Football NCAA

Blackout in the ‘Shoe

I’ve heard it from multiple people. Oh, those Ohio State fans. “They’re nasty”. “Be careful”. “They’re rude”. We were prepared for it all.  To our surprise, our experience with the Buckeye fans couldn’t have been any more different.

With Penn State on a roll over the past year, we decided to make a somewhat last-minute trip to see Penn State take on Ohio State. Columbus is a fairly large city with multiple options for airports – if you consider a ninety-minute drive reasonable. Heck, it takes me half of that to get to my office on most days. Throw in the fact that hotels are plentiful and a trip to see Penn State on the road is probably less expensive than seeing them in Happy Valley.

Granted, it’s not the same environment, but regardless, you get to visit a B1G opponent and see them in their surroundings, experience different traditions, eat at different restaurants and take in the unique traditions in college football. It’s what wandering is all about!

With Penn State coming into the game at #2 in the nation and the Buckeyes at #6, this trip turned out to be a very timely visit. Even ESPN’s Gameday realized this and set up shop in Columbus, following the Lions for the second week in a row.

The Lions were coming in on a roll at 7-0, after the beat down against Michigan the week before. Expectations were high, but let’s face it, Ohio State is a machine similar to Alabama. They simply reload 5-star talent every single year after handing off record numbers to the NFL Draft – year in and year out. This would be no easy task.

We landed in Cincinnati and took the drive during rush hour through downtown and up to Columbus. The normally a 90-minute drive, was closer to 2-1/2 hours tonight. Regardless, we made it to the Hyatt and checked in before we rendezvoused with Doc to pick up our tickets.

After a quick work call, it was time for dinner. One of the trendy areas of Columbus, Short North, was just a quick walk north of the hotel. The place was packed with the traditional Friday night dinner crowd, plus the added revelers that were obviously in town for the game – including dozens of Penn Staters.

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Had to try the local Bleeding Buckeye Red.

Back at the hotel lobby bar, we chatted with an OSU fan from Boise who goes by the beloved name of Erndog. Erndog makes his way back to Columbus for a game a year. He said he was attending the game with friends whose daughter is a PSU Cheerleader. When asked the name, we thought it sounded like a “Scranton name” and sure enough, we made the connection. Small world… Erndog invited us out to dinner after the game, but we had already made plans.

On Saturday, our intent was to make it to Gameday for the second week in a row, but the weather was not cooperating. It rained all morning and was scheduled to end around 11. It even turned to snow at one point. I guess even God wanted a Whiteout today!

We opted to forego Gameday and made our way out for a late breakfast. Yelp led us to another Ohio treat, A Taste of Belgium. This place was located in North Market, a block off of the main street leading to the campus.

North Market is a mini version of some of the larger, more famous markets around the country, like Philly’s Reading Terminal Market or Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Small shops, markets, eateries and specialty stores filled the place. The Breakfast Waffle sandwich was incredible! A sweet mix of maple syrup in a dense, Belgian style waffle with bacon and egg. Worth the trip!

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Other shops in the Market included a Polish specialty shop with Stuffed Cabbages as big as your head and Destination Donuts, with their Buckeye Donut.

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I’ll have to admit, there were some less than stellar options there as well. Like Park Street Poultry & Game selling Chicken Feet – not very appealing especially considering it sat across the aisle from Pistacia Vera, a bakery with seasonal macarons and vanilla shortbread cookies.

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We made our way towards campus by taking the local bus the mile and half or so north. On board, a local Ohio State Grad shared his suggestions for traversing the campus and what to see along the way.

First stop, Ohio State’s Student Union, the gathering place for young Buckeyes. We thought for sure we’d hear a couple of rumblings about Sandusky or Paterno as we walked through enemy territory with our whiteout gear in full view. Nothing!

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One disappointment was that, as we made our way over towards the Oval, the Campus’ greenspace that connects many of the academic buildings, we noticed that the infamous Mirror Lake was closed for construction. The small lake used to be the site of the annual ritual in which the students would jump into the lake on the eve of the Michigan game. Unfortunately, in 2015, a student dove in the shallow lake and drowned due to paralysis from hitting bottom. The tradition has since been suspended.

