A Visit To The Graveyard

Woody2I originally wrote this column in 2008. A decade later, I decided to post it again.

I’ve never told anyone this before, but there is a little ritual I perform each year during the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game.

I get in my car and drive past a simple two-story, white house on Cardiff Road. It’s only a couple of miles west of Ohio Stadium, tucked onto a little side street off Lane Avenue. After going past the house, I drive another mile north on Olentangy River Road and head into Union Cemetery.

Chic Harley was laid to rest there. So was Lynn St. John, the athletic director at Ohio State when the Horseshoe was built and the guy for whom St. John Arena is named. I usually go at dusk, right before the cemetery is closing. You may think that’s a strange place to go, but amid all of the hype that goes with OSU-Michigan week, it’s a good spot to get some peace. After all, it is the quietest place in Columbus.

Yesterday, I nearly didn’t make the trip. It was unseasonably warm, there were lots of other things I needed to get done, and it seemed pointless to again drive past a house owned by someone I didn’t know and then walk past countless graves of people I never met. But I did it anyway, wondering how I would feel come Saturday night if the Buckeyes had lost and I hadn’t made my annual pilgrimage.

I drove past the Cardiff Road house before making my way to the cemetery and on to Section 12, Lot 37, Space 4. There are pine trees around a black granite marker, and as I stood beneath one of those tall trees to shield me from the drizzle, I was startled by a voice.

“Pretty big game this Saturday, huh?”

I whirled around to see a stocky man standing about 10 feet away. He wore a plain, red windbreaker – the kind men stopped wearing in the 1970s – and he had both hands shoved in the pockets. He had gray hair, wore silver, horn-rimmed glasses and scrunched his face into a grimace where his lips seemed to almost disappear.

“Uh, yeah,” I stammered. “I guess so.”

“You guess so?” he repeated as he stared at the gravestone. “We’re still playing for the conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl and you guess so?” He shook his head and grunted. “What are you doing here anyway?” he grumbled.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I come here every year about this time. I guess it’s just my way of getting ready for the game.”

“Getting ready for the game? Why do you need to get ready for the game? What do you do?”

“I’m a sportswriter.”

The old man rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Goddamned sportswriters,” he said. “I can’t get away from the sonsabitches.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing. I suppose you’re one of those kind who wants to dig up the past. Wants to stir up a little controversy.”

“No, not really. If you really want to know the truth, I just wonder what the old man would think of all this. He helped make this thing the biggest rivalry in sports. I just sometimes wonder what he’d say.”

“Oh,” the man said with a sigh, “Sometimes, I just don’t know. It’s a newfangled game nowadays – lots of trick plays and coaches trying to outguess one another. Too much money, too. Money ruins people. I can remember when we played ’cause we loved it. Didn’t give a damn about the money. You can’t take it with you after all.”

“Yeah, but the game itself has changed,” I said. “The way they play it has changed. I just don’t think the way he did things would fly today.”

“Oh, you don’t think I … I mean, you don’t think he could adapt, huh? Well, let me tell you something. He could adapt. He was always adapting. Football is a game of adaptation. If you don’t adapt, you won’t stay around very long. He adapted. He adapted just fine. You betcha.

“He surrounded himself with some of the best assistant coaches in the game, and when one left, another would come along and he’d bring new wrinkles. You think he ran the same offense with Hop Cassady that he did with Bob Ferguson? Or that he did with Arch?

“All I ever hear is that three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust bull. I wish I’d … I wish he’d never said that. Sure, running the ball is the only tried and true method of controlling the tempo of the game, and it’s true that three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad. But he never gets credit for recruiting guys like Corny Greene or Art Schlichter. He never gets credit for recruiting guys like Billy Anders or Doug Donley.

“All I hear is how he did nothing but run the ball. It just so happened that most of the best athletes we had in those days were suited to be running backs. If he’d had the kind of talent that’s on this year’s team, well …”

“You think Woody would’ve liked this team?” I asked.

“Let me tell you something,” he said, his hollow eyes looking off into the mist. “This team is pretty good. Don’t let what happened last week fool you. They’re good and you can tell it. Know how I know? Because of the way they act on and off the field. There’s none of that dancing crap on the field, no drawing attention to yourself. That’s not football. That should be reserved for the circus. I’m telling you, some of these SOBs playing today should paint their faces, wear a big, red nose and come out of the locker room in a little goddamned car.

“But not this team. You can tell in the way they walk and the way they talk. But most of all, it’s in the way they carry out their business. And that’s what it is – a business. All these bleeding hearts who want to call it a game can go to hell. It’s all business out there, and if you don’t take care of your business, the other guy sure as hell will. This team has a lot of talent and a lot of guys that I would have loved to coach.”

“You?”

“I mean Coach Hayes, of course. Gholston, for instance. He’s a tough sonuvabitch that keeps coming and keeps coming. Reminds me a lot of Stillwagon. And that Laurinaitis kid. Wow, has he come a long way fast. I don’t want to compare him to Gradishar because Grad was the best I ever saw. But if he continues working hard, he can get close. Damned close.

“Then there’s Robiskie, Hartline and Small? Speed out of three receivers. What a luxury to have. And Todd Boeckman. He’s OK in my book because he’s my kind of quarterback. Does exactly what is asked of him – another coach on the field, really. And that Wells. It just puts a smile on my face every time he puts that stiff-arm out there. Hope he’s healthy and ready to go on Saturday.

“And then, of course, you have to have someone in charge and I admire Jimmy Tressel so much. He does things the right way. And he’s another guy who doesn’t draw much attention to himself. He seems to have his head on straight.”

“What about last week? Tough to try to turn it around in just one week.”

“Tough?” the man said. “Son, if you think it’s tough to get yourself ready to play in the greatest rivalry in the history of college football, you might as well go play tiddly-winks. This game is for men. It’s not a cocktail party. The faint of heart need not apply.”

I cocked my head to one side. “You know a lot about football,” I said. “How do you think the old man would game-plan for Saturday?”

“He’d stay with the basics,” the man immediately replied. “He’d study film until he knew the other team’s tendencies like he knew his own – things like how they like to use the tight end, which direction their running backs like to run and which arm they carry the ball in. He’d know where to bring the pressure because he’d know whether their quarterback likes to go to his left or right when he’s flushed out of the pocket. He’d know exactly which of their defensive linemen was the weakest link and that’s the gap where he’d send Wells.”

“Michigan has been getting better on defense these past couple of weeks,” I interrupted. “I think they’re still in the top 30 in the country in total defense.”

“Sportswriters,” he said disgustedly as he shook his head. “I’ll let you in on a little secret: You can get your yards against anyone. Anyone. You just have to know where to attack ’em. And once you find their soft spot, you exploit the hell out of it. And keep exploiting the hell out of it until you destroy the other team’s will to win. After that, it’s easy. I think that’s the way it will happen Saturday. We’ll start running the ball, then we’ll throw for a couple of touchdowns, and that other team will never know what hit ’em. ”

Far off in the distance, I heard a church bell chime the hour.

“Well,” the man sighed. “I suppose I should be getting back.”

As he turned to leave, I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a black baseball cap. As he walked away, I called out, “Hey, Mister. I didn’t catch your name.”

He stopped and turned. “Wayne,” he said. “My name is Wayne. But everyone around here just calls me Coach.”

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