The Ohio State Marching Band approaches St. John Arena to perform at Skull Session.
Reprinted from the November 2002 issue of Columbus Monthly.
A home Ohio State football game is Columbus’s own version of Game Day, when Ohio Stadium becomes the city’s village green, the place to gather even for those who don’t know the difference between blitzing and getting blitzed. This community celebration has everything and nothing to do with football. Yes, the game matters (really matters), but what happens before the game has become a cultural attraction of its own. It’s a scene that’s a confluence of commerce and carnival—part tradition, part block party and part “Spring Break” video.
Pick a moment before the start of the midafternoon OSU game on Sept. 14. OSU athletic director Andy Geiger runs into the head football coach he fired. A crowd roars for the marching band in St. John Arena.
A lot of people in a lot of places drink warm beer. A woman drops her top. A mob wearing scarlet jerseys chants as ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcasts live from an outdoor stage.
This particular Game Day festival ends at 3:37 pm, with the kickoff of a game that will be an impressive Buckeye win over Washington State. But the action started hours before freshman running back Maurice Clarett took his first strides.
6:54 am: Dawn has broken on a cloudy morning. A college-age male walks alone on Lane Avenue, just east of High Street, wearing an OSU football jersey. The university lots with their estimated 32,000 parking spaces already are manned by attendants in orange vests standing next to signs announcing the $10 cost. A Lane Avenue house near Neil Avenue is draped with a banner (“The Party Barn”), its tiny patch of yard littered with the aluminum remnants of celebrations past.
On the south side of St. John Arena, with Ohio Stadium as a backdrop, the stage is in place for ESPN’s GameDay, which will start its live show previewing college football games in about three and a half hours. Forty or 50 fans in scarlet jerseys, mostly guys, have staked out spots along the railing or in the bleachers. Ben and Lindsey sit on a curb eating doughnuts, while their friends Mitch and Brian toss a football. “We want to try to get on TV,” says Ben.
There’s a hint of rain in the air.
7:00: Mike “Smitty” Smith, the building coordinator for Ohio Stadium, arrives at his office. Franklin County sheriff’s deputies and their specially trained German shepherds start a bomb sweep of the stadium. The facility has been searched for explosives before each game since Sept. 11, 2001, and this one has more security than normal because it’s the first contest after the 9/11 anniversary. The uneventful search takes nearly three hours.
7:30: On Woody Hayes Drive near the river, a generator’s hum breaks the quiet as a cluster of people already in tailgating mode watch TV under a tent.
7:45: About 15 RVs are crammed tight in a parking lot just northwest of the Schottenstein Center as “Cheeseburger in Paradise” blasts over a sound system. A clump of men stand in front of a scarlet and gray school bus. Although it’s not yet 8 am, each holds a beer bottle. The party bus belongs to John Pierson, who owns two taverns, Halftime and Second Half.
This is a new location for the RV crew, which for years held its tailgates at a St. John Arena parking lot. Lane Avenue construction and a need for handicapped-parking spots forced the big party machines to congregate in the netherworld of west campus. Pierson’s opinion of the new location? “It sucks.”
8:00: As two men shove a Sidewalk Grille cart into place by a Lane Avenue curb just east of the Olentangy River, bacon fries on the griddle of a nearby food stand.
8:10: Smitty checks a panel that monitors Ohio Stadium’s door alarms, generators, elevators and HVAC and electrical systems, among other things. The recently completed stadium renovation has brought more operational worries, such as whether the heating and cooling units for the 81 luxury boxes work properly. Company reps are on hand in case of a malfunction.
8:13: In front of the Varsity Club, a man with a neatly trimmed haircut fans out a handful of tickets (face value $45 apiece) and makes a sales pitch to a guy with long gray hair, who asks, “How much?”
“Sorry, but they’re 40-yard-line.”
As the nonbuyer walks away, the seller isn’t discouraged. Demand figures to be high today, and he says to no one in particular about his immediate economic prospects: “Scalpers’ revenge. Today is our day.”
8:18: A solitary band member in full uniform walks—not as crisply as he will several hours from now—toward Ohio Stadium.
