50 Yrs. of Ohio State Football: Paying forward and a buckeye tree up north

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 18: Damon Webb /

50 years of Ohio State football and counting.

It’s hard to believe that Saturday will be the 50th anniversary of the first Ohio State football game I ever watched. I had no idea of the significance of that game, I just watched it because I was told I was to be a Buckeye fan. That was by a guy who believed in paying forward and did so in ways that would have made Woody Hayes proud, especially since he grew a buckeye tree in Michigan.

First, about that historic game November 25, 1967.

It’s hard to imagine that Woody Hayes would have been in danger of losing his job as the Ohio State head coach that year, but it may have happened if Michigan would have won the game. Although he had three national championships under his belt,  Woody’s teams hadn’t even won a Big Ten title since 1961.

The Buckeyes had a losing season the year before and it looked like the 1967 season would be a repeat early on. Ohio State was 2-3 before going on a three game winning streak heading into the Michigan game.

To make matters worse, the Buckeyes had lost to the Wolverines two of the last three years. It has been reported that those around the football program at the time believed Woody’s job was on the line.

After all, an Ohio State head coach who wins about half of his games, can’t win Big Ten Championships and loses to TTUN is going to be replaced. Fortunately for Woody, and the entire Buckeye nation, Ohio State defeated Michigan 24-14. But just think if that hadn’t been the case and Woody was let go.

The following year the ‘Super Sophs’ led the Buckeyes to a national championship and another when they were seniors in 1970. Would that have been the case with another coach at the helm?

And if someone else would have been the Ohio State head coach in 1968, would they have poured on the coals and stomped Michigan like Woody did? At the very least, I doubt the new coach would have gone for a two point conversion up by 34 points late in the fourth quarter.

That 50-14 defeat must have been too much for Wolverine head coach Bump Elliott even though his team finished the season 8-2. He resigned afterwards and some guy named Bo Schembechler was hired two days later.

If Ohio State had lost to Michigan in 1967, Woody may not have been walking the sidelines in 1969, and Bo may not have been either. There would never have been a ‘Ten Year War’ between the two legendary coaches.

But the two would go head to head and that game ramped up the rivalry to an unbelievable level. The Buckeyes went into the game anointed by most as the best team in the 20th century. But after the game was over, the Wolverine’s 24-12 victory was considered the greatest upset of the century. Now ‘The ‘War’ was on.

Many people don’t realize that before the 1969 game the Ohio State-Michigan game was just a great rivalry. After the ‘Ten Year War’ began, it became ‘The Game’.

I had no clue the first Ohio State game I ever watched was significant in any way, and that the Buckeye win would lead to a series of events which would make things interesting for the next half-century. I just knew Ohio State was playing some team from Michigan and I thought I should watch. I’m glad I did because it confirmed the fact I should be a Buckeye fan.

Now about the guy who steered me to that right way of thinking.

That was my older brother Elvin who was serving in the Army at the time. When his enlistment ended he moved to enemy territory and began paying forward like Woody Hayes encouraged everyone to do.

Soon after he arrived in Durand, Michigan he became involved with youth sports, and I was somewhat amused when the first sport Elvin coached was basketball. While he was a terrific high school player in both baseball and football, the same can’t be said about his play on the hardwood.

I could tell he was enjoying coaching the boys though, Elvin just loved sports and working with kids.

Over the years I would hear about the local players and teams, especially when his children Shannon, Lynn and twins Steve and Sara were involved in different activities. I often heard about the high school band, cheerleading and various sports teams so I knew he was a big supporter of the young boys and girls in the area. But I had no clue as to what extent.

I only found out how involved he was with the local youth after his unfortunate passing on October 5th, 2006. It didn’t take me long to understand he had made some kind of impact in the small town of Durand though when we arrived for his viewing.   

The line of people paying their respects extended outside, around the corner and down the block. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement.

I knew he was responsible for the upkeep of the local ball fields but that was all I was aware of. I soon discovered the many other things he did to help the youth in the community.

Evidently, he had held nearly every office in the band boosters or youth sports at least once. If there was a sport that was played he probably coached it, or at least assisted those who did in some way. Whatever the case, he would always be in the stands supporting the young boys and girls.

It shouldn’t have came as a shock to me Elvin wouldn’t tell me all of the things he did to help the youth in the area. See, my brother never wanted the spotlight shined on him for the things he did, he simply believed in doing those things because he thought he should. And because he wanted to.

I think Woody would have been proud of my brother Elvin for paying forward, even though it was in That State Up North. Especially since he stayed true to his roots and remained an Ohio State fan until the very end.

Now about Elvin’s Buckeye tree.

Our oldest brother Ralph took two buckeyes to Elvin from a tree along the creek on the family farm. In 1987, Elvin planted one of them in his back yard even though he was told a buckeye tree probably wouldn’t grow because of the climate. It did.

He nurtured the tree from the time it was a sampling until it had become a strong mature one 19 years later. However, he never got to see even one buckeye in the tree or on the ground below it.

A year after his passing, the tree produced the first poison nut that strikes fear in the hearts of Wolverines. It was a sense of comfort to his loved ones as they knew he was still with them.

Also, that year Ohio State was a longshot to play for the BCS Championship with a couple of games left in the season. After a series of upsets, the Buckeyes moved up in the rankings and played for the national title. Was that a coincidence?

Elvin’s tree has continued to produce buckeyes ever since but this year there was a twist. There were only three, two big ones and a little one.

Elvin’s son Steve and wife Nichole are expecting their first child. How cool is that. Everyone in the family is excited.

However, such an unusual occurrence should be accompanied by an unusual point of view as well. Everyone who knows me understands I usually have one, so here it is.

More from Scarlet and Game

Just like a decade ago when the tree produced the first nut, Ohio State is once again on the outside looking in and needing help in order to play for the national title. Is history about to repeat itself?

And this will be Elvin’s first grandchild born since his tree produced the first buckeye, will he or she grow up rooting for the Scarlet and Gray? Miracles do happen don’t they?

Anyway, I wanted to share how I became a Buckeye fan a half-century ago. I hope it made you think back to how and when you became one too.

Over the next few months I will be writing about players and teams I have watched over the last 50 years. I hope it brings back memories for some of you and will help younger fans to understand how former players were the building blocks of the outstanding Ohio State football program they enjoy following today.

Next: Could demons return vs. Michigan on Saturday?

But for now, I am just excited and nervous as is always the case this time of year, because tomorrow I will be watching ‘The Game’ once again. I hope I will enjoy it as much as the one I watched November 25th, 1967.