My daughter likes puzzles. Among her favorites is a map of the United States. Each state is identified by a familiar descriptor: a Cowboy boot for Texas, the Golden Gate Bridge for California, and Mount Rushmore for South Dakota.
And stamped in the middle of the likeness of Ohio is a football.
While other states are identified by wonders of nature or transcendent works of architecture, Ohio is identified by the esteem its people have for 'ball. It's a rather powerful image and I thought the manufacturers of the puzzle might have overstated this particular assertion.
This came to mind as we made our way to Youngstown, Ohio, for a family wedding. Route 77 runs right through Canton. I was in my last stage of the drive when without warning, a building appeared on my left. It had a roof that resembled one of those old school juicers painted gold. It was the Pro Football Hall of Fame and it gave me pause. It was smaller than I had imagined. And despite the garish roof, unpretentious. And even from a distance, it offered a presence that was ... hallowed.
Later that night, during the rehearsal dinner, I was getting started on a plate of pasta when the folks at the table next to ours called me over. After a brief introduction one of them asked me what I thought about the fate of Ohio State and more importantly, the fate of coach, Jim Tressel.
They all leaned in. But before I could even clear my throat, this crowd of eight let loose with a barrage. It seems the recent developments have made Tressel, the former Youngstown State coach something of a martyr in these parts. "All Tressel did was win games and graduate his players," said one man. Another woman pointed out that what happened at Ohio State was happening at every other school and to a greater degree. "They (the NCAA) just had it in for us," exclaimed another woman. Silverware was set down and plates pushed aside as their voices ran together and the volume rose. This continued for several minutes.
But I had questions for them too. I wanted to get their thoughts on the NCAA's decision to vacate all of Ohio State’s 12 wins from last season. I wanted to ask them if they shared my opinion, that if Ohio State had to vacate its wins from last year, then the fans who attended those games should get their money back.
Despite the fact the 2010 Ohio State football team will be designated as the team without a victory, The Ohio State University still got its share of the gate and concessions. I'm quite certain the books will reflect this.
I wanted to share my thoughts on the absurdity of it all. I mean, what's the premise of vacating wins? If you pretend it never happened, then what? There's no shame? There's no guilt? This is the most effective method for addressing the problem if the problem is a night of drunken behavior and bad decision-making. Provided there are no impending court appearances, this is the way to go.
But as a solution for a season and a program gone awry, it's laughable.
Think about it:
If you were among the 100-plus thousand in the stadium where the Buckeyes regularly commit football, you have been requested to expunge from your mind any thrilling moment you had last fall -- simply because those moments led to a victory.
Remember that Miami game? No, you don’t. Talk about ironic, this one was conceived by memories. It was the rematch from the epic 2002 Fiesta Bowl. But you've been asked to forget the Hurricanes trailed 26-17 at halftime, and upon taking the kick to open the second half, they rushed to the Ohio State 9-yard line. You’ve been asked to forget what happened at the 11:26 mark. That’s when Miami quarterback Jacory Harris tried to throw to his man in the seam. But in the finest application of the zone blitz principle, defensive end Cameron Heyward gingerly stepped in front of Harris’ throw and intercepted it. You've been asked to forget how the 300-pound Hayward then high-tailed it 80 yards downfield before finally being caught from behind.
That’s a lot to ask, I think. Since you been asked to do so much, perhaps a reimbursement is called for. Memories are priceless -- except under the guise of sanctions. So there is a price. I think face value should about cover it.
But I never go to present that to the table.
So I asked Uncle Frank, my wife's uncle. He's a Buckeye fan. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. His daughter is an Ohio State alum. His 5-year-old grandson wears an Ohio State jersey on fall Saturdays. He's even been taught to recite the popular quip of the day:
"How do you make Michigan cookies?" he asks. "Put 'em in a bowl and beat 'em for three hours!"
I always enjoy talking to Uncle Frank because his passion for Ohio State doesn't eclipse his love for football. If there's a game on, he'll watch it. He talks about how Marcus Lattimore is the best running back in the country, and how he's never seen a team as fast as Oregon. Two years ago he admitted to tearing up during Mark Ingram’s Heisman trophy speech.
"So do you think the fans should get their money back?" I asked.
He shrugged impassively. "There’s nothing in place for that," he said.
Then he laughed. "They played the games, didn’t they?"
He didn't seem to be interested in the money lost. But he was eager to offer his own solution to the dilemma, now that the players have had their "J.T." wrist bands confiscated.
"You know what the team should do? They should get little sweater vest decals and put 'em on the back of their helmets! That’ll piss people off!"
I learned some things. No, I had some beliefs reaffirmed. I can't say with any certainty -- after just one weekend or thoughts evoked by a child's puzzle -- that football is the defining characteristic of Ohio. But I do know it can't be thoroughly or properly discussed in terms of something as simple as a financial investment. At least not with these folks. Those who really love 'ball, can’t think in such crass terms. I returned to my table to finish my dinner.
"What was that about?" my wife asked.
Just hanging out with some fans.