I saw the Buckeyes play in the Horseshoe for the first time 15 years ago this month.
Yes, that is 7-year-old me in that photograph.
I don't remember a single play from the game. I couldn't tell you the roster breakdown, the score or even who won, but I do remember being there. I do remember struggling to see the field between the shoulders of spectators much taller than me. I do remember obnoxiously yelling "O-H!" far too many times and silently praying someone would reciprocate with a hearty "I-O."
I remember walking through the South Oval before the game, insisting that I would one day be jumping into that cesspool of a lake yelling obscenities at a particular state to the north. I remember a brief interaction with Jim Tressel and an autograph session in the French Field House, where the players made me feel like I was the coolest person to ever wear a knock-off Ohio State jersey my mom purchased at Meijer.
Forget the day I was accepted into Ohio State, my move-in day or my eventual graduation; I became a Buckeye on April 27, 2002, at the spring game.
Saturday, when I walked into Ohio Stadium for what was probably the 50th time in my life, all those memories came flooding back as I saw an abundance of fathers taking their young children to what was probably the first Buckeye football game of their lives.
The spring game is special for that reason; it's the one time a year when children under 10 outnumber the drunken student body, and fathers on a budget outnumber fat-cat seasons ticket holders. That's why I go every year.
I don't go for the "football" — I play more competitive games on the fields of Fred Beekman Park in the fall (shoutout to my team, Waiver Wire, for winning the 2016 intramural championship) — I go because I want to see a little bit of myself in those kids attending a game in the 'Shoe for the first time.
On Saturday, I got that wish.
Thirty minutes before kickoff, a father and a son found their seats in front of me in the upper portion of C-deck. The boy — no older than 6 — had clearly never been in Ohio Stadium and was in absolute awe. He couldn't stop smiling, looking at things through his toy binoculars and asking questions to his ever-patient father.
Shortly after they sat down, the scoreboard began to flash highlights from last season's Ohio State vs. Michigan game. The child noticed immediately and began jumping up and down. He squealed "Dad! It's time for war!" His dad chuckled and nodded, "you're right, buddy, it sure is."
It was at that moment I realized once again the importance of the annual spring game. For that little boy, this was it. This wasn't just an intrasquad scrimmage, or a glorified practice. For him, this was everything. This was Buckeye football.
I was at the game those highlights depicted. I jumped up and down when Malik Hooker intercepted that pass before the half. I booed my loudest when Jim Harbaugh flung away his play cards in disgust midway through the fourth quarter. I rushed the field immediately after Curtis Samuel leaped into the end zone to secure the victory.
But I promise my eyes never lit up the way that kid's did when he saw the video board displaying highlights of his Buckeyes beating that team from the north. My excitement watching Curtis Samuel bust a big run in a game that actually mattered was no match for his elation as he watched a walk-on haul in a 12-yard curl. He cheered harder for an entire quarter of two-hand touch football than I ever did for a bone-crushing hit.
This was his first Ohio State game, and he was a bigger Buckeye fan than I'd ever met.
To me, that's why the spring game is so awesome. It's the one time a year a kid gets to show his Buckeye pride without his father breaking the bank. And there's a good chance that 15 years later, that kid will look back at that day as the starting point of a long, treacherous journey as a fan of the local team we all love to know.
So as much as I love prognosticating the results of a quarterback battle a year and a half in advance, determining who is going to contribute offensively next fall and trying to evaluate new talent based on the sample size of one "live-action" game, that's not what the spring game is for.
The spring game is for the kids — for that kid.
We're all waiting around for college football to begin in the fall, but college football just began this spring for a fresh crop of Buckeye fans.