The Man Who Wasn't There

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 31, 2011 at 1:00p

If you're looking for happiness, the fifth floor of Nationwide Childrens Hospital in Columbus isn't the best place to spend your free time.

Summer of 2001: A thousand years ago

It will put a hole in your heart.  Kids aren't supposed to get this sick. 

They should be playing outside and filling the air with their screams and laughter, not lying in beds hooked up to machines watching and listening to their blood constantly churn and recirculate. 

Pediatric hospitals are generally unpleasant buildings to visit.  The good people who work with sick kids do everything they can to insulate them and their families from fully absorbing the gravity of where they are and why they, often times, often live there. 

They wear solacing uniforms with Big Bird and Dora the Explorer printed all over them, they decorate the hallways with brightly-colored drawings and they're generally smiling all of the time.  Those smiles are for the kids and their families, but they're also for themselves too. Smiling on the outside sometimes tricks you into doing the same on the inside.

Adult hospitals aren't quite as comforting, because they contain an element of inevitability.  But kids are different.  Kids aren't supposed to get this sick.  It's too soon.  It's not fair. 

Over the past several years I've spent a lot of time in too many pediatric hospitals, not on account of free time or personal tragedy - thankfully - but because of my other job that has required me to do so.  It's a job that often exposes me to the kind of heartbreak that makes days like the ones where a beloved Ohio State football coach resigns feel like a papercut by comparison.

The fifth floor of Nationwide Childrens includes several units.  One of them is Hematology.  For unprepared visitors, it's an uncomfortable place to walk into on any given day. 

Leukemia is a bitch.  Hemophilia is a bitch. It's worse if you're a kid.  You should never be exposed to that much blood, especially your own.  It's got to be especially heartbreaking if you're that kid's parents.

On Friday, November 17, 2006 I was on that fifth floor of Nationwide Childrens finishing up rounds with a couple of nurses when the televisions mounted to the walls all simultaneously interrupted afternoon programming for breaking news: Bo Schembechler was dead.  His heart, which had betrayed him for decades, finally gave in for good.

It's not as if Michigan wasn't on anyone's mind in Columbus already that week; the Michigan game was less than 24 hours away.  Ohio State was undefeated.  Michigan was undefeated.  For several weeks, there had been an inevitability that both teams would make it to their November 18 meeting with unblemished records and nationally ranked first and second respectively, setting up the biggest meeting in a rivalry defined by big meetings. 

On that particular Friday, the hospital scrubs with Big Bird and Dora on them were not seen in the building.  All of the uniforms that day reflected the only colors that were on anyone's mind.  The clinicians and visiting adults on the unit, all decked out in scarlet and gray, were shocked and transfixed to the screens.  Bo was dead.  The Game was one sunrise away.  I was surrounded by sick kids hooked up to machines.  My eyes immediately welled up with tears.  It was too much.

The children who were awake in their beds stared emotionless at the televisions, unsure of how to respond.  It was understandable: Bo hadn't coached in 17 years.  The oldest patient on the unit was 14.  They didn't know who he was.

Smiling is part of the uniform in pediatrics.  Comfort has to be a part of healing.  It has to be an integral component of treatment.  The psyche has an incredible and mysterious impact on the body's ability to be resilient; if it believes that all is not lost then there a better chance for a favorable outcome independent of the power of medicine.  Bo was dead on the evening of the biggest Ohio State-Michigan game in history.  No one was smiling.  Suddenly, everyone was out of uniform.

I'm not sure how many seconds or minutes went by after the initial breaking news report, but lost amidst the noise of Central Ohio television anchors reading their respective scripts over each other, there was the ding of the elevator bell and the sound of its doors opening and closing.  Then, Ohio State defensive back Antonio Smith walked onto the unit and immediately stopped to take in the news Schembechler's passing.  Seconds later, quarterback Troy Smith followed him onto the floor.

"They're always here"

Smith and Smith walked together from bed to bed, visiting each child who had previously been watching their blood exit or re-enter their bodies.  The conversations were quiet and seemingly oblivious to the numerous adult eyes that were following them around the room.  From a clinical standpoint, I was taken by how well they knew the drill with this patient population: Don't sit on the bed.  Try not to touch anything.  Smile.  Be positive; it's part of the uniform.

Tressel was the chief accomplice to his own demise.

Watching both players engage with each child while parents and nurses silently observed revealed an interesting dynamic: Normally, it's the staff that's doing the smiling.  In this case, it was the children, nervously laughing while the eventual Heisman Trophy winner listened intently to whatever it was they were telling him.