8:22: Across the street from the growing crowd at the GameDay stage, a construction worker hoping to collect a few bucks isn’t as optimistic as his fellow scalper near the Varsity Club. Looking to buy tickets to resell for a profit, he’s afraid most folks won’t be dumping their passes. His sign (“I need tickets”) is upside-down.
8:33: While a recording of the OSU fight song plays from a nearby tailgating site, two Dodge compacts slam into each other at the intersection of Neil and Lane avenues. A tailgater plugging a keg lets out a cheer.
8:45: Drums reverberate in the band’s practice room in Ohio Stadium as a warm-up session begins. The 225 members are in the stifling navy blue (no, not black) wool uniforms they will wear for the next 10 hours in the late-summer heat.
Belonging to the band isn’t cheap, with each member spending about $1,000 a year on, among other necessities, practice uniforms and shiny black shoes, says Kelly Welch, a fourth-year mellophone player.
9:00: Judy Bunting, head coach of the OSU cheerleading squad since 1987, joins the cheerleaders at their first event of the day in the Longaberger Alumni House. Twenty cheerleaders will perform at five other OSU-sponsored events before kickoff.
9:15: Several sousaphone players use Windex to clean their instruments to remove the residue of baking soda applied the night before. The goal is maximum sheen. Some of the players appear to weigh not much more than their 45-pound instruments. “Most of the section have some back issues,” one confesses.
It is one of the 24 sousaphone players who gets the enviable and celebrated honor of dotting the “i” during Script Ohio. “Whenever they have their i-dotting event—or performance—this is as big to those people as graduation,” says band director Jon Woods.
He adds, “Everyone can graduate. Not everyone can dot the ‘i.’ ”
9:20: “We’ve got an incident,” says a voice with mock seriousness over one of the three communication devices Smitty carries. “There is bomb-dog poop on the field. Repeat. There is bomb-dog poop on the field.” A cleanup group is dispatched.
9:30: Victor Uhas and his wife, Carolyne, pull up to their building at the northwest corner of Neil and Oakland avenues. There’s already a customer waiting for them. Uhas, a campus landlord, says he’s been parking cars on his property for 20 years. “I still have a sign that says, ‘Parking, $3’—that’s how long I’ve been doing it.” Now, he charges $20 for each of his 40 spots; many customers are regulars who paid in advance for all eight home games. His lot is jammed with Beemers, Saabs and the sort. He estimates he’ll make about $6,400 this season.
Uhas says he’s never been to an Ohio State football game. “Not even interested,” he says. “My wife and I have our own saying: ‘Go Bucks! From your pocket to ours!’ ”
9:31: Back at Ohio Stadium, Smitty’s group splits into teams to make sure the 700 to 800 doors in the facility are secure. Two hours before kickoff, the same group will unlock every gate as the fire code dictates. The bars of the turnstiles, installed before the game begins, later will be removed so no one would get crushed in an emergency.
Fox Sports Net TV calls Smitty with a question about audio feeds from certain camera positions. In an unusual occurrence, two television crews will film the game: ABC (the live broadcast) and Fox Sports Net (for tape delay in Washington the next day).
9:59: Band director Woods takes the podium in the rehearsal room. In the hallways, stragglers race to assume their seats before his baton flies upward to begin practice.
10:00: The Washington State equipment crew arrives in the visitors’ locker room.
10:45: The lights dim in the band practice hall as the $150,000 audiovisual equipment is put to use. Students watch a video of their Friday practice session. Catcalls ring out when the filming reveals marchers straying from formation, and there are demands that the offenders stand. No one does, but the point is made.
11:00: While one of Smitty’s radios crackles at 11 am with an inquiry—“What’s for lunch?”—a large noisy crowd across the street forms behind the ESPN GameDay stage. There’s a constant roar as the TV cameras broadcast Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit debating the key games of the day.
11:20: The band lines up for inspection. Lapses are not taken lightly. Socks must be black, suspenders must be worn. All pants are hemmed at four inches off the floor. An inspector, Eric Lefferts, moans when he sees a band mate’s precariously attached hat plume. Together they fix the plume and no report is written. Another band member is not so fortunate; he’d neglected to shave this morning.
The composition of the band changes based on failed inspections and weekly musical challenges. This year’s alternates, in full uniform, stand ready.
