United flight 3944 was boarding for Roanoke.
A week earlier Alison Parker and Adam Ward from CBS affiliate WDBJ had been murdered on live television while filming an on-air interview. The flight crew was quietly discussing the tragedy as passengers began to file onto the plane for what's barely a half-hour trip from takeoff to touchdown. Parker and Ward had been laid to rest that week.
The first-ever CFP champions would be defending their crown while also seeking revenge in Blacksburg (my destination) about an hour drive from the airport, on Monday night. It was Labor Day weekend, I had flown to Dulles from Newark and was one of maybe three people already on the connection to Roanoke. The solemn flight attendant had not quite put her greeting face on yet for the majority of passengers who would be filing on-board for a quick trip.
That double-murder had shaken the country. It dominated the news and was on my mind all week, knowing I was heading to the town still raw with shock and grief. The flight attendant flipped to greeter mode as the empty seats around me quietly filled up.
I turned my attention to my phone for the few minutes we had remaining on the ground when I heard an O-H! belted out from the jet bridge outside the plane. No I-O followed it, as we were not outside the Horseshoe, but in Washington D.C. boarding a plane to Central Virginia. The flight attendant glanced beyond the line of passengers for a moment before refocusing on her greetings.
And then barely a minute later:
"Buckeyeman" is on my flight to Roanoke in his costume. He Go Bucks'd the flight attendant, who visibly cringed while forcing a smile.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) September 6, 2015
He more or less shouted it at her face as he marched toward his seat in the middle of the plane, wearing a smirk and...a little less than usual.
I had seen this particular Superfan at games and on television, but only in the full costume with makeup. It took me a moment to grasp what was different about him this time, and then I figured out that TSA would probably frown on face paint. As a Nasrallah, I've got an unwritten code I follow when participating in air travel that involves not wearing gaudy costumes or shouting at people. The strategy works for me. He didn't need it.
"What the fuck is wrong with that guy?" The passenger across the aisle mumbled to himself, his head craned backward unable to stop staring. I didn't have the energy to explain this phenomenon I grew up with in Columbus. And I was still thinking about what had happened in Roanoke, and the hushed conversation among the flight crew.
I put my face back in my phone and decided to just tweet through it, years before I learned this was a presidential method for coping with unwanted anxiety. The Superfan didn't know about that somber murder discussion prior to boarding. The shootings were probably well out of his mind.
He definitely didn't care that this was not a flight to or from Columbus. That afternoon, all that most of the passengers on UA3944 knew was there was a loud, older man in a clown wig on an airplane almost two months before Halloween, and they didn't understand why.
Sponsors were lining up for Eat Too, Brutus (which several years later is now called the Eleven Dubgate; shout-out to ambitious university trademark enforcement lawyers for claiming cheeky Shakespearian puns among Ohio State's vast properties).
Food and beverage were covered. Entertainment was taken care of. Shirts were being printed. Former players were messaging us with intentions of showing up. Tailgate planning was going great! My phone rang, and it was one of our sponsors.
"Hey, good news. Big Nut has offered to come by and help out."
Big Nut. Did he say Big Nut? Or did he say someone's surname? Biknaht? My internal monologue wrestled with who he might be referring to.
"Remind me," I asked, "that's a Superfan? The bald one, right? The one with the decals on his jowls?"
"Haha that's him," he replied. "And even better, it won't cost us anything - he'll be there to meet and take photos with our attendees in exchange for a donation which he'll give over to us for charity."
I didn't say anything.
"Are you still there?"
My internal monologue was now moderating a debate. Are 11W readers Superfan fans? Is this good or will it backfire all to hell? It's probably fine, and there's no cost to it. No cost is good. No cost? Hey, wait a second.
"Did you say 'it won't cost us anything' like...it would normally cost something?" I asked. "Does Big Nut have an appearance fee? People pay him to show up places?"
I always assumed that Superfans had simply taken the same obsession we all share with the Buckeyes and elevated it to a level that included costuming and hoping television cameras would find them. I've been writing about Ohio State football for almost half of my life now; it's blessed me in a number of ways while completely extinguishing any mystique I once viewed college football through. Seeing firsthand how the sausage is made, etc.
But I had never grasped that Superfans - older men, funded well enough and unencumbered by life's obligations to have tickets to every game and the means to travel to roadies - could have also monetized their one-man costume parties. What kind of petty cash could they possibly command? Do they even need it? Why would anyone with the means they must have be interested in that...unless they used it for good?
So maybe they're charitable? Superfans might not be the vain camera hounds pessimists assume them to be; they're paying forward. We should try harder to see the good in people, even if they're almost clinically self-absorbed. My internal monologue ended the debate.
Big Nut showed up "for free" and took some photos at Eat Too, Brutus with the fans who requested. The cash he collected at the tailgate all went to charity. Last year he gave $51,000 to Ohio State's general scholarship fund. No one paid him to do that.
