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Thursday, November 6, 2003
Updated: November 7, 12:22 PM ET
Buckeye Nation makes you believe

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- I'm staying in a hotel on the far north end of Columbus. It's a football Saturday morning, about 10 o'clock, and three strong men in their twenties are walking past me across the lobby toward the parking lot. They're dressed identically in grey suits, white shirts ... and scarlet red bow ties.

I figure them for Buckeye players at first, but then realize they wouldn't be staying at this hotel. Then I notice the shoes -- gray patent leather -- and the cummerbunds, and the red roses in their lapels, and it hits me: These guys aren't going to the game. They're going to a wedding; they're in a wedding. They're in a wedding and they're all decked out in the proud colors of The Ohio State University; and when I ask them about it, they tell me it's the least they can do.

After all, they're missing today's game.

The Brutus boys
The Brutus boys go all out to support their Buckeyes.
People are awfully serious about their football in Ohio. Check that: They're serious about football in lots of cities and towns across America; in the cities and towns of Ohio (as in Massilon, as in Canton, and most especially as in Columbus), football is a religion. Everywhere (and I mean everywhere) you look, you see folks in colors -- the Buckeyed-to-the-nines guy pumping gas, the mom walking her toddler in a scarlet-and-gray stroller, and the Brutus-sweatshirt-clad old man hanging a Brutus the Buckeye banner from his Brutus-striped front porch.

And everyone you meet is a devoted Buckeye follower.

"We're not just into it around here; we're passionate about it," says Jessica Sherrick, an OSU grad now working in public relations for the university. "We put our hearts into it. We have traditions and we honor them."

I've been to a lot of football games. I've seen a lot of devotional behavior, a lot of fans swept up in the pageantry and the promise of rooting for the home team. But I've never seen anything quite like home-game Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.

The tailgating goes on for miles. There are three massive lots surrounding Ohio Stadium, otherwise known as "The Horseshoe." The cars, tent-tops and smoking grills seem to stretch on forever. It looks like the pilgrims come to Mecca; it looks like mass at St. Peter's. You get in closer and you're lost in a sea of scarlet-and-gray shirts, sweaters, ties, shoelaces, necklaces, hats, socks, and souls, making its way through the gates like Yeats' blood-dimmed tide.

This Saturday, the tide will be set to let loose a hurting on the visitors: the Michigan State Spartans.

People outside Buckeye Nation will tell you OSU could have its hands full with Jeff Smoker and the Spartans. Outside Columbus, folks'll tell you they're still not sure how the low-octane OSU offense managed to help the defense win the national title last year. They'll tell you this year's team, even at 8-1, is a smoke-and-mirrors crew that can't put points on the board. They'll tell you they've got all kinds of respect for the defense; but beyond that, they just can't quite understand how the Buckeyes keep winning.

But I can tell you.

I can tell you where that one point that beat Penn State last Saturday came from, and I can tell you where lies the best chance of sending MSU home sad this weekend. It's in the faithful. It's in the faith. This is the thing that gives the Buckeyes an edge, the Ohio State spirit, the unwavering practice of devotion, devotion the way Woody would want it, and the way John Cooper never could understand. It's a thing so deep it has no roots, so wide it's got no shores. It's a thing that can't be contained, can't be kept under a bushel, or left lying quiet in a heart. It's a thing that has to be sung out, made manifest.

Andy Geiger
Andy Geiger dotted the "i" and made a dream come true.
And so it is that every home game is full of rituals.

"Tradition is huge," one student tells me. "The players walking to the stadium from skull session in suits and ties before the game; the band coming down the ramp into the stadium just before kickoff; script Ohio and the dotting of the "i," of course; the O-H-I-O cheer around the stadium; everybody singing 'Hang on, Sloopy' at the end of the third quarter; coach Tressel and the team singing the alma mater with the students after a win -- all of it. I know they do stuff at every stadium, but it really means something here."

The most famous of the Buckeye rituals is the marching band's spelling of "Ohio" and the dotting of the letter "i" by a carefully-selected sousaphone player. When I got the assignment to come cover the Ohio State experience, the first thing I did was call and ask whether it would be possible to dot the "i" at an upcoming game. Jessica called back right away, excited that I was coming, but firm on the question of the "i."

"I'm afraid that would be impossible," she said. "It's a very special honor; it's a sacred thing." I offered to convert to Buckeyeism, I said Buckeye shibboleth, I sang a few bars of "Hang on Sloopy." Nothing doing. "It's sacred," she said. "I'm sorry."

And sure enough, young Andy Geiger, the lucky sousaphonist on the day I'm there, a material science major and just maybe the most fresh-faced, wide-eyed college senior in these United States of America, is glowing like a beatified saint at the very thought of his task when I meet him.

"It's a tremendous, tremendous honor for me," says Geiger, who is no relation to OSU's athletic director with the same name (although the A.D. phoned the 'i'-dotter on the morning of the game). "I've dreamed of this moment from an early age. This is one of the biggest days of my life. It's probably equivalent to what a wedding would be like!"

