I honestly can’t remember an age in my life when football wasn’t a factor. I have been playing it since I could run and hold onto a football, and I was watching it when I had no idea what holding or off-sides meant. But every year, as the season got older and the weather got cooler and the leaves accepted their glorious death hues and tumbled to the ground, I understood that The Game was upon us. In school, we made paper turkeys and studied Pilgrims, but at home and everywhere else I went, we spoke of The Game.
The hatred of all things yellow-and-blue consumed me at an early age. Hating Michigan, at a time when I was being taught that hate is wrong, was not only accepted but encouraged. It was as natural as breathing. I never questioned the hate, but instead dove head first into the rivalry. I suppose I did this because my father had an unspeakable loathing of the team up north, and all good sons seek their father’s approval.
I have watched many Michigan games with my dad, and I learned some of my best swearing during those games. There is one game in particular, however, that I will always cherish, always remember, for the simple reason that it was the final version of The Game I ever got to watch with dad before he died.
The year was 1988, and John Cooper had just taken over for the fired Earl Bruce. Ohio State wasn’t very good that season, but all bad seasons are resurrected with victories in The Game and beating Michigan kept every Buckeye faithful warm during the cold Ohio winter. I entered Michigan week hoping for a victory, but realizing it would take a Herculean effort to achieve such a victory.
Mom and dad lived on Main Street then, in a little rental next door to the Masonic Temple. I parked my car in their lot and went inside. Pops was wearing his favorite Buckeye sweater and was most likely on his tenth cup of coffee and twentieth cigarette by then, so he had equal parts of caffeine and nicotine to both amplify and subdue his loathing. “Have a seat Davie,” he said as he knocked some magazines to the floor.
“We gonna beat them this year, dad?”
“Damn straight we are going to beat those lousy bastards.” I smiled because “lousy bastards” was an actual compliment coming from my father.
We talked for a while as kick-off neared, mostly about The Game, but sometimes other aspects of life would come up as well. During the fall in Ohio, anything not related to football was considered “small talk”, and we small talked about his smoking and my marriage and having kids. Then The Game started and all other things melted away into the sea of nothingness and disappeared from our minds.
We both booed lustily when Bo Schembechler led the evil Wolverines onto the sacred grass of Ohio Stadium. Bo was the kind of man that you begrudgingly respected because he did it the right way. He won with class, didn’t cheat, and threw enough fits on the sideline to rival that of the immortal Woody Hayes. Honestly, he was the kind of man you wanted your son to play for, the kind of coach you wanted to run your team, but Bo sold his soul when he took over Michigan in 1969 and now he danced with the Devil.
The Game did not start well. Michigan stuffed our offense all of the first half while running and passing up and down the field on our defense. Already leading 17-0, Michigan kicked a field goal just as the first half expired. Bo had a smirk on his face as he jogged for the locker room and it was a smirk I shall never forgive nor forget.
Dad and I were pretty gloomy during the halftime show. We didn’t talk much, except for how much we despised Michigan and how badly the Bucks were playing. The second half started again, but this time it was Ohio State that was fired up and executing.
On three straight Michigan possessions, the Wolverines were forced to punt, while the Buckeyes scored touchdowns. After the third punt, OSU took the ball and drove down the field and scored their third touchdown. What was once a 20 point lead for Michigan became a 20 point tie until the Buckeye kicker booted the extra point and for the first time Ohio State had the advantage.
My father leapt to his feet and began to scream. “Now you have to score! Now you have to score!” He kept repeating that simple phrase as if Bo could hear him over the television and would somehow become disheartened over his taunting. The screaming and the rage and the vile hatred were nothing new, but what was new was my dad and his youthfulness.
You see, my father attended Ohio State when Francis Schmidt walked the sidelines. He was attending class and playing late night poker long before Woody and even before Paul Brown. We went and fought in WW II, and suffered for it. He was already a middle-aged man when I was born, and the smoking and high blood pressure and stress made him and old man. All I had ever known was a father that was wrinkled with time and worries.
But this! This was the young Bob Snook, and with that extra point came a one point lead and with that lead the years melted from my father and he was young again, full of piss and vinegar again. He was the young artist and poet and dreamer that once had nothing better to do in the whole world on a fall Saturday than to sit in the student section of the Horseshoe and cheer on his beloved Buckeyes. It was the Bob Snook I had never known and all it took was a single extra point for me to witness such a transformation.
The rest of The Game was back and forth, with Michigan taking a late lead but the Bucks had one final shot at winning. Somehow Ohio State failed to score and Michigan went on to win a close game. I was proud of how the Bucks didn’t lie down and die, of how they refused to roll over for the Devil and how, when it was all said and done, the Devil knew it had been in a fight. But a loss is a loss and moral victories are for lesser teams. The Ohio winter would prove to be brutal that year.
But in that loss I gained so very much. An extra point took me through time and I witnessed my roots on so many different levels. I saw my father young again and for a brief passage of time, all was right in the world.
I never got to see another Michigan game with pops. He died a few years later, when my daughter was not even two years old, and my family buried him Memorial Day weekend. I still visit his grave time to time, and every Michigan week I place a single Buckeye nut on his grave. I stand there in the quiet and think of all that he taught me, and smile because of the joy he had over a single extra point.