Friday, September 10, 2010

The night of magical thinking

When asked, if given a choice, would I rather have Ohio State or a Cleveland team win a championship, the answer for me is always simple: Cleveland all the way, baby. “This town is my town” and all that.

An unhealthy, usually one-sided relationship with the Browns, Indians and Cavs will always take precedence in my personal athletic pantheon, it’s true, but Ohio State football is still a strong fourth on my list of favorite teams. And in 2002, the Buckeyes provided several generations of Cleveland fans (at least those who rooted for Ohio State) that long sought after, but never realized elation that comes with ultimate victory.

As we inch toward Saturday’s 3:30 early-season litmus test between OSU and Miami in Columbus, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl national title game has been getting a predictable rehash in media circles. The 31-24 Ohio State double-overtime win over the ‘Canes is probably the single greatest athletic contest I have ever witnessed – an emotionally dizzying, highest- of high-stakes affair heightened further by a month’s worth of media-driven smack talk against the 11-point underdog Buckeyes, all funneled into four-plus quarters packed with so many over-the-top dramatic moments that even the hackiest Hollywood screenwriter would have looked at the byplay and said, “Nah, this is too much.”

But we can’t bask in the glory of that memorable Friday night without remembering what came before. That “instant classic” title game was a microcosm of an undefeated season that never felt safe, precariously balanced as it was on a game to game knife-edge of “pulled-from-the-fire” moments, any one of which could have gone the wrong way and deflated our ambitions of seeing the publically stoic, buttoned-down Jim Tressel make this goofy face.

The ’02 Buckeyes were the collegiate Kardiac Kids, playing six games decided by a touchdown or less. With the advent of “Tressel ball,” where special teams and defense masked a purposefully vanilla offense, the Buckeyes couldn’t help but get involved in the bi-weekly nail biter. And man oh man, there were some twitchy moments: Will Allen’s interceptions during potential game-winning drives by Cincinnati and Michigan; Tim Anderson batting down a pass at the line in an excruciatingly intense OT affair against Illinois; and the "Holy Buckeye" Krenzel to Jenkins play on 4th-and-1 against Purdue, my personal favorite and probably “the play” of 2002.

As a Cleveland fan, I was not used to this surreal repeal of Murphy’s Law. Here was a team my friends and I rooted for that actually got all the bounces. It got to the point where I didn’t believe the Buckeyes could lose, even against the heavily favored Hurricanes, #1 in the country that year and in search of their second consecutive national crown.

In my expert armchair analysis, aided by the fact that I was a graduate of Ohio State and therefore not at all biased, I determined that the Buckeyes could use their usual formula of simple offense and stout, playmaking defense to control the game. I smartly concluded that if the score was close at halftime, then the scarlet and gray would have a chance.

How the hell I’m not getting paid for this kind of keen insight, I have no idea.

Anyway, game night was spent at the home of CST contributor and fellow OSU grad, Kevin. The atmosphere was amped and electric, a feeling no doubt mirrored in many homes and watering holes across the state as it became increasingly evident that the experts were wrong and Ohio State was going to make it a game.

People act out in strange ways during moments of extreme stress, and OSU-Miami at Kevin’s followed this sociological pattern: Returning CST columnist/handicapper Sam, for example, nonsensically and fruitlessly screamed profanities at the television because he didn’t like the network’s camera angle on a field goal attempt. And when Krenzel completed a game-saving 4th-and-14 pass to Jenkins, a friend sitting next to me was so overcome with emotion (or something) that he grabbed me and kissed me on the side of the neck. While a Maxim-reading, cage-fighting, whiskey-guzzling badass like myself would normally be a bit affronted by such an intimate guy-on-guy act (not that there’s anything wrong with it), I was just as happy as he was and didn’t care about the unbidden smooch.

Indeed, the game was so full of outlandish and outright unbelievable plays, Buckeyes fans had scarce time to breath. It was like the gridiron version of “Can You Top This:” Maurice Clarett stripping the ball from Sean Taylor after an interception begat Wills McGahee getting his knee turned inside out begat the still-controversial pass interference call on Miami DB Glenn Sharpe where fireworks exploded and an Ice Age passed before the ref threw the flag (or so it seemed). Moments on top of moments on top of moments – one following the next in dreamlike succession.

Finally, on a play I’ve probably watched two dozen times over the years, a Cie Grant blitz forced Ken Dorsey’s 4th-down-and-goal pass into the turf, ending this endless game and sending fans into a euphoric whirlwind of adrenaline-fueled joy. I scarcely remember anything from those first explosive seconds after the final play. It was like a mini-nuke going off and flash-blinding everything but a feeling of ecstatic, man-hugging bliss.

Whatever, it was awesome and glorious, and I want it to happen again. For now, I’m happy to have witnessed at least one sports season end not in misery or apathy but the complete opposite of those depressing states of mind. Maybe tomorrow afternoon will be the first mile on a new road to glory for Northeast Ohio and Buckeyes fans everywhere. If you feel the same, dear reader, then join me in the battle cry:

Beat the U! Just like ’02!

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