Ghosts That We Knew

by Ramzy Nasrallah August 26, 2013
Ohio Stadium is a beautiful place.

“So how was it?”

My ears heard the question but my brain didn't register it. Just too busy concentrating on the details of the lead I was preparing to send to my account executive.

I was doing my first real job at my first cubicle in my first full year out of college and had just unearthed my first hot sales lead. That's a lot of firsts. It was also a Monday - the first day of the week. I was laser-focused on trying to look like a grown-up at work for the first time in my life.

“The game. Last week I heard you talking about going to see Notre Dame. How was it?”

Right into my ears again, but this time there were magic words. Football words. Someone is talking to me. I looked up.

It was Lynda, our technical support manager, leaning against my cube. I had formally met her my first day during the requisite introductions around our Chicago office, but that was it.

In a building teeming with forgettable faces, Lynda's was an easy one to remember: She was very noticeably battling cancer. Her hairless head was wrapped in a different scarf each day. Her face, which was as pale as it was disarming, always wore a giant smile.

I had noticed that whether she was walking out of a conference room, through our sterile cubicle jungle or outside in the parking lot she always looked as if she had just finished rolling around with a thousand puppies. She always looked happy.

Her face looked tired, but not from chemo treatments. Lynda looked like she was exhausted from laughing too much. Her base expression was a sweet, toothy grin.

"Was it fun?" She asked. Her eyes were big with anticipation. 

"Uh, yeah," I replied, collecting my thoughts for our first real conversation. "Didn't expect the Buckeyes to go to South Bend and light them up like that, but they did."

She laughed. "I thought of you on Saturday and I'm glad your team won. It's Ohio, right? I've heard you talk about college football from my desk and when you do your voice changes noticeably."

Lynda's office - the fancy manager's kind with both a door and a window - was only a few feet away from my cube, which had neither. I was a telemarketer in inside sales  which meant I was chatting on the phone all day. It wasn't hard to believe my tone changed when shifting the subject from software solutions to fat guy touchdowns.

Her door was never closed, which meant she must have been listening to me constantly. So she heard everything: My business calls, my personal calls, my random commentary and my morning sneezing fits. I looked toward her open office door and could see her name plate from my chair. Lynda, with a Y.

"Lynda with a Y," I awkwardly blurted out like a young Homer Simpson. "That's different."

"It is different," she smiled, tapping my name plate, "kind of like Ramzy with a Z. I'm glad you had fun. College football seems to make you really happy. You should do more with it." She then walked back toward her office.

I should do more with it? What does that mean? My attention went back to my hot sales lead. Nice lady, that Lynda. I hope she kicks cancer's ass.

It's a couple of years later and I'm in a different cubicle on the other side of the suite.

Lynda had taken an extended medical leave but she returned in remission and was now growing hair. It was light brown and came in as little spikes. There was more color in her cheeks. Her smile was unchanged.

Andy Katzenmoyer was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which was sitting on my desk. Lynda's head poked into my cube.

"Hey dude," she said smiling. "Are you ready for football season?"

"Hey, lady. I'm always ready for football season," I snapped. "Lynda, the real question is are you ready for football season?'

"Ah, I guess?" She laughed. "It seems like it's always football season in your office. Who is good this year?" She saw the magazine my desk. "Hey, that's your team, right? They're number one. Looks like they should be pretty good!"

"They should be as close to unstoppable as anything I've seen in my lifetime," I beamed. "Ohio State would have to not only step in shit to lose a game this season, they'd have to drown in it."

"Ohhhhh gross!" She shouted. "Well hopefully they'll keep the field clean! I was thinking about you because it's this time of year and you always get a little more energy right around now."

"Yeah, I guess," I replied. "But I don't sit outside of your office anymore. You can't eavesdrop on my game planning. Got all my plane tickets for the season - $39 each way to Columbus on Southwest. Booked all my college football weekends on the Internet."

"That's exciting!" She said. "Who are going to the games with?"

"I don't know yet. I just need to be there." I paused, realizing I probably needed to explain my reasoning.

"I'm 24 and all of my fall memories include football stadiums. I remember walking to games with my dad and being too little to go to the bathroom by myself. I just need to be there." There, that sounded good.

