Baseball may have been America's pastime, but long ago that ceased to be the case. It is instead the game of football that is at the forefront of our national sporting consciousness. It is brute power, strength, cunning, and innovation wrapped in an idealized version of the America of yesterday. Something we adore simultaneously because of the leaps and bounds at which it has progressed since the post-war years, as well as the nostalgia-glazed idea of football as our fathers and grandfathers knew it. This dynamic exists in other sports, but none but football bridge it so evenly and effortlessly. It is in this way that football can be everything to everyone. A conservative game steeped in tradition and played "the right way" while also serving to reward innovation and outside-the-box thinking. Football has its cake and eats it too.
The sport's singular place in American culture, and its multi-faceted nature off the field and in our minds lends itself well to the "cult of football", wherein we throw ourselves into the game head first and live and die with its outcome. It is this passion and love that bring myself and many others like me to spend hours a week writing at a little online outpost like Maize n Brew. It is that same passion that brings people out hours before a football game, clad head to toe in friendly colors to celebrate their own version of football culture. It is why there is an NFL network, and quite arguably, why ESPN exists in the form it does today. Ditto, fantasy football.
While there are certainly similarities in how we celebrate football from coast to coast, there are also regional and local differences that have grown around everything from professional franchises and major college football programs to D-III football teams and small high school games backwoods towns. The lines on the field are the same, as are the basic rules of the game. Everything outside of that has been made to fit the community in which that franchise or program exists. It is in that spirit that I set off last Friday on a journey into Columbus to discover some of these intricacies and traditions. To see the effect a town has on its football team and vice versa.
Ohio State has forever been framed as "enemy" and "other" to me. I was raised to hate the colors the way Hatfields were conditioned to hate McCoys — I had a stake in the battle long before I knew why or what any of it meant. I didn't even know any OSU fans growing up. I lived in mid-Michigan just miles from the campus of East Lansing, and despite the fact that Spartans were the most well known adversaries, my sports-hate was always consumed by the fire that burned for the scarlet and gray.
Yet just like the Hatfields and McCoys, the things that Michigan and Ohio State have in common vastly outnumber those things that set us apart.
Both are large Big Ten universities with sprawling and beautiful campuses lined with walkways that crisscross between buildings and through open expanses of grass and trees. As we walked back from The Varsity Club on Saturday evening and circled south past the stadium and through parts of campus, I was struck by the similarities. Under the shroud of dark, dusted by a thin layer of snow swirling in the cold winds there was an unmistakable familiarity that arose, a calling back to my time spent wandering other Big Ten campuses, feeling the chill of late fall football weather. The buildings were different, but the atmosphere could have been found anywhere from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis. It felt like the Big Ten.
So to were the similarities before the game, as cars packed into parking lots and out the doors and hatches poured throngs of people bundled in scarlet and grey coats, gloves, and hats who assembled large spreads of grilled food on tables and under tents, all washed down with solo cups full of beer to help stave off the cold. We walked up streets past frat houses where students sat outside and played beer pong. We wandered down Lane Avenue toward the stadium and past hoards of people that waited in line for bars and spilled in and out of Hineygate. The t--shirt stands that line the sidewalks all have variations on the same witticisms that you can buy on shirts in Ann Arbor — although the number of buckeye necklaces for sale was staggering, it seemed like you couldn't walk fifteen feet without tripping over someone selling those.
Even the fans were cut from the same cloth as their Michigan adversaries. The groups of (most likely underage) students drinking cheap beer in packs can be found on almost every college campus. The guy a few row behind me who was either a gigantic A-hole or Carlos Hyde's biggest fan (or both) can probably be found in different forms across stadiums everywhere, yelling after every play call that "you should have given the ball to X". Even the morbidly obese man in the full Carhart getup (which I was jealous of given the plummeting temperatures during the game) with a nasty snarl hit a bit too close to home after years of Wal-Mart Wolverine taunts.
Every Big Ten game has its own flow outside of the white lines. Fans moving through well-traveled walkways and bouncing around the different gameday traditions that they hold dear, and Ohio State is no different. Fans I walked with before the game crowded into the stadium from the north as many most likely had for years. A giant mass of humanity surged through the bowels of The Horseshoe as one hundred thousand-plus fans moved to their seats. Fans cheered the band as it performed before the game and applauded the players as they spilled out onto the field. Once the game was underway the cheers rose up from all corners of the stadium. Just like in the Big House, fans were intimately knowledgeable about what to cheer and when, and the O-H-I-O cheer that ran around the four sides of the stadium reminded me of similar cheers in the Big House.
I wouldn't say that I hate Ohio State any less after this trip. My blood boiled at every derisive mention of Michigan by a Buckeye fan, and I laughed to myself every single time someone said "let's see one of them SEC teams come up here and play in this weather".
What I can say is that Columbus — for its faults and allegiances to the "wrong" team — is as vibrant and rich a Big Ten football town as I imagined. It is like so many cities and towns on any number of fall Saturdays, something completely different than what it may exist as in the other 350-some-odd days a year when there isn't a football game in town. It is a mecca of history and team pride and a thoroughly modern love of football in the 21-century.
I would like to thank the folks at Hampton Inn for giving me this incredible opportunity to travel to Columbus and see an Ohio State gameday in all its glory. While the weather was brutally cold, the campus was still inviting and the accommodations top notch. After 12 hours of physical pain in the form of battling the cold through a tailgating experience and a game, there was no greater comfort than to go back to a clean hotel room, take a hot shower, and crawl into bed to watch that night's game.
This season is drawing to a close, but soon enough summer will turn to fall and another year of college football tailgating and road trips will start. For two days in Columbus I remembered just what I loved about the atmosphere and tradition of college football, and I did it hundreds of miles away from Michigan or its football team.
All in all it was a wonderful trip that has me ready to plan my next adventure, and to discover yet another Big Ten school and the marvelous beast that its home turns into on a fall Saturday when a game is in town.