11:25: The first of about 1,500 concessions people, mostly affiliated with charities, start to arrive at the stadium.
11:30: It looks like a mass exodus from Clintonville as scores of folks walk south on the serene bike trail along the Olentangy toward campus. Many of the walkers carry at least one 12-pack of beer. Perhaps this could be called tailgating without a tailgate—or trailgating.
11:31: In a few hours, head drum major Adam Prescott will throw a metal rod as high as a tall building and try to catch it while wearing a bulky uniform and a cumbersome hat bigger than his head—with more than 100,000 people watching. Mistakes happen; during his first performance, at last season’s opener against Akron, Prescott’s big hat fell off. Now, he is making toss after toss on the practice field just south of the stadium near Larkins Hall. In the off-season, he practiced four hours a day. (His hard work will soon pay off; the halftime performance will turn out to be flawless.)
11:50: The Pickerington High School band and drill team has filed into bleacher seats on the floor of St. John Arena; the members will join the OSU band for that hyper pep rally known as Skull Session. The Pickerington band director allows the high schoolers to wander about for the next 40 minutes, until 12:30, but cautions against joining the rowdy crowd at GameDay. He says, “There’s all sorts of things going on. . . . You’re supposed to get an education, but not that kind of education.”
11:58: The doors open at French Field House for the Buckeye Club’s annual reception honoring donors to OSU’s grant-in-aid and scholarship programs. Chipper OSU cheerleaders say, “Go Bucks!” as they distribute copies of the book Expanding Your Horizons by alumnus Donald Steinberg; it’s about the 1942 national championship team. Two big video screens show highlights from Buckeye sporting events for the estimated 3,200 guests feasting on beef brisket and pulled pork from City Barbeque.
11:59: The GameDay crowd chants “Corso sucks” after he implies that highly ranked Washington State will win. After Herbstreit, holding his twin boys in OSU jerseys on his lap, predicts an Ohio State victory, Corso wins back the students by plopping a Brutus head on his own head.
Noon: Seven hours down but at least three more to go for parking attendant Brad Jackson, who arrived at the RV lot by 5 am. He’s hot and tired. “Most of the guys aren’t doing it for the money,” says Jackson, a county employee who’s worked at games for four years. “They’re doing it to get to go to the game” for free.
And he’s agitated. Jackson says the displaced tailgaters aren’t as friendly, don’t joke as much, no longer offer food. “It used to be fun when we were over at St. John’s,” Jackson says.
Back at Ohio Stadium, Smitty learns the OSU police chief has called for another bomb sweep, this time of the garbage cans beside the gates.
12:03: Parties on Neil Avenue spill out onto porches and into yards. In front of one house, college-age men throw their bodies on a Slip ’N Slide on a grassy incline.
12:15: Lane Avenue is no longer a street, but a roiling sea of scarlet and gray. Brats cook on sidewalk carts and the guy selling Buckeye nut necklaces hollers as the Buckeye crowd blitzes the various radio station-sponsored beer fests, including WTVN’s Hineygate.
Young women parade around with scarlet block-O’s stamped on their cheeks, young men chug beer and retired couples dawdle along with their radio headphones already on. A fresh-faced guy pulls beers out of a black trash bag and hands them to a group wearing Buckeye necklaces and no shirts at the corner of Neil and Lane. There are 44 people in line at the 7-Eleven to avoid paying $5 for a cup of brew at the WTVN gig next door; call it the poor man’s Hineygate.
Cops are present, but on this day, just like any other football Saturday, the city’s open-container laws are on holiday.
12:20: At the RV lot, Quintin Jessee flips a chicken wing on his grill while entertaining about 30 friends. “Problem is, they don’t all come in the morning to help us set up,” he jokes, sipping a Coors Light. His converted scarlet and gray school bus features a stereo system and a satellite dish. He has plans to install an air conditioning unit.
12:23: The Party Barn at Lane Avenue is rocking again with Ja Rule belting from the stereo as a group of OSU students dance drunkenly on a low wall. “Champions bleed scarlet and gray!” yells one guy for no apparent reason.