It was all a little overwhelming, with the clinic, the Schembechler news and the players all converging on the same little space.  I watched as Troy Smith slipped into a gown to visit one immunocompromised little girl who was in isolation, as if he had done so numerous times before.  Those gowns tie in the back; you're practically guaranteed to see a first-timer try to put one on like a button down shirt and then sheepishly take it off and put it on correctly.  Troy took his gown from the cart and pushed his arms through the sleeves without even thinking about it.

"On any given day you can walk into this place and find Ohio State football players on a unit somewhere," a nurse told me.  "You get a little numb to it because they're always here.  This is a little different, with it being Michigan week and that being Troy Smith.  But they're always here."

As Troy and Antonio finished visiting the final child who was awake, one parent approached them both with a request:  Her daughter was in treatment and fast asleep, but she did not want to wake her.  She was a huge Ohio State fan, and more specifically, a huge Troy Smith fan.  So huge that she actually had a red number ten jersey draped on the chair in her room.  It was her chosen decor.

Troy walked to the foot of her bed and watched her for a few seconds as she slept next to the whirring machines that were plugged into her, then looked over at his replica jersey draped over the chair where her mother had been sitting.  He then drew a Sharpie and wrote a personal autograph to her on the white number one of that jersey, then laid it down on top of her as a blanket while she remained motionless as her mother stood at the bedside with tears streaming down her face.  He would not be there to enjoy her reaction to discovering who had visited her while she slept.

I walked off the unit to the elevator bank while the televisions continued to recap Schembechler's legacy and hit the up button to head to my next floor.  Moments later, Antonio and Troy said goodbye to the staff and came out to the elevators, where Antonio pressed the down button to leave. 

Suddenly, a female patient who couldn't have been older than 13 came storming out from the unit, wearing her own Ohio State replica jersey and wheeling her IV along her side.  She glared at the two players, extended her finger at them and firmly said, "Tomorrow?  Tomorrow?  You go do what you do!  YOU GO DO WHAT YOU DO."  When she repeated her directive, her previously firm voice fell apart and began shaking.

A Righteous kill

The two-sided narrative of Tressel's demise is one of either clumsy or diabolical hubris.  He was eventually felled by his own cover-up that was seemingly constructed to be discovered.  Maybe he suddenly got sloppy as a deliberate, serial cheater.  Maybe he just trusted his players too much and finally got burned.

Two hundred wins for Tressel in Columbus should have been inevitable.

I simply have a hard time believing that the extremely troubled kid from Glenville who would eventually be the runaway Heisman Trophy winner would have been spending the hours before the biggest game of his life in one of the unhappiest places imaginable were it not for his head coach.  He was unaccompanied by any chaperone or team official.  He was there on his own, and it was not his first time.  Tressel was not at the hospital that day.  Not in person, anyway.

Similarly, I have a hard time believing that a walk-on defensive back - an accidental starter for only his final year of college - who had probably been watching tape of Chad Henne throwing darts to Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington all week with his mouth agape would have taken the time to do so were it not for the manner in which the football program was run. 

This is a fact: Tressel ran a program that preached virtue, public service and self-reliance.  Most of his players bought into it.  Some of his players abused the hell out of it; players that he took a chance on against what should have been his better judgment.  Toxic, lost causes like Ray Small, whom Tressel repeatedly tried for years to wake up and change for the better even though he contributed virtually nothing to Ohio State's gaudy win total during his four years in Columbus. 

Small, a championship simpleton, still does not seem to realize that Tressel was out to help him for all of those years.  If Small hadn't been sleeping at study tables of flunking out of survey courses at Ohio State while he pretended to be a college student he would have been decapitating rabbits behind a barn in a Steinbeck novel.  He was beyond help.  Tressel did not care.  He probably still thinks he can help him.

Start with Tressel at Youngstown State and follow him through his final year at Ohio State.  He ran both programs the same way.  The best-run investigation into Tressel, regardless of its intent, will discover that very quickly.  Try to calculate the players whose life trajectories he directly impacted positively.  Try to quantify the number of lives he indirectly affected through tirelessly preaching the importance of paying forward. 

Try to wrap your head around the number of children, senior citizens, the GLBT community, the disadvantaged, common anonymous citizens and the Ray Smalls of the world that he used his position to help over his career.  This is the guy who just fell on his sword and removed himself from college football.

How difficult do you think it would be to put together a detailed expose on the virtuous things that happen behind Tressel's back because of that same, double-edged philosophy that produced the catalyst for his lie and resignation?  Do you think SI or anyone else would fund a six-month investigation?  I would be a willing leak.  The line of happy on-the-record sources with first-hand accounts filing behind me would extend for miles.  For miles. 

The sources for that kind of story would be no less reliable than the ones that Sports Illustrated relied on for its underwhelming investigative report that essentially a recycled version of the same article written by ESPN almost seven years ago.  They both dug for dirt and they found it.  Tressel's got dirt.  Send the same resources anywhere, anywhere, and you'll find something. 

