I have met more than my fair share of Ohio State fans over the years, but none quite like Ira Kaufman, a guy for whom the phrase “one of a kind” was coined.
Ira spent much of his life in New Jersey and seemed pretty much the stereotypical Garden State resident complete with the sardonic Jersey Shore accent and matching attitude. Years ago, he would regularly call the BSB office to pump anyone who answered the phone for football recruiting information. His phone calls gradually became long, drawn-out conversations about nearly every topic imaginable.
Over time, we found we shared a lot in common, especially for two men who came from totally divergent upbringings. The thing that brought us together was Ohio State football.
To understand the relationship Ohio State football fans have with their team and each other is to understand the very basic tenets of a family. Entire generations have been weaned on scarlet and gray, and when it is their turn, they pass the folklore and traditions on to the next. There is no such thing as a casual follower of the Buckeyes. Each Saturday in the fall, millions celebrate when the team wins and die hard when they lose.
It was pretty much the same way in my house while I was growing up. My love for all things scarlet and gray came from my father, a proud 1940 graduate of The Ohio State University. It’s not difficult to conjure up memories of Dad tinkering in the back yard on a football Saturday with the radio tuned to the game and the warm, syrupy voices of Bert Charles and Marv Homan filling the crisp October air.
The first season I truly remember came in 1968 – a pretty good year to cut your teeth on the Buckeyes – and following the exploits of Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon, Jim Otis, Ted Provost and Rex Kern became a week-to-week obsession. My mind’s eye still has a vivid picture of that Rose Bowl game against USC and the rising jubilation of a second-half Ohio State comeback after O.J. Simpson had staked the Trojans to an early 10-0 lead.
My favorite team won every game that season and was crowned national champions. Of course, I thought undefeated seasons and Rose Bowl victories were a birthright, especially when the Buckeyes won every game in 1969 before suffering a crushing upset in the season finale at Michigan. Four decades later, that one still stings.
Ohio State football has been equated to a religion and it’s hard to argue that point. Ohio Stadium is the cathedral, “Across the Field” and “Carmen Ohio” are the hymns and the national championship continues to be the holy grail. The exploits of long-gone players such as Chic Harley and Wes Fesler have been reduced to ancient texts in musty corners, but their stories continue to be re-told again and again through the years.
Brutus and Sloopy, the Horseshoe and TBDBITL, Gold Pants and Senior Tackle and a thousand more traditions – they are what makes Ohio State football what it is.
Most of all, however, it’s the fans. The tall ones and the small ones. The young and the old. Those who can buy anything they want and those who struggle from paycheck to paycheck. There are those who have season tickets and there are the ones who have never laid their eyes on Ohio Stadium. The ones who were rocked to sleep in a scarlet and gray cradle and want to be laid to rest in a scarlet and gray casket.
The ones who go to the most far-flung corner of the globe and yell “O-H!” just because they know someone will answer back with a hearty “I-O!”
Big-Hearted Family Man
I first came to know Ira Kaufman as a cantankerous and somewhat bothersome BSB subscriber, but a first-rate, gold-plated, diehard Buckeye fan.
As many of you reading this know, getting issues to out-of-state subscribers in a timely manner has always been one of the major problems confronting BSB during our existence. As a result, many of you who live outside Ohio choose to receive your print issues via first-class mail – and still it seems that isn’t quick enough for some.
Being a former postal worker, Ira could never quite get his head around the fact he would have to wait a few days for his BSB to arrive. If the issue did not get to his New Jersey home by the time he thought it should have, he was on the phone to Columbus, wondering if we had mailed it on time. By the time the conversation had ended, Ira didn’t need to read the paper – he had already gleaned all of its news.
Over the years, and after many phone conversations, I found that Ira was much more than just a typical fan. Underneath that gruff exterior purred the personality of pussy cat, a big-hearted family man who became an Ohio State football fan even though he had never set foot in Columbus.
“It was a long time ago, and I was a long way from home, feeling very sorry for myself,” he once told me. “I was inside this little club and the Ohio State-Michigan game was playing on the radio. I remember Michigan was leading and most of the place was cheering for them, so I decided I’d cheer for Ohio State. Well, Ohio State came back to win that game and I’ve been scarlet and gray ever since.”