12:35: “Play that funky music, white boy” blares from the speakers of Terry Russell’s school bus—also scarlet and gray. Russell lures a couple of passers-by into getting down to the music before he abandons Wild Cherry and decides to seek out a beer cozy for his bottle of Corona. Russell, who started buying tickets from scalpers as a seventh-grader, hasn’t missed a game—home or away—in 30 years. He boasts about having caught the eye of an ESPN camera man earlier today and says media officials at Tempe, Arizona, have promised him his bus can lead the Fiesta Bowl parade should Ohio State get that far this season. “That’s our dream, really, to get to the national championship and follow the Buckeyes,” he says.
12:39: Athletic director Andy Geiger arrives at the Buckeye Club reception, shaking hands as he makes his way through the crowd to the speakers’ table.
12:41: At the southwest corner of Lane and High a scalper in a brim hat is talking on a cellphone. A big man in a Buckeyes T-shirt approaches and says he’s looking for five seats together—anywhere but south stands—and is willing to pay $100 each. The broker, who interrupts his phone conversation, doesn’t have the tickets but says another seller will arrive with them shortly. “Ten minutes. Can you wait 10 minutes? He’ll be here,” he says before returning to the cellphone conversation. The customer’s friends appear skeptical. “I don’t know,” says one. “I think he’s scamming everybody.”
12:45: Bodies squeeze into the Holiday Inn parking lot. It is rare to see anyone, either at Hineygate or on its fringes, without a beer. Yet police officers are trying to stop people from entering or leaving the party area with a not-so-frosty beverage. A middle-aged man in a scarlet sweatshirt claims the amber-colored liquid in his plastic cup is water. The cop makes him dump it while a wiseguy in line yells, “It’s well water!” Even the cops laugh.
12:50: While some members of Smitty’s staff devour pizzas in his office, the Buckeye Club high rollers listen to scholarship recipient and freshman football player Adam Olds say, “There’s no place I’d rather be on a Saturday afternoon than here with all of you kicking Washington State butt.”
12:52: A late-model black SUV makes three wheel-spinning, turf-chewing attempts to climb a steep hill to park in the last available spot in a yard on Neil. At one point, the truck tilts onto two wheels. Victor Uhas yells from across the street, “Fellas, fellas! That’s enough!” They nod, in deference.
12:54: The beer line at Hineygate is getting long—and growing ugly about the slow service. A guy on his cellphone hunches over. “What’s the Cal-Michigan State score? Oh, shit. Well, you better make it 300 dollars on the Bucks.”
1:00: Back in the stadium, the members of Row R, all mellophone players, sit and eat in a crowded hallway, where banana peels from the boxed lunches have been scattered in a slapstick gauntlet.
1:04: Two twentysomething women start making out in the middle of Hineygate. A guy with a Bud Light carton on his head tilts it up to get a better look.
1:05: Geiger ends the Buckeye Club program by shouting, “Go Buckeyes! Let’s go Bucks! Go Bucks!” The crowd roars. Shortly afterward, a line forms to greet Geiger, who signs autographs and chats for the next 17 minutes.
1:06: A white-haired doctor backs into Uhas’s final space and then hands him his keys, which are placed on a peg board inside a utility shed. “I stay because of the liability,” Uhas says about his long day. “I’ve got over a million dollars’ worth of cars sitting here, and I’m responsible for them. My insurance wouldn’t cover that.”
1:10: Hineygate’s house band, the venerable Danger Brothers, breaks into “Do You Love Me?” by the Contours. As a middle-aged couple begins their version of the mashed potato, a young blonde climbs on her boyfriend’s shoulders. Once settled, she flashes the crowd her breasts. “Dude, I only got a side view,” one guy says disappointedly. It won’t be his last opportunity.
1:14: Near the front of the Hineygate stage, a guy in a Washington State shirt fires a Nerf football at his friend only 10 feet away. The foam projectile hits him in the groin. The crowd cheers.
