The National Football Foundation elected my Dad to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015 on January 9. The months to come will offer me the chance to reflect on the emotional significance of the moment. For now, though, I want to share a simple story about a man who loved high school football. And antagonizing others.
For most of my life, Dad would watch from the visitor’s stands whenever he attended a high school football game at Harmon Stadium in Fremont, Ohio. Before he joined Fremont’s “Chain Gang” crew and worked the sideline markers, Dad would park on the metal bleachers around the 25-yard line nearest to the scoreboard. He would sit about halfway up the stands and watch the game, mostly in silence but cheering whenever either team completed a good play. High school football was sacred for Dad—kids playing for the love of the sport and nothing else in his eyes—and he preferred to savor the purity of Friday night’s lights in solitude.
In 1999, a torn ACL, MCL, and cartilage cost me my junior football season. I watched each game from the sidelines, and although it’s been over 15 years I can still picture the clear September evening when the Findlay Trojans marched into Fremont as a high-powered wrecking ball of an offensive football machine led by future Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Findlay spread the field with four and five wide receivers and threw the football so often you might have thought they had never seen a toss sweep. Somewhere, this Findlay team missed the memo stipulating that Ohio high school football teams must run the ball from the I-formation to win. The spread offense is commonplace now, but in 1999 Findlay was the only team in Ohio running such a passing attack (Ohio’s state passing records confirm the offensive shift that occurred after teams began copying Findlay’s aerial assault).
Findlay’s then-coach, current Ohio State Senator Cliff Hite, happened to be a former high school rival and friends with my father. Since I was young, Dad had always enjoyed the Fremont vs. Findlay matchups because it gave him a chance to bullshit with his old friend. He and Coach Hite would banter with each other before, after, and as it turns out during the game whenever the Trojans and Little Giants played. The friendly rivalry captivated both men.
During the game in 1999, Findlay received the opening kickoff. Big Ben sliced the air with pinpoint passes until the Trojans had scored faster than I could count the number of receivers on the field. Findlay stopped Fremont on our first offensive series. When Findlay got the ball back inside our 20-yard line, Roethlisberger made the type of subtle play that separated him from every high school player I had watched besides Charles Woodson.
Standing in the shotgun, Roethlisberger had one running back on his right side and receivers littered across the field. Before the snap, Findlay ran a receiver across the formation from right to left. As Roethlisberger caught the snap, he faked a hand-off to the sprinting wide receiver. Then, with the graceful patience only superstars possess, Roethlisberger cupped the ball in his left hand and slid it behind his back while the offense, defense, and every eye from every fan followed the play action. Roethlisberger paused—a cat toying with a cornered mouse—scanned the field, and finally cocked his arm to launch another spiral into the waiting arms of a receiver standing alone in the far corner of the end zone. Touchdown.
The rest of the game progressed as it had started. Somewhere around Roethlisberger’s seventh touchdown pass (he finished with eight) an idea struck Dad and he started hollering at his friend Coach Hite on the Findlay sidelines about 20 yards away.
“Cliff!” Dad screamed. “Cliff, I think it’s time you established the run game. I got your running plays right here! Just drew ‘em up.” Dad held the program above his head and pointed at it as he shouted, pretending it to be a playbook. “You know you gotta run the ball to win.”
Findlay led the game by 30 points.
If you knew my father, you can imagine the shit-eating grin that undoubtedly spread across his face. Dad loved everything about this moment—from Findlay’s creativity on offense to his own antics and, especially, to the way Coach Hite returned the favor by laughing and jawing right back at my old man. I remember Dad being giddy after the game retelling the story.
Sometime later, I stumbled across a post concerning 1999’s Findlay vs. Fremont contest in a Little Giants’ sports forum online. I don’t recall specifics, but I do remember that an irate Fremont fan had voiced outrage over how the Findlay coach spent the fourth quarter gesturing between the field and the Findlay stands, grinning and celebrating wildly. In the eyes of this poster, these actions demonstrated sportsmanship at its worst.
Little did he or she know that the man actually at fault was a smart-ass former Fremont Ross star having fun immersed in the sport he loved.