SI spent months calling former Ohio State players, begging them for negative information, then begging them for referrals where they might be able to get the negative information they needed to fulfill the narrative that they were trying to best illustrate.  Their story included an anonymous source citing a fixed camp raffle from 30 years ago.  Apparently, this cut right to the core of Tressel as a cheater willing to do anything to win.  The inclusion of this reckless endangerment indicates that nothing was deemed unreportable.

They turned over every rock in Columbus, Youngstown and everywhere in between to find every last molecule of dirt that they could to further bury a man who unleashed an avalanche on himself by committing what will go down as the sloppiest beguiling in Ohio history: A cover-up undone by he who started it.

When the kids at the Nationwide Children's hematology unit experienced that Friday of their lives, Tressel wasn't there.  When Troy Smith received what couldn't have been the only $500 handshake of his college career, Tressel wasn't there.  When Terrelle Pryor figured that nobody would notice Ohio State's starting quarterback driving a fleet of vehicles with dealer plates, Tressel wasn't there. 

When Ohio State turned in its highest APR ever and graduated more football players than ever before, Tressel wasn't there.  When players used that shady tattoo parlor as a personal ATM for years, Tressel wasn't there.  He put his players in position to make decisions and was willfully ignorant to the likely prospects that some of them would choose poorly. 

He put his own standards ahead of the NCAA's.  He wrote The Winner's Manual and played by his own rules.  Tressel never had eminent domain over college football; the NCAA does.  It's not his game, it's theirs.  They have their own manual, and as far as they're concerned, it's the only manual.  Plausible deniability and willful ignorance have successfully maneuvered around that manual for years.  Tressel operated like this for years, up until last April.

So now he's gone.  Ohio State's next head coach will not graduate more players at the same rate that Tressel did.  He won't send more two or three-star recruits to the NFL like Tressel did.  He won't positively alter the lives of more men than Tressel did.  He will not raise more money for more good causes than Tressel did.  He won't win more games than Tressel did. 

He might police players more closely than Tressel did, but at what cost?  College kids shouldn't have bad choices removed from their list of options.  That might help with NCAA compliance, but it doesn't help anyone become a useful adult.  Players should be taught to make better decisions and face tougher consequences. 

They shouldn't benefit from a cover-up.  That nullifies the intent of the lesson that Tressel had long preached.  That's the height of hypocrisy, which can also serve as a lesson, but more of the cautionary tale variety.  Not exactly what you look for from your program steward.

He said years ago that he didn't expect to leave Ohio State on his own terms.  That wasn't prescient; no Ohio State coach over the past half century-plus has left on his own terms.  That doesn't mean they are ever forgotten.  Ohio has two NFL teams; one named after an Ohio State coach and the other that was started by him.  Ohio Stadium's address is 411 Woody Hayes Drive.  Earle Bruce lives in Columbus and is quite visible.  So is John Cooper.  Tressel isn't about to fade into obscurity.  He's just not going to coach anymore.

Back in the summer of 2001, Tressel addressed the Big Ten media and thousands of fans at the annual summer meetings by drawing on Lance Armstrong's book, It's Not About the Bike.  He gave an unrehearsed speech that I'll never forget; drawing upon the recent tragedy of Korey Stringer's unexpected passing, Adam Taliaferro's paralysis and his own mother's cancer treatments, and how each of those episodes had impacted him, his team and Ohio State at large. 

While everyone expected him to take the podium and talk about football, he stood there and bluntly told 2000 football fans that "it wasn't about the ball."  He could have talked about a core group of refugee players from the Cooper era who would improbably go on to win the national title 17 months later. 

He could have talked about Michigan.  He could have discussed the challenges he would be facing taking over a program in turmoil.  Instead, Ohio State's new football coach chose not to talk about football at his first official Big Ten football appearance.  Yeah, we all fell for it so hard.  Totally fake, right?

The Tressel era is now over, and many are left wondering what's going to become of Ohio State football because of how it ended.  The hole that Tressel's absence will leave at Ohio State will be far more gaping than the one created by any decline in football fecundity. 

Outside of the tattoo parlors and the car dealerships, there was a lot more going on behind Tressel's back that hadn't been happening enough prior to his arrival.  And none of it will make the pages over SI or the documents of any NCAA investigation. 

Despite the hasty epitaph that's been written for him, acting virtuously when no one is watching was never a empty directive from Tressel.  The number of people who beneifited greatly from deliberately secluded goodwill of the Ohio State football program when neither he nor the general public were aware is enormous.  For them, it's not about the ball.  It never was.

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