1:17: Smitty pauses to look at the field from a concourse. “This is my favorite time,” he says. “We’ve done our job, and I can sit here for a minute or two and enjoy it. Now, 100,000 people are coming here to be entertained.” Meanwhile, at the RV lot, a woman approaches Judy Rohrer to ask a familiar question: Where can I get pants like those? Rohrer wears what could be called Buck-ouflage—a pattern of red, gray and white that’s similar to the colors on a former OSU bus that’s now known as the Whoop-Ass Wagon. Rohrer and her husband, along with four other couples, belong to the Buckeye Whoop-Ass Wagon Organization. This year, Rohrer painted a depiction of Eddie George on the Whoop-Ass Wagon. “We’ve been offered 15,000 dollars for it, but we won’t take it,” she says. “It means everything to us.”
1:20: While Smitty circles the perimeter, making sure the gates are unlocked, the band lines up on the field to begin its march to St. John Arena. It’s almost time for Skull Session.
1:25: A Shamrock Towing truck drives down Oakland. “We like to see them,” says Uhas. “It helps us, because we park them legally. Last year, some guy parked cars up and down the bike trail, charging 20 dollars a pop. Every car got towed, and, of course, the guy was nowhere to be found.”
1:30: Fans begin to file in as the stadium gates open. Many, though, remain outside—two long lines, eight deep—to view the band as it precisely marches from the north-end gate toward St. John. More people are clustered to cheer the band than are at GameDay.
1:32: Kirk Herbstreit, from the GameDay stage, bows to the crowd. A chant of “Herbstreit” starts as OSU cheerleaders run by waving pom-poms. Chris Fowler pumps his fist at them. A few minutes later one girl asks her friend a question about Herbstreit. Says the female friend: “I don’t know, but he’s kind of hot. I would do him.”
1:35: Geiger enters the Ohio Stadium training room to talk to team physician John Lombardo. The topic is Lombardo’s son and his high school football game the previous night. “He ran down Archie’s nephew straight from behind and the whole place went nuts,” Lombardo says.
1:36: It’s not called a Skull Session because it rattles your brain, but it should be. The band will run through all the music it’ll play during pregame and halftime (hence, Skull Session, one last chance to think about the performance). Each row also gets an opportunity to stand and wail. It’s clear they relish the chance to distinguish themselves from the musical sea of uniformity.
The Pickerington High School band gets to play, too; it’s chosen a selection of songs from West Side Story. Nothing gets a football crowd more psyched than a good Bernstein medley.
1:43: Equipment managers carry the down markers from the locker room to the field.
1:44: OSU players arrive at the locker room wearing shirts and ties, some with suit jackets.
1:48: Geiger and football coach Jim Tressel head to a room to shake hands with recruits on campus for an unofficial visit. On the way, Tressel tells a reporter, “If we do a trick play today and it works, you can say Andy drew it up on a napkin in a meeting with the coaches. And, if it doesn’t work, you can say the same thing.” Tressel laughs.
1:50: Jack Arute, the sideline reporter for ABC’s upcoming broadcast, talks with booth announcer Brent Musburger on his headset. Sweat is beginning to soak through Arute’s blue shirt on the hot day. (There is no longer a hint of rain.) Outside Ohio Stadium, Columbus police officer Robert Barrett works his way up Northwood Avenue. “I’ll write 25, 30 tickets during my game-time shift, from about 1 to 5,” he says. Soon, a brown truck from Webb’s Towing pulls up and hooks Barrett’s latest victim. A bunch of rowdies at a nearby house chant, “Tow trucks suck, tow trucks suck.” Barrett smiles and then tickets the next car in line.
1:56: Geiger tells a staff member escorting Buckeye Club members into the recruiting area that the boosters can’t talk to the prospects. “Just observe,” he says.
2:00: At Skull Session, Dave Kaylor, Channel 10 anchor and OSU alumni band member, acts as the announcer. The musicians sit in folding chairs, careful not to scuff the hats stationed at their feet. While introducing the band directors, Kaylor accidentally kicks someone’s hat. Some players almost fall out of their chairs trying to suppress laughter.
Outside St. John, cheerleaders tumble and form pyramids as a crowd gathers to watch their warm-up session, while on the Ohio Stadium turf Geiger stops Archie Griffin to talk and Washington State players walk about. One points to the south stands and says, “Just that part is bigger than our field.”
2:04: Geiger sits on the OSU team bench to watch pregame practice.
