23 years ago, when I was but a wee lad of four, a neighbor of ours named Mark Kerns decided to take it upon himself to create a fundraising event that would help benefit Middletown and Wyoming High School, where he was splitting time working as a coach. Then-Bengals coach Sam Wyche and then-sane person Dick Vitale agreed to speak, the event was an immediate hit, and over two decades later the Pigskin Roundball Spectacular has evolved into one of the half dozen things Middletown can still generally be really proud of.
My dad often did the audio/visual setup for the event, especially in its early days, and I sometimes got to tag along. As a result, my first sports memory is of me asking Earle Bruce for his autograph twice because I couldn't tell the difference between him and Gene Stallings (in my defense, they were/are both wrinkly old guys and I was 9).
In any case, the Pigskin Roundball is a great event: Listing the litany of sports legends that Kerns has been able to get to come and speak would take forever, but suffice it to say that OSU greats like Spielman, Griffin, Bruce, Knight, and yes, Tressel make up just a fraction of the bigwigs who have come to this thing. Even more impressive are the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Pigskin Roundball has raised in scholarship money.
This year saw the biggest instance of this great event ever, as more than 1000 people crammed themselves into the Manor House in Mason last Wednesday to hear Thad Matta, Luke Fickell, and Urban F"reakazoid" Meyer throw down some linguistic excellence. Once again, my dad and I were there in attendance.
Urban went first, and I think one thing that needs to be said about the guy is that the person you see on tv, or in an interview, or on the sidelines is truly what you're going to get 99% of the time. His intensity has no off switch; I can imagine this guy giving prayer of grace before a brunch with grandma on Palm Sunday that would make you want to run through a wall made of bricks and angry hornets.
There were a few major themes that Meyer touched on during his speech. One was how grateful he was to come back home to Ohio, and specifically sports in Ohio. He remembers the Ashtabula that he grew up in not as a slowly dying rust belt town, but as an idyllic childhood home. And a lot of that is attributable to sports. In Urban's childhood, "every kid... played some sport," and that is what helped mold them into men.
Which brings up his second major theme, that of making Ohio proud by the way the football team conducts itself. Meyer mentioned several times that sports are "fragile," and by that he means that there are a huge amount of variables that can make or break a team on any given game. Because of this fragility, we need to focus on the things we can control, and that includes how we handle adversity.
Meyer's next story was about his son, whose football team he briefly coached. Meyer watched one day as his kid got completely steamrolled in practice. Just straight up hilariously flattened. But what happened next is what illustrates the point: although he wanted to cry and quit, although Meyer knew he wanted to cry and quit, neither father nor son would let that happen. A few more weeks of practice and work, and Meyer's son makes the tackle.
In other words, adversity is what molds us into the people who we are, for better or for worse. Meyer repeatedly used the phrase "get through the storm" and proclaimed "that'll be our message to the team this summer" and it's clear that both adversity and overcoming adversity through sports is something that Meyer deeply believes in. When listening to him you can see it, that version of Ashtabula and Ohio from his past where struggle and adversity always bred nothing but strong young men and women who go on to do great things.
I like that version Ohio that he remembers. And I hope it comes back, if it ever existed.
Fickell was one of three presented with the Gold Medal Club award, along with athletic supporter Ken Cohen and Middletown/OSU distance runner Jeff See, in recognition of being one of the best pure athletes in Ohio history. Seriously, listening to the incredible amount of athletic accomplishments between See and Fickell makes me pretty disappointed in myself that I'm not typing this in between deadlift reps.
In any case, Fickell was relatively brief and gracious, and echoed much of what Meyer had said before him. "Some people say you have to weather the storm... no, you need to fight through [it.]" He also made a point about Ohio State that I wish more would, and that's that "not one year or incident defines [OSU]." Whatever has happened in the past, with tattoos, or boosters, or even a nutjob on Twitter, Ohio State "...will move forward" and "...be the best versions of ourselves."
I wouldn't say that Fickell is really comfortable with public speaking, even now. It's clear he's not a big fan of talking about himself (he constantly called his accomplishments "exaggerated" although I'm not sure how you exaggerate 50 consecutive starts for Ohio State or being a state wrestling champion in one of the more competitive wrestling states for three years in a row, dude), but when he focused on OSU, he was gold. The guy clearly loves the school and the state, and I kind of hope he never leaves.
Okay, this was the guy I was personally looking forward to, especially after the anecdotes in Titus' book. Thad Matta is basically Peak Johnny Ginter, and by that I mean he's basically me at my least irritating and most interesting, except he's like that all of the time and not in 5 to 10 second bursts.
Seeing as how the Pigskin Roundball is a Middletown HS event, Matta made sure to give his props to Jerry Lucas, who he called "the greatest player ever in the Big Ten." He then barreled into a story about him doing Lucas a solid by speaking at one of his memory conferences, and then displayed his utter incompetence at memorization by attempting and then failing to remember the names of like five people in the audience. I don't know what purpose that bit served, but Matta thought it was funny as hell, which made me laugh pretty hard.
He also made sure to relate a couple of stories about getting flipped off by Xavier fans (risky jokes in southwestern Ohio, have to give the guy credit for sticking with his script), but the real meat of his speech was that his approach to coaching at Ohio State, and why he believes he's successful, is that he wanted his players to take ownership of the program.
On day one he declared to his team that they were "331st of 331 D-1 teams," and that he wanted them to "build something." That process began in earnest with the 04-05 team's defeat of Illinois, and now, an Oden, a Conley, a Sully, a Diebler, a Lighty, and a couple of irritable huge white dudes later, Matta says that he "...couldn't be prouder of where our basketball team is today."
And you know what? I agree with him. Sometimes I have issues with what Matta may do during games, but those are the nittiest of picks against a guy this fun and likeable, a guy who says he wants players "who have an appreciation for the university," and a guy who says that he "learn(s) something new (about OSU) everyday." I kind of hope he never leaves either.
And that was the 23rd Pigskin Roundball Spectacular! Congrats to Middie athletes Andrew Globke and Allie Lawwill for winning the scholarship this year, and I highly encourage all of you to find out more about the event here and try and attend one.