Monday, September 7, 2009

Navy vs. Ohio State – A Saturday to Remind Me How Lucky I Am

Saturday was one of those days that remind me just how lucky I am.

I started my 13th season doing color on the Navy football radio network, which is remarkable in itself. When Eric Ruden first asked me about joining the network prior to the 1997 season, I thought it was something I’d probably do for a couple of years and then my schedule would make it too tough to continue.

There have been years where my schedule HAS been too tough—especially when my kids first started playing soccer—and I’ve missed some games, but I’ve kept doing it for the simple reason that it’s so much fun. I enjoy the people at Navy—all of them—so much that it’s become an important part of my life.

I had very mixed emotions about what Saturday would bring. Navy was opening with Ohio State and while going to Ohio Stadium would certainly be fun—I hadn’t been there in 18 years—I was afraid that the Mids would struggle. The statistic that I thought summed the matchup best was this: Ohio State has 48 players currently on NFL rosters. Navy has one. The Buckeyes probably had a dozen or so players who will someday play in the NFL suiting up. Navy has, well, none.

For all the brave talk from the Navy players about going up to Columbus to win the game, I had visions of Terrelle Pryor running roughshod over the Navy defense. The guy is bigger (6-6, 235) than almost all the Navy defenders and lots faster. There was also this: Navy had lost its five best offensive players, all at key positions—quarterback, center, fullback, slotback, wide receiver—to graduation. It had lost by far its best defensive player two weeks prior to the game to an honors code violation. At Navy, there’s no hemming and hawing about things like that. You aren’t just off the team, you’re out of school.

Even so, the day had promise. The weather was perfect. The Ohio State people could not have been more gracious—not just with their pre-game on field tribute to Navy but the way they acted. As we walked into the stadium—all of us who do the broadcasts wear a Navy shirt on game day—people welcomed us, wished us luck—the whole bit. When I parked the car, the attendant said, “you want to get out of here fast after the game?” I did. I was dreading the postgame traffic, especially since the highway that runs past the stadium was closed because of construction. “Park here,” he said. “At least you’ll be right out of the lot in a hurry.”

As nice as all that was, as enjoyable as it was to see all the Navy people again, the first half was pretty much as expected. Ohio State led 20-7, one key fumble had really hurt the Mids and Pryor had been virtually unstoppable. When Matt Klunder, the Academy’s commandant, came up to the booth as the halftime guest he delivered a real fire and brimstone speech about never quitting and guaranteeing the Mids would rally.

“Matt,” I said. “We’re all fired up, but you need to get downstairs and say this to the team.”

Apparently Coach Kenny Niamatalolo took care of that. The Mids pieced together an amazing 99 yard drive to close to 20-14. Then, more mistakes and the Buckeyes built the lead to a comfortable 29-14, with the ball on the Navy 15 and eight minutes to play. On the air, I wondered if this wasn’t going to be a game with a deceptive final score that made it look as if Ohio State had won far more easily than had been the case.

I got that one completely wrong. The Mids held on fourth and one when Jim Tressel—as he said later—foolishly passed on a chip shot field goal. One play later, quarterback Ricky Dobbs hit brand new slotback Marcus Curry in stride for an 85 yard touchdown. It was 29-21. An interception of Pryor by Emmett Merchant and then a Dobbs touchdown run. Oh My God. It was 29-27 with 2:23 to play, the Mids were lining up to go for two and you have never heard 105,000 people so silent in your life.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The Mids ran the same two conversion play that had helped them beat Notre Dame two years ago. The Buckeyes had done a good scouting job and were looking for the play. Dobbs’s pass was intercepted and returned for a two point play. End of dream. The final was 31-27.

Sure it was disappointing. But how could you feel bad? Navy had given Ohio State the scare of its life. I felt nothing but pride in what the coaches and players had done—even though I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The day wasn’t over. After we got off the air, I ran into Steve Snapp, who has been part of Ohio State for about 35 years. Steve is in a hell of a battle right now. He’s been through a stroke and is in his second bout with cancer. I had hoped to see him but didn’t know if I would.