ESPN invited me to attend the Columbus 30 for 30 premiere of Youngstown Boys. It had only been two years since I spent an entire summer dressing down the network for its Tatgate coverage, which it had conflated into being the O.J. Simpson murder trial all over again.
Those two years were healing and moved quickly. Back in 2013 history was already beginning to look favorably on how 11W covered and handled Ohio State's scandal as it happened. We were friends with ESPN again.
I sat next to Maurice Clarett and behind the Tressels for the viewing of a film about them, about halfway up in the theater. In front of us, rows upon rows of the backs of people's heads, and a blank screen waiting for illumination. All of the heads looked the same, except for one that stood out - a man in all-white garb, wearing a bright white ten-gallon hat.
It was Buck-I-Guy, née John Chubb. The Superfan-iest of the Ohio State Superfans.
"You know him?" I asked Clarett, head-gesturing toward Buck-I-Guy.
"Yeah," he said. "He visited me in Toledo when I was in prison."
Was not expecting to hear that. "Wow, that was very cool of him."
"I was in for three and a half years," Clarett said. "When you go away everyone just kind of disappears from your life. I didn't hear from a lot of people I expected to hear from." He then head-gestured toward him. "But he came to visit me."
The film ended and the festivities moved to Eddie George's. Clarett, some other former players and I were at the bar when we were joined by the man in the hat and cape. He and the star of the film embraced, and then introductions were made.
Drinking with Buckeye Guy. He's telling me he just got catfished.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) December 13, 2013
We were only months removed from learning Manti Te'o's deceased girlfriend was never actually alive or real. Buck-I-Guy (I hadn't yet learned the correct spelling) was telling us about how someone - he didn't know who - was impersonating him on the Internet and making him look bad. He asked me for help.
I didn't know where to start, whether it was explaining to him what catfishing actually is, coaching him on #brand awareness and shark-jumping, controlling what's controllable, or trying to spin some content out of our conversation with the long offseason just a few weeks away (I'm writing about it five offseasons later, so apparently that's what I ended up doing).
He knew who he was talking to. There's a risk you'll end up in a story when you do that.
Buckeye Guy asked me to say something nice about him on the Internet. I think he had incredible taste in college football teams.— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) December 13, 2013
I began to understand something about him, as he pleaded his case for his character, good intentions, fandom, fun, everything: Buck-I-Guy is not a very good communicator. He's at his most comfortable when in costume, smiling, finger gunz blazing at a television camera. He didn't quite know how to respond to animus. Accusations that he was only out to self-promote confused him.
"But that's exactly what you do man," I said. "Just embrace it. There's a term for Superfans who aren't out for self-promotion. They're just called fans. That's always available."
But it's not for everyone; some of us just aren't wired that way. He asked if he could record a message for Eleven Warriors to try and make his case. I told him I'd give him exactly six seconds (this was when Vine was still around) and he'd have to make it all fit:
A message from Buckeye Guy https://t.co/oAh4tJ1Suc— Ramzy Nasrallah (@ramzy) December 13, 2013
The guy on Facebook is him. The guy on Twitter, who knows. If you're curious and need the answer, ask the only guy wearing a 10-foot white cape at the next Ohio State sporting event.
In my formative years I wanted to love anything as much as Neutron Man loved Ohio State. He was a bit of a unicorn. The attention Orlas King got at games he redirected to the band. He sat in the same seats every Saturday and watched every minute of the damn game. He didn't find the camera; the camera found him.
The men that have filled his void are their own individuals, exercising free will. It rubs some people the wrong way, and this came to a head last week when Buck-I-Guy took the exercise too far at Earle Bruce's celebration of life. It was interesting to see one of his contemporaries distance himself from it all, either out of genuine disgust or self-preservation.
There's a Superfan code, apparently. That's his strategy. I don't need it.
But my internal monologue has made its peace with Superfans. They will always make me cringe. They do good things. They are seasoning I didn't ask for on my favorite meal. I'd like to see Flint get clean drinking water and Puerto Rico's power grid repaired, among a lengthy list of important asks. Make attention-starved Baby Boomers stop playing costume party doesn't show up on my football asks. I'd rather have a receiving corps that can run college routes and catch college throws.
Do Buckeye fans unfairly group all Superfans into the same homogeny? Sure. Do they use their odd, attention-grabbing powers for good? Yes, I've seen it and I know it. Do they exhibit the textbook characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder almost verbatim? Hey man, I'm not a doctor.
But I do know Superfans aren't going away, and like Neutron Man and the rest of us, they'll all eventually be replaced. I'm grateful to be happy in my own skin, all of the time. Maybe we should try to have empathy for those who aren't quite as comfortable.