You hardly had to be a football player to feel the pull of that big, wonderful, gothic-like and wicked stadium. It sucked in the whole town. And Woodyhayes -- officially Woody Hayes, but it seemed to roll out as one word -- was a kind of godfather to everyone. Fathers, sons, mommas, poppas. Even would-be quarterbacks like myself who had a stuttering problem and never got into a Pop Warner game.
All you had to do in my home town of Columbus -- if you were a kid, and lived on N. Fifth Street, as I did -- was scoot up to High Street, hustle across Neil Avenue, slip between the campus buildings, pass the tiny creek that ran through campus, and there it was, mythically looming: the Ohio State University football stadium. To my little-boy eyes -- a kid in the early 1960s -- that stadium was tall as the sky.
My fascination and link to it began in 1963. Me and Bubbles, a childhood friend, hawked programs and newspapers inside the stadium on game days. A sea of bodies -- tens and tens of thousands -- seated there, blurring against my eyes as the word "Programs!" flew from my mouth. Bubbles would take one section, and I'd take another. Sometimes I'd freeze (literally when October turned to November) and stare down onto the field: a halfback in scarlet and gray scampering into the end zone; a goal-line stand and a hush everywhere; cool Rex Kern (quarterback on that '68 national championship team) tossing a bomb, the stadium breathless, the ball floating, floating, then dropping into the receiver's hands delicately as a milk bottle laid into the hands of a 2 year old. The place would go wild, and you'd swear the bricks of the stadium moved.
After games Bubbles and I would walk home together, counting our meager earnings, eating pizza with our gloves still on. It had been my first real job, money in my pockets.
Then came a wondrous discovery. The football team had been away, the weather still balmy. I was roaming the campus, alone, bouncing my basketball, which I took everywhere. I aimed to cut through the stadium and get to a playground near the Olentangy River. But dashing through the dark tunnels beneath the stadium, I spotted, tucked in corners, basketball hoops. It was the strangest sight, as if Santa had placed them there for some fool kid. I began shooting, all day long, loving the shade, the feeling of having the whole underground stadium to myself. I'd come back on days when the football team was on the road. I feared that someone would tell the great Woodyhayes I was using his stadium to perfect my basketball game. I played until winter, until the tips of my fingers could no longer feel the touch of the basketball.
Whenever I'm back home in Columbus and find myself riding near the stadium, I still hear echoes: "Programs!" And I can still see my breath blowing in front of me beneath the stadium -- unwrapping my football programs or bouncing my basketball -- as happy as any Heisman Trophy winner who had pulled on cleats inside that place.
The author is a Style reporter for The Post.