2:07: A Washington State assistant coach says the team is used to getting one-finger salutes from opposing fans, but Columbus is different. Here, he says, the women shoot the bird as often as the men. “I want to marry one of those girls,” he says.
Back at the RV lot, Garnet Davis knits an afghan.
2:10: An elderly man with a kind-looking face and a large car takes one of the last parking spots at the St. Thomas More Newman Center. Like a perfect gentleman, he walks over to help his wife. They head toward the Shoe, but about 10 minutes later the man returns. “Forgot my tickets,” he says sheepishly to attendant David Lonsdale and then hands him a folded bill. “A little something extra to give to the church,” he says. “But next time I see you, will you please ask me if I have my tickets?”
Here, the $20 fee goes to the children’s religious education program. “The only pay I get is the satisfaction of giving back,” says Lonsdale, a volunteer. “I have two children in the program myself.”
2:14: OSU kicker Mike Nugent attempts a practice 49-yard field goal. It’s good!
2:15: A guy about 20 years old dressed in a Buckeye superhero outfit yells at Jack Arute: “Hey, jack my root.” Arute shakes his head as the fan gets high-fives from his friends.
West of the stadium, Mike Iaello rants about being stuck in the Schott parking lot. “They screwed up everything, shoving us out of the other lots,” says Iaello, who’s taken a bus from Plank’s Cafe in German Village to the game. He’s concerned for people like his 84-year-old mother-in-law, Betty Wuellner. “We have folks on the bus that are 75-plus. . . . We’re afraid for them, because the walk’s too long.”
Wuellner, however, doesn’t seem worried. She just sips her bourbon and water and talks to her friend Lois Montgomery, 86. Wuellner has been going to games since 1936. She and Montgomery often tailgate together, taking the Plank’s bus and then stopping in the bar after the game for a drink or two. Her only complaint is that the sense of community has been disrupted. “Everybody parked in the same place, practically, and you knew everybody,” she says.
2:19: Geiger greets Rod Commons, the Washington State sports information director, with a hug. Commons worked for Geiger when Geiger was the AD at Brown University in the 1970s.
2:20: Two guys sell T-shirts for $10 in front of the Buckeye Corner on Lane Avenue. “Michigan sucks” outsells “Ann Arbor is a whore” by a 5-to-2 margin.
2:23: Geiger enters the narrow press box hallway and nearly bumps into John and Helen Cooper. The two men barely stop to shake hands. Mrs. Cooper, looking straight ahead, keeps walking.
2:24: At Cooker on Lane Avenue, there’s a line for the men’s restroom. A guy at the back announces loudly, “Have your money in your hand and your ID out to make the transaction go faster.” He’s greeted with silence. “Come on,” he says. “It’s a bank joke. I work in a bank.”
2:27: Parking spaces are scarce. Lonsdale has one spot left, but it’s only big enough for a compact. He turns away several unhappy drivers before a Saturn slips in. Drivers coast by, hoping to be a winner in this game of musical chairs, and scowl when he says the lot’s full. “I’d better get my signs down,” he says. “Tensions are starting to rise.”
2:30: Geiger meets with Rod Commons and Sports Illustrated writer Ivan Maisel, who was the sports editor of the Stanford student newspaper when Geiger was that school’s athletic director. Geiger and Commons talk about ESPN star announcer Chris Berman, who was a student broadcaster when the two were at Brown. Maisel then tells Geiger he visited the Jack Nicklaus Museum the previous day. “Monday through Friday, it’s real quiet,” Geiger says. “Somebody came running up to me and said, ‘There’s two cars there!’ ”
Maisel says, “One of them was mine.”
Meanwhile, two stadium employees are getting an earful. They work in an area for confiscated items. “What do you mean I can’t bring in my binoculars?” screams an incredulous Buckeye fan. “This is an abortion.”
2:35: Smitty receives a call. There are no towels in one of the men’s restrooms.
2:36: Check that. Towels are there, but the dispenser is jammed. Someone is sent to fix it.
2:41: Back in the press box hallway, Geiger passes Herbstreit, who will address the football team before the game as the honorary captain. Herbstreit gives Geiger a pat on the rear.
