Football as a religion is an American cliché. Across the country, folks from dozens of states claim outsized devotion to the gridiron as a wholly unique and defining factor of their native homes. Texas. California. Alabama. Florida. Hell, the whole South, really. From sea to shining sea, Friday night glory is the panacea for the struggles of small town life. In decaying urban centers, football is an acceptable form of violence and an establishment of social order. For the preternaturally talented everywhere, football remains the most star-spangled long shot at stardom.
Ohio is a unique place, both geographically and culturally. Some may argue about where the great American "Middle West" ends, but few contend that it begins anyplace but Ohio.The Midwest begins as the Appalachian foothills yield their last coal seams and lie down flat, stretching westward across vast, verdant plains, Great Lakes, and mighty rivers to an undefined end someplace shy of the Rockies. With that geographic nascence comes a vast stretch of America's football heartland. With apologies to the folks in the Nittany mountains, the first true football stronghold on the American frontier stands guard over the confluence of the Olentangy and the Scioto rivers. Columbus, Ohio is where football begins in the Midwest. And if football is big in the Midwest, it is biggest in Ohio.
The beginning of football in Columbus dates back to the spring of 1890, when the game was in its infancy and Ohio State was barely two decades old. Founded in 1870 as Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, the school was formally renamed by the State Legislature to "The Ohio State University" in 1878. Those who believe that the inclusion of the definite article is an arrogant affectation of recent years should take note: "The" has been an official part of the name for 136 years, and was done in part to denote the university in Columbus as the state's official 1862 Morrill Act land grant college, separate from Ohio University and Miami University.
As the Ohio winter of 1890 gave way to spring, the good Methodists in the nearby city of Delaware extended an offer to the newly-formed Ohio State Football Club. Delaware was home to the small, traditional, and much older Ohio Wesleyan University. The men of OWU--who today take to the field in Division III as the Battling Bishops--invited the men of Ohio State to play an afternoon football game as part of Ohio Wesleyan's May Day celebration.
Wesleyan was a newcomer of sorts to the game of football as well. The college's first team was formed in 1875, but was disbanded for 15 years after widespread faculty outrage at the sport. After a decade and a half, the memory of the sinful foray into football had subsided and Wesleyan was again willing to dip its staid Protestant toes into the waters of intercollegiate sport. A team was organized, and the offer made for a friendly showdown with their neighbors to the south. Accepting the challenge, the team that years hence would become the Buckeyes made the journey of some 20 miles by horse and carriage to take on Ohio Wesleyan.
The game was fairly well-attended for the day, with 700 or so fans cheering both teams on. Ohio Wesleyan even secured special permission for its female students to attend the game--a rarity in a time when well-to-do women still disappeared in their third trimester of pregnancy and returned three months later with an infant. That small crowd of students and interested locals watched the scrappers from Ohio State top their hometown club 20-14. By all accounts, the affair ended amicably and the ancestors of today's Buckeyes were back in Columbus by nightfall.
The men from Delaware and Columbus would meet often over the decades that followed. The two teams faced off 29 times in all, with Ohio State losing only twice. Yet despite the series record, OWU enjoyed many successes in those early days. In the late 1890s, a young West Virginian by the name of Fielding Yost coached the Wesleyan team-then known as the Red & Black-to a 7-1-1 season, including a shutout of both Ohio State and Michigan and a state title. Yost, of course, went on to great fame at Michigan.
In 1901, a young OWU graduate and former player named Branch Rickey took helm of the football team. His teams were routinely quite good, and he would remain in sports his whole life, later becoming famous for bringing Jackie Robinson into major league baseball (and for having a portrayal of himself phoned in by Harrison Ford).
In 1922, Ohio Wesleyan was the first opponent to set foot in the new Ohio Stadium, which held a massive (for the time) 72,000 people. The erstwhile Methodist rivals hold the distinction of accepting the first loss in the famous Horseshoe, a venue that B1G players recently voted the toughest Big Ten stadium.
Today, a marker stands in Delaware to commemorate the beginnings of college football in the Buckeye State. From such acorns, mighty oaks are grown. The Ohio State University would grow to become the largest land grant university in the country and the winningest B1G football program in the modern era (and third-best overall).* More Buckeyes play in the NFL than any other Big Ten program can claim. Ohio State is the vanguard of Midwestern football, a perennial national powerhouse, and the bane of Big Ten opponents.
For Ohioans, football is a big deal. Bigger than any other sport, by far. Ohio is the only
B1G state Midwestern state with two pro football franchises (thanks to reader droyal for the catch on Pennsylvania...and I refuse to count Missouri), courtesy of OSU player and coach Paul Brown. The Buckeye state was also home to the first black pro football player (Charles Follis) and the first black football player in the modern game (Bill Willis). The greatest heroes of the pro gridiron are enshrined in Canton--the birthplace of the NFL itself.
Of the 14 current B1G coaches, four were born in Ohio. Of those not blessed to be Buckeyes by birth, three more coached in Ohio. That's to say nothing of the Cradle of Coaches in Oxford. Then there's Woody. Bo. Parseghian. Saban. Stoops. Shula. Chuck Noll. The list goes on and on. Ohio enjoys a football tradition that is unsurpassed in richness and depth, and at the center of it all lies one friendly afternoon game in May.
* The modern era is defined as college football post-WWII, when the "two platoon" model (separate offense and defense squads) was widely adopted and helmets became impact-resistant plastic instead of leather. Since 1945, Ohio State's winning percentage is .756, behind only Oklahoma and (oddly) Old Dominion.