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Ohio State vs Michigan: More Than a Game

As a student of the history of college football I knew I had to witness one of these games. I wrote much of this on the plane on the way to an Ohio State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor…….

About 25 minutes into the early morning flight from State College to Detroit I looked out the window to the earth over 30,000 feet below me. The sunrise was to my back as the plane roared west over eastern Ohio. In that time when the first rays of dawn began to break the grip of night through a thin sliver of clouds I saw the lights of Akron and Canton below. The plane banked slightly, almost imperceptibly to the northwest.

Moments later the western suburbs of Cleveland appeared clinging to the shore of Lake Erie. Below I saw the large lakeside power plant in Avon Lake, Ohio that I’d driven by so many times while recruiting. Its tall smokestack reaching to the sky has been a landmark on many of these flights over the years. Soon we were over the lake and crossing towards the distant lights of Detroit.

For many of the people in the coastal cities of the United States this is flyover country. On that morning as I saw the lights of cities like Youngstown, Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Detroit stories emerged from a time in my life when my feet were firmly on the ground there and in other towns like Flint, Saginaw, Monroe, Portsmouth, Steubenville and Warren.

Even on the Pennsylvania side of that border, towns and cities like Johnstown, Sharon, New Castle, Farrell, Pittsburgh, Erie and Beaver Falls are more like their Midwestern neighbors than they are like Philadelphia and its suburbs.

For decades, men and women of this region put their shoulders into hard work. Steel, glass, rubber and cars came from the mills and factories that dotted the landscapes here. Coal from the ground fueled the mills, factories, towns, cities and homes. These men and women were the backbone of an American economy manufacturing durable goods shipped around the globe.

For years I drove and wandered the interstates, highways and byways of these two states—more time in Ohio than in Michigan. In Ohio, many high school coaches’ offices had pictures of Woody Hayes even decades after his death. Many of those coaches also played for Jim Tressel at Youngstown State or remembered his father at Baldwin Wallace so they had great loyalty to him.

In Michigan, the name “Bo” only referred to one person. The Maize and Blue uniforms and winged helmets meant a power running attack, a hard-hitting defense and a disciplined approach to the game.

Twenty-eight years before the first Ohio State-Michigan game in 1897, the first football game was played on a field in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton. In a relatively short period of time, it spread to other Eastern Schools, most notably the schools that are now among the Ivy League.

While it remained as the domain of the eastern elite schools, it took root and found explosive growth in what was then “the west.” As late as the 1920s and 1930s in literature from Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the natives of Illinois and Minnesota saw themselves as outsiders at places like Princeton or Yale or Harvard. In football the teams from the Midwest felt a similar challenge to gain grudging acceptance from the blue blood programs where the game got its start.

But the hardscrabble nature of the game took hold with the hearty Germans, Slavs, Irish and Italians of the industrial Heartland of America. Football integration came earlier here too. Black players from the north were joined by southern Blacks barred from playing at their state schools.

Decades after the rise of college football in this region, professional football was born here with teams representing mill towns like Massillon or Canton or Latrobe. Even as the professional game grew, the college game remained far more popular for years.

The people here always valued toughness. There is an edge to the people of Cleveland or Detroit, a pride in the face of a nation that mocked their decline. Theirs was a pride born doing the nation’s labor, the cold, hard work in factories manufacturing the goods that created the industrial foundations of this nation’s rise. But while many people left this region when the jobs left, the ones who’ve stayed remain even more determined.

For people in in the south football had a place too. It became a measure to stand tall amid an era of civil rights unrest and a perception of backwardness. Football success by all-white teams at Alabama, Tennessee and other Southern schools became a point of regional pride. While change happened slowly, the “Sun Belt” became ascendant over time.

The Sun Belt’s rise, occurred as the “Rust Belt” corroded with factory closings bringing poverty, drugs and crime to Midwestern cities and mill towns. But Big Ten football remained a national symbol of relevance.

The Wolverines and Buckeyes were a sign that even hard times could not eclipse history, tradition, and resilience. Their boys were tougher, carrying the pride of place to fight and win.

How many old stadiums and weight rooms I saw in places like Massillon or Canton or Steubenville. I still smile thinking of the smoke-filled coach’s office of Don Bucci at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown. High school hallways were lined with faded pictures of players from decades passed who’d gone to Ohio State, or Notre Dame, or Michigan or Michigan State or Penn State. In inner-city high schools like Martin Luther King or Pershing in Detroit or Glenville or Shaw in Cleveland, a football scholarship was a golden opportunity.

Even across vast eras of change some constants remain. Ohio State and Michigan finish the season against each other. The Detroit Lions play on Thanksgiving. And the high schools Canton McKinley and Massillon will always finish the regular season against each other in a heated rivalry that dates back to 1894.

Here the core institutions still mean something. Family still matters. The church still matters. Winning still matters. Faith in God, faith in hard work still matters. Pride in your life’s work still matters. Here you believe toughness forged in weight rooms and on the gridiron can overcome a landscape of rusted shells of abandoned steel and metal factories. Thousands of jobs have long since gone to non-union factories in warmer places or to distant shores where a hungry populace was willing to work for pennies.

To many here, the dream of American cars in the driveway, a solid pension and benefits and money to send your children to college became the broken promises of companies who value the bottom line more than their employees. Decisions made to impress directors in boardrooms are far removed from the tears of proud men and women walking out of a factory after a last shift of a job they and their families had worked across generations.

In Big Ten country our teams symbolize people facing every challenge with sleeves rolled up and fists clenched. That resonates with us.

With all that as a background, Ohio State versus Michigan is an enduring symbol of continuity. No matter how much has changed, no matter how hard times may have gotten, these two teams will always play the last week of the season and will always come at each other with the fullest effort to defeat the sworn enemy.

That much remains. With that my plane started to land and I headed to my first Ohio State-Michigan game. It called to me, a man whose childhood of season-ending bitter Penn State-Pitt games are but a distant memory, a void in my football soul.

Ohio State and Michigan remains an unending journey into America and its relationship with a game of power, grace, speed, beauty and bitter violent collisions. Those words could also describe this nation’s history as well.

Now a century and a half after the most American of games began, it remains a part of our lives. From Pop Warner youth football on Saturday mornings, to the Friday Night Lights of a hometown high school game to the massive Cathedrals of College Football to the Super Bowl it remains with us.

College football has overcome the challenges of its past, ones that mirrored society’s rocky roads. Even in 2020 we see that in empty stadiums, in cancelled games and a hope that Ohio State and Michigan will overcome Covid-19 and play this Saturday in Columbus.

College football has grown to be our American sport played only here at its highest level. The path forward may be uncertain. But in the past we can see the future and the arc of memories linking us to those who came before and passed on to those who will come after us. It is a part of the rhythm of life, a battle of pride, an annual rite of fall passage that binds generation to generation.


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