Six or seven years ago, when Ira retired, he finally decided to cross item No. 1 off his personal bucket list – you know, the list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. He hopped a plane to Columbus and began an annual pilgrimage that typically began on the Thursday before the game and included a night on the town with a small gathering of friends, mostly BSB staffers.
On the occasion of his first visit, he and I were the last ones standing – so to speak – after a full evening of fine food and more frosty, cold beverages than either of us could remember. We sat in the lobby the old Holiday Inn on Lane Avenue until 4 a.m. as Ira peppered me with questions about recruiting while testing my memory regarding Ohio State football trivia.
I had the time of my life and I’m pretty sure he did, too.
Each time Ira returned to Columbus, we seemed to have more fun than his previous visit. He toured the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and the Jack Nicklaus Museum, walked around Ohio Stadium and wove his way through the Buckeye Grove. He never seemed prepared for the weather, but he didn’t mind shelling out for rain gear, a fleece-lined jacket or an authentic jersey as long as it featured the official Ohio State logo.
In the beginning, his yearly visits were known simply as “Irafest.” Later, it became “Ira-palooza” when our once-intimate gatherings grew to a full-blown legion of friends due solely to Ira’s generosity and the fact that he was just so damned fun to be around.
Each of Ira’s visits was eagerly anticipated because we knew something unusual was bound to happen and usually did. Most of them should not be shared in a family newspaper, but there was one particular late-night visit to a Columbus establishment when a more-than-slightly inebriated young woman suddenly snuggled into the booth beside Ira.
She looked at me, then looked at him and said, “I don’t know whether to slap your face or ask you to dance.”
Without missing a beat, Ira chuckled and replied, “Any chance you’re from Jersey?”
Generous, Loyal, Genuine
A couple of years ago, Ira called with bad news. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but his prognosis was good. He was facing some tough days and months ahead, and I did my best to cheer him up. My dad had the same thing several years ago, I told him, and he could beat it just like my dad did.
And beat it, Ira did. He underwent a variety of procedures, including some he admitted made him sicker than he had ever been in his life. But late that September, he was back in Columbus, presiding over the largest “Ira-palooza” crowd yet.
Last year before his trip, Ira called and asked if we could somehow return to the more intimate gatherings we’d had when he first started coming to Columbus. “Not that I don’t enjoy the larger group,” he said. “But I just can’t get around to everybody and spend the kind of time with them that I want to. I don’t want anyone to think they’re getting shortchanged.”
Trust me when I say no one was ever shortchanged in Ira’s presence. Nevertheless, I agreed to downsize the party to just four – BSB editor Jeff Svoboda, longtime subscriber Susan Zeier, Ira and me. Ira was as animated as always and we all agreed it was one of his best visits ever.
None of us knew it would be his last.
In late May, Susan called to say that she had just talked to Ira. The cancer had returned – just as it had with my dad. This time, it had been detected in Ira’s lungs and the prognosis wasn’t very good.
When I called Ira to get the news straight from the source, I wasn’t prepared for what I heard. His normally robust voice was shaky, and he said, “I don’t mind telling you, Mark, I’m scared. I want to see my grandchildren grow up.”
I tried to change the subject, even attempting to steer the conversation to Ohio State and the perceived trouble Urban Meyer was having trying to put together his 2015 recruiting class. But Ira didn’t seem interested.
That’s when I knew it was serious.
Knowing he was tired, I wished him well and told him I would call him the following week. “Thanks, Mark,” he said. “Please tell everybody back there that I said hello and I’m thinking of them.”
Those were the final words we ever exchanged. On June 14, my phone rang and it was Susan. I knew what she was going to say before I answered.
“I just wanted to make sure you knew,” she said. “Ira passed away yesterday.”
Once every so often, you get to meet someone who is not only generous, loyal, opinionated and fun-loving, but also the genuine article. Ira Kaufman was all of those things and more, and I wish you all could have had the pleasure of knowing him.
He truly was one of a kind.