Woody and Me
There is a final game to be played in the 2016-17 college football season. It's Monday night, the 9th of January. Alabama plays Clemson for a "national championship."
I have a few degrees of separation with college football games, and I have the stories to tell.
I was a "walk-on" at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1974. I was too small, too slow, too weak and clearly not smart enough to understand that I was NEVER meant to be a player at that level of competition. Hint: the only college that recruited me out of high school was Northwestern University. I didn't go because I thought their football program was "worse" than Illinois'. Hence, my comment above, "not smart enough." Nevertheless I stuck it out, "red shirting" my junior year due to a significant knee injury, and eventually earning some meager playing time and a varsity letter.
So, fast-forward to late autumn, 1977. The Ohio State University football squad comes to Champaign, Illinois, to face the Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium (now "Zuppke Field"). I'm in our end zone with my teammates, doing warm-ups and calisthenics as we prepare to get bulldozed by The Buckeyes. As I'm doing jumping jacks, which is awkward since I'm wearing full pads and a helmet, I notice that some of the stands behind me and to my left - part of the stadium "horseshoe" and the bleachers, are jammed with people sporting cherry red jackets and sweaters and pennants. Illinois has stuck the sizable and formidable OSU traveling fan base with the worst of 70,000 seats in our stadium. Ha, ha, Ohio State. Maybe you'll win the game, but you'll have to use binoculars to see anything!
As I start stretching my legs, bending down to touch my toes from a standing position, the fans around me begin cheering. At first I'm thinking they're jeering me as I contort my body with all this padding on. I look up. And there HE is. Walking straight for me, then veering off to stand in front of the faithful up in the bleachers.
They aren't jeering me. They're cheering. They're going bonkers. It's Woody Hayes.
Yes. Woody Hayes. The legendary, fiery, antagonistic football coach who has made Columbus, Ohio, a destination for blue chip athletes, major television sports broadcasts and Big Ten Championship trophies. Woody Freaking Hayes. And he's standing 10 feet from me.
If you think I'm in awe, it's nothing compared to the Buckeye Nation, who are beside themselves with joy and religious fervor. Woody waves. Woody laughs. Woody leads them - maybe 12,000 fanatics - in the OSU Alma Mater. They have taken over our stadium! They're singing their song louder than we could in our home! It's unreal.
Hayes finishes. They go crazy. He turns. I am staring directly at him. He's small - maybe my size or an inch shorter. He gets a quizzical look on his face. Eye contact. I detect disgust. He spits out these words: "YOU'RE a Big Ten football player?" He gives a little cackle. He walks away.
I immediately say a prayer. "Dear God, please, please, please don't let me in this game."
It worked. I don't play. We lose by 5 touchdowns.
FF to late fall, 1978. My career is fast coming to an end. The Fighting Illini have traveled to Columbus, Ohio, and we're playing Ohio State on their home field. We are getting shellacked. So much so that I get in the game. Hey, when you're down by 35 you have nothing to lose, right?
I read a play - it's a handoff to a running back (I think his name might have been Demler) and I chase him out of bounds on the OSU sideline. And there, clipboard in hand wearing his windbreaker and a baseball cap with an "O" on it, is Coach Hayes. Once again he's 10 feet away. I make my move.
"Yeah!" I shout, "I am a Big Ten football player!" I turn to run back on the field, into the huddle, and I can hear him shouting at me - I don't know the words, but it's not "good job, kid!" He's angry. Livid. No way he remembers me, he's really mad because I said something to him in his house, on his sideline, in HIS game.
It's over. We lose by a lot. We're shaking hands with players from the other team and I just want to get to the locker room before I run into Woody for a third time. A giant man, a lineman from Ohio State named Byron Cato comes over to me. "What did you say to Coach?" he asks me. "He's crazy-mad!"
I got out of town with no further damage to my ego, and a month or so goes by. I'm watching a college football bowl game with my dad in our "TV room" in Ottawa, Illinois. Ohio State is playing Clemson and it's a close game. That is, it's a close game until a Clemson defender picks off an errant Buckeye pass and is returning it down the sideline for a back-breaking TD that will seal the deal.
And as I stare, open-mouthed at the little TV screen in late-70s America, Coach Hayes jumps off the sideline and TACKLES THE CLEMSON PLAYER! It's epic and historic and way, way off the grid of acceptability.
Coach Hayes was obviously at the end of a distinguished career. He had championships and friendships and notoriety. He was, and is, the definition of "bigger than life." But he had gone off the rails by the close of '78, and I will always maintain that I, Taylor Mason, walk-on and laughable "Big Ten Football Player," had pushed him over the edge.
We all have our gifts!
Clemson plays Alabama on Monday night. I'll be watching. And remembering.
Happy New Year and thanks for reading!