His enthusiasm is charming. More than that, it's infectious. As he takes the field later that afternoon and high-kicks his way to the top of the "i," I'm holding my breath like 105,034 other folks in Ohio Stadium. And when he plants his feet, does his deep-waisted bow and salutes all four sides of the stadium, like everyone else in the cathedral, I gotta say, I'm pretty thrilled for him.

But I haven't come all this way just to watch Andy do his thing from afar. I've come to hang with the kids from Block O, the Buckeye spirit section responsible for keeping the house rocking from kickoff to the final gun. If The Horseshoe is a church, Block O is its choir. They sing songs, lead cheers, do card stunts, wave banners and towels, dance, and generally wear themselves out making sure folks keep feeling what they're feeling. Which is O-H-I-O L-O-V-E.

At most universities, the student section is a rowdy pen full of beer-addled crazies who are deeply into the team if things are going well and, um, a little bit, er, distracted if they aren't. This is different. This is 1,700 kids arriving three hours before game time. This is costumes and rehearsals. This is computer-programmed card-stunt layouts. This is a club with dues-paying members and officers, a group celebrating 65 years worth of pep and circumstance, 65 years worth of pride.

"We're the largest student organization on campus," says Block O president Jarrod Weiss. "We've quadrupled the size of the next largest group and we're trying to get even bigger."

Jarrod Weiss
Jarrod Weiss, the proud president of Block O.
Some of the kids come in Friday night to separate cards that spell out "Beat MSU," "Go Bucks," and the ESPN logo, etc., and lay them out beneath the seats. But the bulk of the crew starts filing in early Saturday. They form two facing lines in the tunnel beneath the southern end zone bleachers so they can paint each other's mugs and, in some cases, chests, arms, and backs, too.

"We have to be early and we have to be organized," Weiss tells me. "Today, for example, in addition to what we do with the cards and our costumes, we had to blow up a thousand balloons we're releasing at the end of the National Anthem, and we're passing out 20,000 rally towels at every gate in the south stands so the crowd can wave them and distract the other team when they're down our end."

Small businesses and government agencies should be so well organized.

But it isn't all organization; it's frenzy, too, and pure, goofy devotion. Six shirtless guys with red 'fros, capes, and red-painted chests that spell out 'Brutus' when they stand shoulder to shoulder are hopping up and down and shouting before kickoff like they can't help themselves, like they're Buckeye-possessed, like they're speaking in Buckeye tongues. A few yards off, four guys dressed to look like Tressel, complete with v-neck sweaters and scarlet ties, lean coolly against a stone wall, looking just as natural, just as easy and secure in their Buckeye conviction as you please. These kinds of kids are the norm in this crowd.

Why do they do it? What drives the BlockOlites?

"This school just has so much spirit," Weiss says. "It's just who we are. And when we do our thing, when we start the cheers or do a card stunt and nail it, we feel like we're not just here watching the game, we're a part of something bigger."

Michael Sadd, who's organized a Block O horn battalion and the purchase of a giant soccer-style flag for the gang to wave, echoes him: "The Block O is the place to be. If you want to be loud, and support Ohio State, and do it in unison, as part of a community, it's definitely the place to be," he says. "What I love most is that I don't stand out here. I get to be who I am. I'm with people who want to be crazy like me. It's like a family."

And Shannon Johnson, a first-year member, sums it up this way: "It's the Buckeyes! You have to love the Buckeyes!"

The cynical man listens to these kids and maybe he hears something hokey, something innocent that the outside world will swallow up or crush like a bug at its earliest convenience.

The cynical man needs to sit among them on game day.

Block O girls
You can't beat watching the Buckeyes with the Block O girls.
He needs to get bapped about the head a dozen or so times with an errant rally towel. He needs a band of red-clad kids to make him hold his manhood cheap for wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt. He needs to go wandering for a seat, worn out by these kids who stand all game long.

The cynical man ought to hear them inhale at every snap, and exhale with every catch or tackle. He ought to forget what he knows about strategy and technique, and let the game come to him in some more basic, more elemental way. He ought to let it be about the oohs and aaahs. He ought to watch Jarrod shout into a bullhorn and wave his hands in the air like he's trying to rescue folks from a burning building, and he ought to think to himself that this kind of zeal, this kind of abandon, is a healthy thing.

And he ought to ask himself, when was the last time he felt such a thing?

He should see the way the light sneaks over the stadium wall and bathes the redshirts in a poetic glow. He should hear the rasp in the kids' voices and catch a glimpse of their happy, delirious smiles late in the fourth quarter.

I know he's been thinking that kids today are surly and apathetic. I know he's been telling anyone who'll listen that college athletics are a money-making sham riddled with opportunism and corruption. I know he's been on the job too long to be moved by much of anything anymore.

But I swear, if he'd sit with these kids in the Block O for just one afternoon, they'd make him believe, make him want to believe, if not in all things Buckeye, then in something else, in anything else, in the idea of believing itself.

Does that sound corny? Yeah, well, whatever, man. Grab a seat in the south end zone at The Horseshoe this weekend, then come talk to me.

Oh, and don't forget to wear red.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.