By Chris Howard
I must admit coming from the South where SEC sports coverage rules the airwaves, I was completely ignorant to the importance of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. As a wet-nosed freshman from Louisiana in 1994, it was just another game. I didn’t understand all the hoopla; we were 8-3 with no shot at winning a Big Ten Championship or going to the Rose Bowl.
Unbeknownst to me, my awakening to the importance of this rivalry would materialize on a cold afternoon in a stadium shaped like a horseshoe. Going into our ’94 matchup with Ohio State, our captain, leader and Saturday morning motivator Walter Smith had suffered a season-ending knee injury weeks prior to the game.
Losing him was like losing a spark plug to an engine. Walter was always amped and ready to go. He played with an enormous amount of energy, passion and controlled violence (as a young freshman, I was scared to death of Walter Smith even though I outweighed him probably 30 pounds).
Needless to say we were an army without its General.
I remember coming into the locker room after our pregame warm-up and coach Gary Moeller calling the team together to take a knee. Coach Moeller said that Walter wanted to address the team. On his crutches with tears already streaming down his face, Walter delivered a speech that you could feel in your bones. This wasn’t your typical “rah rah, let’s win one for the Gipper,” kind of speech. This was a speech that “Old Blood and Guts” General Patton would have delivered to his troops.
There wasn’t a dry eye in that entire locker room after that speech. The speech not only inspired us but it reminded us that we play for something far greater than ourselves. We play for all those that have played, will play and never be able to play again – like him.
I wish I could say we won that game but we didn’t. We lost to Ohio State 22-6, the taste was bitter but the message was embedded into my skull and into my spirit. I now understood.
From that moment on, we had a large conference schedule put on a wall in our full team meeting room and Ohio State was always labeled in bold print to stress its importance. We didn’t have particularly great seasons that followed. But when late November rolled around, a new sense of vigor and attitude swelled in Schembechler Hall.
We all had a little bit more pep in our step. Practices got really intense. Scout team players mimicking Ohio State players took a bit more of a pounding that week. All of a sudden, our mediocre season didn’t seem so lost. Our record didn’t matter as much because this was Ohio State week. Every year I had left we were the underdog, every year we were statistically out-manned and yet every year the underdog rose to the challenge to unseat the top dog.
Yeah this rivalry always carries with it major implications, such as determining who will be Big Ten champions, who will play in the Rose Bowl, or who will go undefeated and possibly play for a national championship. However this rivalry is more than just wins and losses. It extends past the boundaries of gridiron chaos and collisions. This rivalry echoes to our past. It reminds us why, what and who we play for.
So this Saturday when Michigan and Ohio State take the field for the 109th time, they will be playing for more than just titles and bragging rights. They will be playing for legacies and traditions and for those who helped build this contest of will, guts and determination into the greatest college football rivalry of all time.
And whether they know it or not, they’ll be playing for guys like me, Walter Smith and the many more before that.
Top Photo: Andrew Weber/US Presswire