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THIS IS BUCKEYE COUNTRY. WE LIKE IT HERE. SO SAID THE THROW RUG IN THE FOYER OF MY FRIEND COLIN'S HOUSE. THIS WAS A SATURDAY IN 1979, AND I WAS THE NEW KID—A SKINNY NINE-YEAR-OLD WHOSE FAMILY HAD JUST MOVED TO SUBURBAN COLUMBUS. NOT KNOWING A BUCKEYE FROM A HAWKEYE, I was about to commit the sacrilege of tramping my muddy sneakers all over BUCKEYE COUNTRY, when Colin tucked a junior-sized Wilson in my gut and pushed me out to the front lawn.
He drew a post pattern on his chest and barked a hut-hut-hike. Taking a three-step drop, he called the play-by-play: " Art Schlichter goes back to pass. Three Wolverines in his face. He's looking deep. He's got a man open!"
I was Doug Donley, ass-and-elbowing across the neighbors' lawn, racing to meet Schlichter's over-the-shoulder bomb, stretching for the game-winner...and dropping it.
Colin held his head in his hands. "Donley botches a perfect strike."
Like any good quarterback Colin knew how to rally his team. He explained that in Columbus, the forward pass was considered a trick play. "Three things can happen when you put the ball in the air, Joe," he said, preaching the gospel of Woody, "and two of them are bad."
So we went to the ground game. Three yards and a scattering of lawn clippings. We baffled the Michigan defense with our option attack—Colin a juking Corny Greene, me a jiving Archie Griffin. Between plays Colin explained the stakes as he, also nine, understood them: Ohio State was good, that school up north was evil, and never the twain shall meet—except on the last Saturday of the Big Ten season. With a notion that this wasn't just a game but a battle for souls, I tackled like Tom Cousineau, picked off passes like Jack Tatum, booted PATs like Vlade Janakievski. Come dinnertime, I'd stopped merely imitating Buckeyes greats; I was a Buckeye.
Colin and I were playing the original fantasy football—as it has been played by thousands of Ohio kids on thousands of Ohio lawns in the years since 1890, when the Bucks lined up for the first time. But the universality of this experience doesn't cheapen it. The fact that so many of us have known similar Saturdays is a testament to their importance. In backyards and on ball fields, as we block and tackle for the Scarlet and Gray, our personal histories and the history of Ohio State football intersect. And this connection only gets stronger as we grow older.
I now have difficulty separating the milestones of my life from the highs and lows of the OSU football program, and my guess is that most Buckeyes fans feel the same. I know my family moved to Worthington in 1979 because I remember that we unpacked the boxes the spring after Woody was fired. That was the season I went to my first game in Ohio Stadium, a 59-0 shellacking of the lowly Badgers. My mom and dad had both attended Wisconsin, so on that afternoon I learned to talk trash. But by season's end I'd also learned heartbreak and humility—when the Buckeyes lost the Rose Bowl and the national championship to Southern Cal, 17-16.
I first kissed a girl in '84, the year Doug Flutie stole the Heisman from Keith Byars. I graduated high school and went off to Ohio State in '87 after watching Chris Spielman rack up 29 tackles against Michigan the previous fall. And I turned 21 in '90, the year John Cooper forfeited to USC in a lightning storm.
Four years later Colin and I were living in Manhattan, but I remember '94 as the season Coach Cooper finally beat the Wolverines. When Colin's mom passed away that year, she was buried wearing an OSU sweatshirt.