Remembering the Big Game
Like music, sporting events are wormholes through which I travel back in time.
My friend Scott knocked on my hotel room door in Chicago a few weeks back.
“Watcha doin?” he asked.
“Just catching the end of the game,” I answered.
He had the decency not to ask “what game.” He suggested we head down to the hotel bar for a beer to catch the last quarter. We took the elevator down and threaded our way through wedding guests and over to the oversized television. A few Michigan fans sat right in front of the screen as the waitress put down fresh beers and picked up their empties.
Ohio State was holding on to a lead in a game that was way closer than it should have been. I don’t think I could have named half a dozen Ohio State players and yet this was my team. They wore the scarlet and grey that I’d been raised on and yet one quarter to one third of the players changed each year. Like the cells in my body being replaced with regularity and yet this collection of the new cells is as much me this year as it was four years ago with a completely different set of cells.
This was the team I’d watched as a kid coached by Woody Hayes. I’d watched them coached by Earl Bruce, John Cooper, and now Jim Tressel. Cooper who’d learned the hard way why the big game was so big. You could have a winning record – heck you could have an undefeated record going into that last game – but if you couldn’t beat Michigan none of that mattered. In thirteen tries he only beat Michigan twice.
The rivalry was bitter. Back in the days when sports mattered more to me than it should have, I cared a lot about who won the big game. I remember visiting my friends Laurie and Rick on Saturday mornings. Laurie would walk by their eldest, then two, and say “Go Blue.” The child would repeat something that sounded like “go blue.” Rick would then walk by her and lean over and say “Go Buckeyes.” Dutifuly his daughter would repeat something that I took to be “go buckeyes.” Each parent doing their part to raise their child to follow their religion.
Laurie’s dad died five years ago. I always think of him this time of year. He was a historian with a passion for architecture but I always think of him around football season. He’d played football for Oberlin College and always maintained an interest in the team. Even in the last year of his life he remained the good natured, good looking man I’d known for forty years. A cleft chin, a twinkle in his eye and warmth in his voice.
Ohio State’s center fumbles a second snap. The Michigan fans cheer and buy another round. It looks just as bad on the replay. I sometimes wonder whether it’s a blessing or a curse that we don’t remember clearly.
I remember moments from my thirtieth birthday. My dad took me to my first Ohio State game. It might have been one of my best birthdays ever. We got down to Columbus early enough that we could watch the marching band concert before the game. Then into the stadium. There was an energy in the crowd that I’d never felt before. The Buckeyes lost a close but badly coached game to USC that was eventually called due to weather. I think they would have played out Ohio State’s drive if they’d have recovered an on-sides kick.
I don’t really remember the final details of the game except that we talked about it as we walked back to the car in the rain. Just me and my dad.
A flashback within a flashback – I’m transported from that moment back to decades earlier when we would walk over to the Oberlin College football games on those crisp Ohio fall days. The division three players looked as impressive to my five and six year old eyes as Ohio State would twenty-five years later.
The waitress finally brings our beer. Scott catch up a bit on how each other’s families are doing while Michigan stops an Ohio State drive. The Michigan fans cheer and decide it’s too soon to have yet another round. They are right. They didn’t see the flag on the field. The buckeyes get great field position and end up scoring. I don’t remember whether they ended up running it in or throwing it in.
It’s 1990 and my dad’s father has just died. We had called him big grandpa. Mom’s dad was little grandpa. I remember the mailbox outside of their apartment with his name B.G. Steinberg. When I was little I was pretty sure that the B.G. stood for big grandpa. It didn’t. It stood for Bernard George.
Bernard died before Thanksgiving but his body and his family had to make it up to Boston for the funeral. I remember the ceremony in the funeral home in Brookline. I remember us grandchildren walking next to the casket as it is wheeled out to the hearse.
At the cemetery I took a hard look at my dad and his siblings. I don’t think I’d looked at them with adult eyes until then. This was my last grandparent to die. I remember looking at my parents generation and beginning to understand that the next family funeral I attend will be for one of them.
I am, of course, wrong.
We left my grandfather’s grave and headed out to Marilyn’s house in Framingham to sit shiva. Friends showed up with food – it’s what you do. Some of us sat quietly in the living room watching the big game. Ohio State – Michigan.
It was another game that was closer than it should have been. A low scoring game that Ohio State had plenty of opportunities to win. Ohio State started moving the ball down the field. They might turn this loss into a victory. And then my great-uncle Mel walked up to the television and turned it off.
“What the hell are you doing?” my uncle Barry asked.
“It’s time to say prayers,” Mel said.
“So say them,” Barry said.
“I need to face east,” Mel said.
“So face east,” Barry said.
“This way is east,” Mel said pointing to the television set.
“There’s an east in every room in this house,” Barry said.
Of course they were both right. Mel had lost his brother and this is what he needed to do at that moment. He needed to say the prayers and he needed to say them right here right now.
Barry had lost his dad and was doing what he needed to do. Spending some time with his brothers doing what they’d done together so many times before. They didn’t have to look at each other while they watched the game and traded stories. They faced east together and watched the big game. At least that’s what they were doing when Mel turned it off.
By the time we were able to check the score later that afternoon Ohio State had lost. Cooper was blamed for poor coaching. At least that’s what I remember.
But here’s the thing. It couldn’t possibly have happened that way.
In 1990, Ohio State played Michigan on a Saturday the way they always do. Jews don’t bury their dead on the Sabbath. So how do I have such a vivid memory of the exchange over the game?
Other members of the family have told me the story of the exchange in front of the t.v. set. Half of them remember that the game being played at the time was the Ohio State Michigan game and the rest don’t remember which game it was.
The things I remember may not have happened. They may not have happened the way I remember them. Even the vivid memories that I can see so clearly might be wrong.
I am now in a race against my mind to capture as much as I think I can remember about Elena before all I have are memories that might not have happened.
A cheer goes up across the bar and the Michigan fans order another round. Their team has just scored again. Time is running out. Scott and I are meeting a group out front to head to dinner. We put on our jackets while watching the final moments of the game. Ohio State holds on to win. I think Michigan tried an on-side kick.
I don’t really remember.