2:45: Smitty receives another call. A toilet is backed up in a restroom in section 17-A. It’s a call no one wants to answer, but someone does. At the same time, Geiger stops to talk with Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk and his wife, who is holding an OSU welcome basket. About the renovated stadium, Geiger says, “This is what you can do for 194 million dollars.” Two minutes later, Geiger takes an elevator to the university’s suite. On the way, he greets officials from the Rose Bowl.
2:50: Parking lot of the 7-Eleven. There are 79 people in line to buy beer. A couple of guys in the middle of the lot have set up their own business: reselling Miller Lites for two bucks each to those who want to avoid the line. “I might make money today on this,” says one guy. “That means I can go drinking later.”
2:56: The crowd in the university’s suite eats corned beef, bratwurst and made-to-order pasta. There’s Starbucks coffee, but no alcohol. Former Ohio governor, now US Sen. George Voinovich talks to a small group. Geiger pulls former OSU board of trustees chairman David Brennan aside to give him a blue velvet box. Inside is a 2002 Big Ten Basketball Championship ring. Brennan, wearing his trademark white cowboy hat, is clearly thrilled.
2:58: A man hunts for tickets at the Jesse Owens memorial sculpture just outside the stadium’s north entrance. Just as he approaches one scalper, another scalper approaches him.
“Wanna buy these?”
“150 for two of them.”
“A little too much.”
3:00: Geiger gets on the elevator again and makes his final stop: the suite where he will watch the game with his wife, Eleanor, and their two sons.
3:05: Zealous security staffers—forcibly keeping fans at bay—line the band’s path back to the Shoe.
3:07: Parking lot, 7-Eleven. Guy in a navy shirt challenges a few of his friends to a beer-drinking contest. He wins and promptly vomits. His disgusted girlfriend says, “I’ll see you later,” and turns to leave with a friend. “Wait, baby,” he says, still doubled over and spitting out beer.
3:09: Jim Tressel’s wife, Ellen, heads to the press box to watch the game with Marnette Perry, president of the Columbus division of Kroger. At the same time at the RV lot, a little girl wearing an OSU cheerleader outfit whines to her parents as they start their hike to the stadium.
“I’m tired of walking,” she complains.
3:11: A scalper is selling two seats in 29-A for $60 each.
“I’ll give you 100 for both,” says a short man with a Southern accent.
It’s a deal. The scalper looks relieved.
3:17: The band stands poised on a north-end ramp, just out of sight of the crowd. This is the reason the members have been up since 6 am, why they wear wool uniforms in September, give up four weeks of their summer and countless hours after school, allow themselves to be inspected for details no eye could spot from even the best seat in the stadium. This is the reason some of these students, at very young ages, decided to play unwieldy, uncool instruments, why drum major Adam Prescott has had knots in his stomach since he went to bed last night. As the stadium clock ticks down to that precise moment—19 minutes and 45 seconds before kickoff—they straighten their plumes, check their spats, pick up their instruments and, then, following Prescott’s lead, begin to march.
They can be heard before they are seen and, amazingly, the thunderous, rapturous applause doesn’t drown out the pounding drumbeats that propel the band onto the field. They will not be drowned out, they will not be taken for granted, they will not be anything less than perfect. Because this is what they came to do.
3:24: Parking lot, 7-Eleven. The crowd thins. “Clarett is gonna go for 200 today,” says a prescient guy in a Michael Wiley jersey as he stiff-arms his friend and plows through one of the last remaining circles of drinkers. (Clarett would gain 230 yards.) “I’m on the 20, the 10 and touchdown,” he screams as he nears a hot dog vendor by the curb.
3:25: In the RV lot, a man throws his Holiday Rambler in reverse and expertly drives back, back, back for about half the length of the spacious lot before finally finding enough space in which to turn around. He is one of the few people to leave the area sober.
3:29: Near the stadium’s front entrance, a man holds up two tickets for south stands. A guy in a red hat offers $55. “I paid 70 for them,” the man says. “I want 80 dollars.”
The guy in the hat snickers and walks away. “Good luck,” he says.
3:37: As a stadium-record 104,553 fans watch Washington State’s Adam Holiday send the opening kickoff airborne, Smitty stands behind the north-side end zone. When the ball sails out of bounds, he turns, begins to walk up a nearby ramp and fields yet one more call.