As we approached the stadium, it looks rather unassuming sitting in the middle of campus. It’s one of the largest stadiums in the country, but it certainly doesn’t look like it from the outside.

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Another thing we noticed was that there were plenty of tailgaters in the lots immediately surrounding the stadium. They clearly know how to do things here in Columbus – even considering the chilly temps and wet conditions.

We ran into SuperFan, Larry Lokai along the way and he was incredibly friendly, stopping to take multiple photos of anyone who asked.  Larry said he’s been dressing up like this for over 20 years! He’s a retired teacher and OSU Alum that is very deserving of the title he received in 2015, NCAA Fan of the Year!

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Another tradition we wanted to take in was the famed “Skull Session”. We weren’t sure what to expect, but we knew Ohio State’s famous “The Best Damn Band In The Land” would be performing. What we didn’t know was that the Ohio State team, along with the coaching staff would also be there for the pre-game pep rally, along with Penn State’s equally famous Blue Band. The Session takes place just north of Ohio Stadium in St John Arena shortly before kickoff. A couple of players and coaches say a few words before they make their way to the stadium, then the bands take over and provide a preview of their performances for the day.

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The Varsity Club is another Ohio State tradition. The bar sits just northeast of the stadium and is packed on gameday.  We tried to make our way in, but decided to live by the Yogi Berra line of, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”.

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We made our way back towards the stadium and noticed that someone had left a Paterno 409 Lager sitting atop the “Ohio State University” sign.

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Not to get into a political debate, but there’s something to be said about the militarization of police forces. Here’s a look at a little truck owned by the Ohio State University Police Department. Too much?

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Approaching the stadium from the north, you can see the Rotunda, a leftover of the original stadium that opened in 1922.  The exterior is a confusing blend of old and new.

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Once inside, you can see how it can hold 105,000 fans. Not bad, but still no 110k plus like Beaver Stadium! And what are the odds that among 105,000 fans, as we’re heading to our seats, we run into two of our daughter’s friends? Then, as we’re taking our seats in the upper deck, who’s standing in the row behind us? Dr G and his wife. For an away game, it sure felt like home!

One major plus for Ohio Stadium? They sell beer! And not just Bud and Miller Light.  Yes, 16-oz cans of Yuengling and other local brews can be found up until mid-way through the 3rd quarter.  One downside of selling beer? Incredibly long bathroom lines for men! The woman’s lines noticeably shorter. Something for all stadiums to consider when planning to sell beer. Are you listening Penn State?

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As for the game, much has already been written and what a game it was.  Yet again, it will go down as one of the “best” games I’ve seen in person. Yes, it’s hard to compare games through the years and across venues, but certain games will stick with you for a long time. Saquon Barkley opened the game with an electric 97-yard kickoff return that quickly silenced the crows – well except those in the upper reaches of the northeast endzone.

The Lions held the lead, and usually a large lead,  from the open kick through 1:48 to play. But in the end, the Buckeyes were just too much. The visitors crumbled under the pressure due to some conservative play calling and lackluster offensive line play, blowing a 15-point 4th quarter lead to lose 39-38.

You can tell how much this game meant to the Buckeyes as they stormed the field after the win – as a 7-point favorite.

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Surely now we would hear the Sandusky or Paterno jabs as we walked across campus, right? Nope. OK, there was one student would have a little too much to drink. He walked by me and ever so politely smiled and whispered, “your season’s over”.  His girlfriend quickly pulled him away and apologized for his behavior.

Some older alums helped us with directions across campus and gave us another narrated tour of the buildings as we joined them as they made their way back to their car.

Even at dinner, as we sat sheepishly with our whiteout gear still visible, plenty of locals thanked us for visiting and congratulated us on a great game. Some would argue that the experience might have been different had the home team lost, but I don’t think that would have been the case.

In yet another “small world” story, we stopped at the lobby bar for a nightcap. There was a mix of fans hanging around and we struck up a conversation with a Penn State Student and her mom. After some small talk, we realized that it was one of our daughter’s sorority sisters.

Even though the loss was a punch in the gut for a season that held so much promise, you have to remember that this program was left for dead just five short years ago.

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Stop wondering. Start wandering!

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