For us Buckeyes the Rose Bowl always had a hallucinatory quality. Why, in the dead of winter, was the sun shining in Pasadena? The annual New Year's Day travelogue always felt a little bit like a fever dream to us. Too many palm trees, shirtsleeves, people with hats that did not have earmuffs attached. We'd sit in our basement rec rooms watching this in mild disbelief. Didn't college football demand the dignity of (at least) a drizzle?
It never seemed quite fair, and in fact it hardly ever was. We'd send our Buckeyes out there every year (or at least our Midwestern brethren from Michigan), and, aside from unseasonable weather, they'd suffer some underhanded treatment on our behalf. USC was the worst—passing the ball, skittering way off tackle. What was that about? You slog through a gray autumn playing football like a man, week in and week out, and then...this is your reward?
In Ohio we did football right. We did it in mud, rain and snow, and we didn't use much finesse, either. Not to say we didn't see the excitement in a well-passed ball, but, really, didn't that kind of play have the feel of a moral shortcut? Knowing that our fathers were working the line, to no more satisfaction than a steady paycheck, always made it difficult to appreciate so cheap a thrill.
Three yards and a cloud of dust was always used as a pejorative (especially when it came to that damned Rose Bowl), but restricted to competition with like-minded conservatives, it was rather more glorious. It was a cultural preference to plod ahead with as much security as possible, knowing you were in this thing for the long haul. The kind of folks who did not experience self-realization when in the presence of a well-tilled field or nicely rolled steel generally did not stay long. Moved to California, probably.
Our football lacked imagination, we concede. But the unspoken agreement among ourselves—that we would offer no undue trickery in our attempts to get ahead—was reassuring. There was an anticipated fairness to it. I always felt this accounted for the unnatural popularity of football in Ohio. We would submerge our skills (at least some of us must have been able to throw a pass) in the interests of democracy. Implicit in the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust lifestyle, after all, was the idea that we'd all be there when the game was over, sharing the same modest lives forever, and without complaint.
Of course, that all changed. And I blame the Rose Bowl. Other things, too, like the factories that guaranteed our fathers' security shutting down, but mostly the Rose Bowl. We had to admit, sitting in our basement rec rooms, that it might be fun, after all, playing football in our shirtsleeves. And a little razzle-dazzle couldn't hurt. I noticed the Buckeyes began to recruit passers and, in any event, Woody was long gone.
Myself, I played out the string as long as I could, thinking I could do no better than grow up to cover football in Ohio. Maybe for the Akron Beacon Journal. The Buckeyes, that would be sweet! Maybe a trip to Pasadena every couple of years. My first job, which I believed placed me on that fast track, was in Massillon, where high school football is important enough that newborn boys are given toy footballs to bond with in their incubators. I inquired about the possibility of someday covering the Tigers, but my sports editor, who would type 30 inches on the halftime show as a warmup for the main event each week (and who would get a boulevard leading to the Massillon stadium named after him), looked at me rather alarmed and said, "Good Lord, no!"
So for as long as I was there I typed up the bowling column (not so insignificant in that part of Ohio), the equivalent, I suppose, of my father-in-law's factory work, although probably not as satisfying in the long run. Eventually I gave up on the idea of ever covering the Buckeyes. Now that I'd had a chance to look around, Ohio football didn't seem all that interesting. (I blame the Rose Bowl.) I picked up and moved to California. First year there I covered USC. That January in Pasadena the Trojans beat the Buckeyes by a point, on an extremely pleasant day, as I recall.