Ohio State Football: Buckeyes Bleed Red, White and Blue

Sep 3, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes mascot Brutus Buckeye stands with the American flag during the game against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes mascot Brutus Buckeye stands with the American flag during the game against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports /

The Fourth of July weekend offers an annual opportunity at reflection.

We enjoy the fireworks and cookouts, but the holiday exists to recall history and sacrifice. Independence Day would not be so if not for years of sacrifice by the United States Armed Forces. The Ohio State football program has always shown a great appreciation for this fact.

Led from the Front

Woody Hayes, the preeminent leader in Ohio State history, led in a different realm before he started his college coaching career.

Hayes spent time as a high school coach around Ohio following his graduation from Denison College. Woody chose to take a break from his coaching aspirations and enlisted in the Navy in the summer of 1941. At the time of his enlistment, war raged in Europe and tensions were high in the Pacific. It was not a time to join the military if you were not ready to fight.

Woody went to war and sped through the ranks to a position commanding multiple ships. Woody’s quick ascent from enlisted seaman to Lieutenant Commander serves as a testament to his leadership ability. Woody had not even arrived home from the Pacific when he would get called back to coaching at his alumni.

He received the offer from Denison College via telegram before guiding his ship through the Panama Canal. Woody accepted the offer and transitioned back to civilian life. However, he never left behind the lessons he learned and his appreciation for the military.

Woody earned a reputation as a military historian during his time at Ohio State. Former Ohio State football player told Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors:

"“Woody gave all of us a minor in history through the football season, drawing great analogies to what we were doing on the football field to great military battles and moments in history.”"

Woody produced a great analogy between football and the military through his “Ten Year War”. The games of this period played out with the tenacity of a true battle. However, the comparison would be unfair if not for Woody’s firsthand knowledge and lasting appreciation for combat.

Woody stayed true to his military upbringing until his last days. After his firing, Woody still maintained his office in Converse Hall, the university’s ROTC building.

Woody worked on a passion project in that office until his death in 1987, a book comparing the military and football. Faculty found the chalkboard containing his outline for the book in his corner office. This chalkboard is now preserved in the OSU practice facility bearing his name.

Amongst the ranks

Throughout Ohio State Football history, players have answered the call to arms and played their role in shaping the country’s history.

Ohio State’s first true star set an example for the future generations of Buckeye players. Chic Harley began his career at Ohio State in 1916 with an undefeated season and honors as an All-American. He followed up with another All-American  and unbeaten season in 1917. Harley headed into his senior year undefeated until duty called.

In 1918, with United States involvement in World War I ramping up, Chic Harley left school to take his talents from the field to the air. Harley told the Columbus dispatch:

"“I’m afraid I wouldn’t feel right by going back. I honestly am crazy to get into the service and have my decision made. I am going to apply for the aviation service. It appeals to me as the most interesting branch and the one for which I am best fitted.”"

Harley never ended up in Europe, but he put an incredible career on hold for the needs of the time.

Harley returned to Ohio State in 1919. His hiatus did not hinder his performance. Harley notched his third All-American campaign and came excruciatingly close to wrapping up an undefeated career before a loss in his final game.

The next World War called another all-time great into service. Lou Groza enrolled at Ohio State in 1942. Like many others in an era of football decimated by war, Groza cut his Buckeye career short and enlisted in the Army.

Groza trained and became an Army surgical technician. He shipped to the Pacific theater in 1945 and served close to the front lines. Groza experienced all the misery of war but got his due rewards when former Ohio State coach Paul Brown offered him to be placekicker for the Cleveland Browns.

Groza played 21 seasons for the Browns. He won four NFL Championships before rounding out his Hall of Fame career. Despite just a single season at Ohio State with no Varsity games, the award for best collegiate kicker is named after Groza. His legacy on the field is well deserved, but his role during America’s defining war means just as much.

Called to Arms

The long lineage of Buckeye service continued through the Global War on Terror. Conflict in the Middle East has defined the lives of Soldiers for nearly two decades, and it defined the life of Buckeye football alumni, Joe Brown.

Joe Brown attended Ohio State from 1997-2000 as a defensive lineman. His numbers did not rival someone like Harley, but he played with grit and saw playing time in each of his four seasons.

Brown appeared in 48 games and tallied 49 tackles in his four years. Former Buckeye Defensive Line coach Jim Heacock noted a more important skill than recording tackles:

“It was really commendable that he played through that kind of pain, but he stuck with it. That’s the kind of kid he is.”

Brown took the gritty path to the NFL as well, entering the league as an undrafted free agent. The Seattle Seahawks gave Joe Brown his shot at professional football. He stayed with them for two seasons, and despite only appearing in two games was set for his third NFL season. However, Brown had other things on his mind as he expressed to Eleven Warriors’ Kyle Rowland:

"“There were times I’d be at practice playing football in the NFL and I’d be sitting there thinking about joining the service and how I would do it and I’d think, ‘you’re crazy.’”"

Brown joined the United States Army in 2003, two years after the September 11th attacks and the year of the Iraq invasion. As with anyone who joined the military since 2001, Brown knew he would go to war. He became one of the unthinkable few who would give up a professional football career for service, a group that included Pat Tillman.

Brown became a special operations soldier, a difficult job suited to an elite athlete and leader. He deployed in 2005 to Iraq and returned in 2007. Brown spoke to Ohio State’s Chris Booker about the 2007 deployment:

"“We were in a really tough environment. It was the surge in Iraq in 2007. We deployed with a lot of guys that had no experience in combat. You could make the analogy of a young football team that has never played an away game before. But there’s no time-outs, there’s no halftime. It’s for real.”"

Brown unfortunately suffered serious injuries during his second tour that ended his Army career. Even with his military service ending, his example will continue to serve as an example of patriotism and valor to aspire to.

Always Appreciate

As years pass, Ohio State’s ties to the military strengthen. Head Coach Urban Meyer seeks to incorporate military ideals, appreciation, and spirit into his program.

In a Sirius XM interview, Urban Meyer described how his “Nine Unit Strong” philosophy stemmed from a military study that showed soldiers were more willing to fire their weapon for love of their unit than for their own survival. Urban reiterated this in a 2005 interview with Marc Tracy of the New York Times:

"“Do you really do it for Ohio State? That sounds admirable, but it’s not real. You realize you do it because of all the work you do, the blood, sweat and tears, with your brother. You can’t let your brother down. If it’s because of that, you have a good team. If it’s because of something else, it’s not a good team.”"

Urban also seeks to instill the warrior spirit in his team’s training. The phrase “Train Like an American Soldier” prominently adorns the wall over the Ohio State weight room.

These things aren’t meant to belittle military service, rather point out the similarities in mindset between a football team asserting dominance over another with what occurs in battle. Urban understands the difference though between a man like Brown goes through on the football field versus the battlefield. He stated in the NYT interview:

"“You have to be extremely careful, which I am, every time you talk about it, because what we do is a game, and what they do is real.”"

Next: Ohio State Basketball: Too Late and Too Soon for Change

What is real for the Buckeyes is an appreciation for the Red, White, and Blue and those who protect it.