1968 Ohio State football season sat just beyond the ether of my memory. I remember 1969. I remember, for instance, my parents arriving home from Ann Arbor, Michigan, after a dismal loss in the season finale, and my mom moaning as she came through the door, “That was the longest drive home ever after that game.”
A year later, I attended my first game in the horseshoe. I was nine. It was a magical day of noise and scene, though what stuck with me afterward wasn’t any particular play or a runaway win against Texas A&M. It was the sight of Boy Scouts ushering the games. They went to every game, I was told. And they got in free. I became a scout as soon as age permitted. That’s how I watched Archie Griffin as a sophomore in 1973. And again in 1974.
Maybe it was these distant embers that brought the idea of this book. Maybe it was crossing paths with that particularly rabid strain of fans again when Ohio State won the 2003 national championship in Arizona. Maybe, too, it was the odd career I chose of writing about sports, a job where you don’t always love sports in watching them game after game, year after year, Super Bowls to World Series to Olympics. You become numb to them at times. You misplace the magic of them too often.
Somewhere in all that is the reason I set out to write about the time and the team that made me fall in love with sports, once upon a time. The idea of this book kept percolating to the point I called Rex Kern in California one day to see if he’d help with the idea. Kern’s initial reaction was expected hesitation, considering he’d never heard of this writer on the other side of the country asking about events decades ago. He kindly said thanks but no thanks.
Still, we kept talking. A few stories about that season led to a few more. At one point, I remember, he told of young son meeting Woody Hayes for the first time. The son was 5 or 6 and had only heard his father tell stories of this man, stories that were as oversized as the great man himself. Now they arrived from California for an Ohio State game together.
“Look, there’s Woody,’’ Kern told his son.
His son took off running down a hall. He jumped into Woody’s arms, wrapping himself around Woody like he was Santa Claus.
“That’s the emotion he had for Woody just by listening to me tell stories,’’ Kern said in that first phone call.
Kern softened in his stance, and became a vital help in a book he never once asked how about how it would be written. None of the more than hundred coaches, players and various bystanders swept into the current of that season asked what kind of a book it would be, either. That was a good thing, considering I wasn’t sure. But as the research went on, as the personal stories spilled out, as any sporting statute of limitations had passed to tell what it was like inside the team in that season, it was clear this book would have Woody at its center. He was the most impactful person in many of these players’ lives, often for better, sometimes for worse but always in ways no player could have foreseen when they arrived on campus.
That season changed everything for Woody, too, as I learned. He was in trouble in Columbus. His old ways weren’t winning. Signs were sold on the Oval on campus during game days, when a plane also flew overhead at games with the line, “Good-bye, Woody.” Fans serenaded him at games with the song, “Good bye, Woody, we hate to see you go ...”
Fifty years later, it remains a healthy pivot in Ohio State’s history. Fifty years later, its success led to the final run of his Woody’s career. Fifty years later, this team’s truths resonate as clearly and its lessons come as readily.
Fifty years later, this season still remains why a boy from Central Ohio fell in love with sports.