"Well," she said, "I'll look for you on television." I grinned back at her while thinking about needles and haystacks. She began to head back to her office, but stopped and turned back around. "There's that passion," she smiled. "That's not your phone voice. That's your football voice." 

"Woo!" I shouted facetiously. "Footbaaaaaaall!" 

"Have you ever thought about putting that passion on paper?" She asked. "I'm sure other football fans would love to read you. You're a creative guy." She said creative all cartoonishly, like a Sesame Street character teaching one of the children on the show a lesson.

It felt more genuine than condescending. "Formally?" I asked. "Never thought about it. I don't really do anything formally. Putting long pants on to come to this place is the most formal thing I do."

"Well," she said. "You shouldn't think about it. You should just do it. Don't think. Don't plan. Just put that passion on paper before you start thinking about work again." She wrinkled her nose at me and went back to her office.

The next morning I arrived at my desk and found a silver picture frame sitting on my chair. The photo inside was of a single word: CREATIVITY. There was a sticky note attached to it:

            don't think about doing it. don't plan to do it. just go do it.

Two weeks later the season kicked off, and I had landed a spot writing for Victors Valiant which later became The Wolverine. I was providing a Michigan fan site with "the Ohio State perspective."

Ohio State had beaten the defending national champions once over the previous decade. I basically put myself in their dunk tank once a week.

I loved it. Lynda was right.

The magnificent South Stands at Ohio Stadium

It's a couple of years later and our business has expanded.

Our office gobbled up the suite next door and moved both sales and marketing into it, which meant a bigger cube for me. Still no door; still no window. 

Lynda was in her same spot on the legacy side of the office, still managing her support team. Her cancer had returned only to be beaten into remission again. Her victory hair hadn't grown back yet this time.

Ohio State was ranked #5 in the country. I was now writing for, where I was no longer the sole voice for Ohio State perspectives. Lynda had emailed me about my latest column. Are they legitimately good or is it too early? (The 2000 Buckeyes, as it turned out, were legitimately forgettable).

I walked toward her office to check in with her and found the door closed, which was strange. I could see through the side glass panel that one of her analysts was standing at her desk with Lynda still seated, complaining very loudly about her treatment at a customer site.

"You don't understand discrimination, Lynda!" She shouted. "You don't get prejudice. You don't know what it's like to be talked to the way they talk to me."

Lynda then quickly defused the situation by deploying what in customer service is known as feel/felt/found : I understand how you feel, I know others have felt the same way but upon further investigation what people have found is [whatever you want them to believe]. 

I eavesdropped for another minute before the analyst opened the door and walked out. I poked my head in and smiled. "Hey lady," I said sarcastically, "how's it going?"

She laughed at me. "Apparently I don't understand discrimination," she said. "Just like every other gay, bald female manager in corporate America."

"You could use some sensitivity training," I said. "I can have that arranged - they make me go every week."

"Yeah, maybe I'll ask HR. So what's up with your team? Are they for real?"

I was still emotionally shaken by Ohio State's crappy 6-6 season the prior year. "They're not the 1998 team, but they're definitely not last year's team either. They're somewhere in between."

She wrinkled her forehead. "That's not your football voice. That's your work voice. That's not good."

"Well," I said, "I'm just guarded. I'm not ready to be confident yet; not after last year. I'm too biased to be truly objective."

She smiled. "I can imagine."

"No you can't," I chuckled, "Lynda, you just don't get prejudice."

It's a couple of years later and I'm sitting in C-Deck.

"What do you keep writing there?"

I was jotting down some thoughts for a blog post while Ohio State was toying with San Jose State on a very sunny October Saturday in 2002. The man seated behind me had noticed my little, beat-up pocket-sized notepad.

"Are you a reporter or something?"

"No, I'm not a reporter," I said. "I guess you'd call me a blogger."

"If you're going to take notes during a game you should just become a reporter."

I frowned. "No way, man. That's work. This doesn't feel like work."

"Then why do you do it?" He asked. "Do you get paid?"

"Yes. But that's not why I do it."

"Then why do you do it?" Everyone in our vicinity was now listening to - and likely annoyed - by our conversation.

"Let me ask you something," I said. "Why do you come to the stadium? All of these games are on television."

"I drive here from Indianapolis for every game," the man beamed. "I can't imagine not being here."

"Me neither," I said. "I come in from Chicago. I guess you could say I'm writing a love letter. I can't imagine not doing it."