Steve and I first met at the 1980 Rose Bowl game. It was hardly like at first sight. Ohio State, undefeated and ranked No.1, lost a great game to USC and Charles White, the great running back. After the game, Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce closed the locker room to the media. This wasn’t good, especially after a game like that.

I was trying to decide whether to give up and go back to the press box and start writing—it was getting close to deadline on the east coast when I saw Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter, standing by himself in the tunnel near the team bus. I walked over and introduced myself and starting asking questions about the game. Schlichter, who I later got to know well while doing a magazine piece on him before his life fell apart because of a gambling addiction, was friendly and talkative.

Suddenly, someone appeared at Schlicter’s side, tugging on his arm. “Come on Art, time to go,” he said.

There was no sign of anyone getting on the team bus at that moment. “Excuse me,” I said. “Where does he have to go?”

“Team meeting.”

“Team meeting? The season’s over. You don’t have another game for nine months.”

“Look,” the guy said, eyeing my credential. “I’m doing what I’ve been told to do. Art’s got to go NOW.”

We were fairly close to nose-to-nose at that point. (Not hard when I’m involved). I got angry and started yelling about how ridiculous that was. You may be stunned to know that a profanity or two slipped out of my mouth. The Ohio State guy got angry at that point too. If not for Art Spander, then of the San Francisco Examiner, stepping in, I’m not sure what would have happened.

Furious, I went upstairs to write. A few minutes later, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the Ohio State guy. “My name is Steve Snapp,” he said. “I owe you an apology. You were just trying to do your job. I’m sorry.”

I was a young hothead (now I guess I’m an old one) in those days, but I’d like to think I recognized someone being a class act when I saw it. “Thanks,” I said. “I know you were just doing your job too.”

He smiled. “I appreciate you understanding that. I’m not saying it was right, it was just what I was told to do.”

We shook hands and were friends from that moment on. When I was researching “A Season on the Brink,” it was Steve who dug into the files from Bob Knight’s undergrad days at Ohio State and pointed me to people who had known him then. I never went to Ohio State without Steve going out of his way to help at all times. Two years ago, when the NCAA first and second rounds were in Columbus, the first thing out of his mouth when I arrived was, “you want me to set you up tomorrow to work out in our pool?” (Ohio State has one of the best pools in the country).

I got to spend a few minutes with Steve after the game and, to be honest, it made me smile, laugh and cry all at once. Oh, one other thing: Steve was a marine. If he had wanted to kick my butt that day in The Rose Bowl I suspect he could have done it with one hand tied behind his back.

As I finally made my way out of the stadium, expecting to spend at least an hour clearing traffic, I came to an intersection and asked a cop if I was headed the right way based on the directions I’d been given.

“Where you going?” the cop asked.

“I-70 East,” I said.

“Listen,” he said. “First, your team played great today. Second, turn right here, then make another right, you’ll be right on SR-315 with no traffic.”

“But it’s closed,” I said.

“No, it’s not,” he said. “We just opened it for a little while but no one knows. Go that way.”

Five minutes later, I was flying down SR-315. Like I said, it was one of those days when I remember just how lucky I really am.


Jimmy said...

That was certainly a fun game to watch....and its great to hear a positive experience at OSU. Sometimes, it gets a bad wrap.

The first weekend would seem to put the BCS on its heels, yet no one is talking. With Boise and BYU taking big wins vs. BCS contenders (supposedly) and others with good showings, it makes the 'parity' argument more palpable.

Bill Liedtke said...

I attended the game, and came to the conclusion that the buttons some of the OSU fans wear that say "Best Fans in the Land" are true, not just a saying. My daughter and I were welcomed and treated wonderfully all day long. I had jokingly told a friend before making the trip that in the Horseshoe we would be with "105,000 of our closest friends (foes?)". It was definitely the former of those two choices. We were all just a bunch of people there to enjoy a football game together, no matter the color of our shirts. John, I really enjoy the work you do on the Navy broadcasts and appreciate the insight you expreess on the air (and in your blog). We too were looking for I-70 East, but it took us a little longer to get there!