Football Saturday in Columbus. What a beautiful thing. The mass pilgrimage to Ohio’s capitol eight times every autumn is a daylong celebration of state pride and America’s sport. For the fans it is a big party, a time to let loose and support a mutual cause. It is a chance to drink, scream, yell, love, hate, and act like a kid again. For the players, it is the culmination of a year of practice. So much training, both mental and physical, goes on all year in preparation for 13 weekend Buckeye explosions. The game is the easiest part of the day for the players. Those kids are ready to play. All they have done their whole lives has been in preparation for what they do on the field on Saturdays. But the game is only a small portion of game day. The rest of the day challenges the patience of a young man. The rest of the day is all about sitting, waiting, and walking.
Under Coach Jim Tressel (and I am sure Coach Urban Meyer), game day was controlled under a strictly regimented schedule. Lights out the night before the game typically came at 10 pm. After all, Coach T was a firm believer that nothing good happened after 10 regardless what day it is. Morning wake up for noon games came around 7:30 am. The first team obligation was a walk that always took place exactly four hours before the scheduled kick-off. If the start time was later in the afternoon or night, the morning meeting schedule varied, but the team walk was always four hours before game time. For home games, the walk took place around the business school surrounding our weekend home, the Blackwell Hotel. The walk was meant to awaken the muscles and get the blood pumping, as it concluded in the banquet room for pre-game meal.
The meal was always the same, with slight variances, depending on time of day. Every pre-game meal came with a piece of baked chicken and a small filet mignon. For noon games, they were accompanied by pancakes, home fries, scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit. For later starts, the side dishes were mashed potatoes, green beans, a small piece of lasagna, and optional apple pie. Although players and coaches were encouraged to eat plenty, everyone had their own favorites and meal choices. One known meal was that of coach Darrell Hazell. Coach Hazell had an odd tradition of eating nothing at all. The focused look on his face let us know that there was nothing on his mind but the game itself. That being said, the players didn’t mind one bit, and shared his portions amongst the bigger eaters.
After pre-game meal, we went to our rooms to finish personal preparations and put our suit and tie on for the business portion of the day. Some watched some College Gameday, while others retreated to prayer circles for final mental and spiritual preparations. After a last position and offense/defense meeting, the team gathered on the stairs next to the Blackwell for the walk through the fans for Skull Session at St. John’s Arena. And oh, what a walk it is. I can not begin to explain the feeling of walking through a sea of scarlet and gray en route to be greeted by a packed house and the Best Damn Band in the Land. Talk about putting everything we do into perspective. When I say that we do it for you, I mean it.
After being serenaded by the band, we exit St. John’s Arena on cloud nine, hair still standing on end. This is when my favorite part of the walk occurred. Somewhere between St John’s and Ohio Stadium, my family would be waiting. All the pent-up anxiety accumulated all week was gone the second I would fall into their arms for a final hug. They came from far and wide to support me every week, and just seeing them would ease tensions so much.
As we entered the stadium via the band ramp, either the Soprano’s theme song or “The Boys are Back in Town” (the week following a road trip) would be blaring on the sound system. We would be greeted by the first few rows of the Block O cheering section and the stadium ushers. Often, the opposing team would be jogging around on the field, and the obligatory stare-downs were exchanged.
From the moment we enter the locker room, it is a huge blur. Each person enters their own routine of stretching, getting dressed, and warming up. The game itself is the fastest three hours of the day. The body goes into game mode, and the players leave everything they have on the field. For specialists, it is a delicate game of pacing (more walking), staying engaged mentally, ready physically, whilst being careful not to over kick on the sidelines and into the net. It is actually a challenge to stay game ready for all three hours when our total time on the field totals under a minute. This is especially true when the weather turns cold. We would do anything to run around and stay warm, but knowing that every ounce of leg strength is needed for each crucial kick stops us from acting on those desires. In the end, it is four quarters of walking, stretching, kicking, and maybe even a tackle or two.
After the game, we jog over to the band, sing Carmen, Ohio, then head up to the locker room. After wins, a team prayer is followed by a rousing a capella rendition of “Across the Field” performed by the team in the locker room before we break off for showers and media obligations. During my time, I was lucky enough to live close enough to the Shoe that I always walked home after games. Whether it was to the corner of Indianola and Frambes, Lane and High, or Grandview, I always found my family outside the stadium and strolled home with my classmates and supporters. Watching the drunks stumble around with smiles on their faces and sharing high fives and hugs with fans always made me feel great after the long day, and made the mile home quick and painless. After losses, the walk through a depressed campus was just a reminder to be better before I retreated home to lock myself in my room for the night. Either way, the mood of the day was fully captured by a trip through the streets of The Ohio State University.
Overall, the whole game day experience is extremely draining. So many different emotions are felt, and the mind and body endure a day long roller coaster. From the meetings to the meals, the sitting around to the game itself, the day is spent on high alert and it is hard to even take a deep breath and fully relax. The only constant all day is the walking. From the first morning bell to the final steps home, we are on our feet, moving with a purpose. When that purpose is achieved, the steps are painless. As if each foot lands on a cloud of success.
Regardless of the outcome, we always moved forward. Sometimes away from disappointment, but always towards the final goal. I can’t complain about a thing though. I first came to the campus under the fitting title “walk-on.”
It is good to know that all those steps led me somewhere great.