"Ah," he said. "How long have you been doing that?"

"A few years. A lady at work convinced me to do it awhile back, and now I do it all the time."

"Cool. Is she a Buckeye fan?" He asked.

"I don't think so," I replied. "She's a fan of being alive. I think she just cheers for people."

Ohio State won the BCS title that season, and I left the company where Lynda and I worked. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye because she was out on medical leave during my final month.

It's the summer of 2003 and I'm leaving a meeting at a hotel that happens to be where my former company is holding a conference. 

I ran into a bunch of old colleagues and we exchanged pleasantries in the atrium. As I was leaving one of them informed me that Lynda had made it to the conference and was in the hotel.

"Where is she?" I asked.

"Up the escalator by registration."

I went up and found her immediately: She was leaning over a table writing something down, wearing a bright green head scarf that could probably be seen from space.

"Hey, lady!"

She turned around slowly and immediately smiled. She looked like she was exhausted, but not from laughing too much. She just looked exhausted.

I hugged her very gingerly and buried my feelings about how she looked. "How's it going?"

She gave me all of the updates. Her smile said that everything was all right, but her eyes told another story. They looked fatigued from fighting the same enemy over and over again.

As it turned out, her eyes were betraying her sprit. She wasn't nearly done fighting, but that was the last time I ever saw Lynda.

Ohio Stadium's entrance

It's the morning of Ohio State's 2009 spring game. I'm on my way to the stadium when my phone rings.

"Lynda passed away yesterday. I guess was very peaceful. We thought you should know."

My reaction was equal parts melancholy and relief. "Well, at least she doesn't have to deal with any of that shit anymore."

There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. "She, um, she turned 49 yesterday."

"You're kidding me," I said angrily. "Yesterday? She died on her fucking birthday?"

"Yeah, and it was what she wanted. She knew she was dying for awhile but held on until yesterday. Then she just let go."

"She must have really, really wanted to make it to 49," I figured. "Fighting until the very end."

"No, that's not it. She specifically wanted to die yesterday. On purpose. So there would only be one day."

I was confused. "One day? Her birthday? I don't get it."

"She didn't want her family to have to remember her twice."

Silence. I said nothing, only because I was having a hard time trying to make words.

"Now they only have to be sad one day every year. You know, instead of two. That's what she wanted. For them."

A few minutes later I walked into the largest college football scrimmage in history with tears in my eyes.

It's the first week of the 2013 college football season.

John Simon isn't running out of the field this Saturday. Neither are Zach Boren, Etienne Sabino or Travis Howard. It's been quite awhile since an Ohio State game was played without any of them.

The first kickoff of the season is always bittersweet for me because it's the first time many of those guys we've seen for years aren't there. Boren's farewell has been immortalized in print. That was his goodbye.

Simon limped onto the field with tears and without pads on Senior Day and won't return. They're all gone. They're ghosts. The first kickoff of the season has a way of cruelly reaffirming their permanent absence.

And yes, they're replaced by young, fresh players [obligatory Dontre Wilson mention] who will also eventually be replaced right around the time we hope they never leave, either. A player never truly owns his jersey number; he simply holds onto it for the next player and tries to make wearing it a bigger deal for that guy.

But as fleeting as each season is with replacements, kickoff also reminds me of those who can't be replaced. I've known very few people as enthusiastic about college football as former Buckeye lineman Jason Winrow, who died in his sleep last season at 41.

A new season starting reminds me of Kris Hughes, a native New Yorker who blindly decided to attend Ohio State because he was hopelessly in love with the football team.

And every season - as well as every week while I'm occupying this space - I think of Lynda Stickelmaier, whom I don't believe ever watched an entire Ohio State football game in any of her 49 years. Her life was largely already occupied by spreading laughter and fighting cancer. College football reminds me of her.

This magnificent piece of American culture, in addition to being our nation's towering achievement in athletic and social engineering, is also our greatest vehicle for temporary hellos and permanent goodbyes. It's life and death without the grim inevitability of mortality.

College football is a ghost story we just can't stop telling or listening to, which is why we should constantly try to get better at telling it. That's why we're here. That's why I write. It was Lynda who helped me figure that all out, whether she meant to or by accident.

So welcome, 2013 college football season. Autumn's here. It's time to cry.

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