In the Freep, Bill McGraw visited Woody Hayes’ grave. (If I’d known, I’d have had him wave to my friends Jeff and Craig Clark, brothers, buried just a few doors down at Union Cemetery. AIDS, if you’re wondering. Both of them.) He spent a second entry remarking on the epitaph etched on the headstone:
And in the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love hears the rustle of a wing.
The author is Robert Greene Ingersoll. McGraw said it seemed “slightly out of character” for Woody, and I guess if all you knew about him was his football persona, it does. “Three yards and a cloud of dust” might seem more fitting, but you didn’t have to know much about Woody Hayes to know he was a lot more than the bullnecked coach you saw on the sidelines.
He was what you might call old-school, a student of classics who made his players keep their hair trimmed. He didn’t allow them to appear in Playboy’s Pigskin Preview. After his famous flame-out at the Gator Bowl he laid low for a while, then emerged as an elder statesman. He lectured at Harvard on the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he used in his coaching.
The best thing I ever read about Woody Hayes was a column by Columbus Dispatch columnist Mike Harden, written after Woody’s death in 1987. It’s almost 20 years old now and I’m going to quote from it liberally, probably busting copyrights all over the place, but what the hell, I just paid $3 for it from the Dispatch archive and I’m giving credit where it’s due. Here’s how it starts:
When Woody Hayes wheeled his Chevy into Glenn Webb’s Shell Station in West Jefferson, Ohio, he paid scant attention to the loitering locals, the scrawny kid resting his back against the Coke machine. But the kid noticed him, and so did the locals. With the possible exception of an occasional horrific wreck on Rt. 40, not much stirred in the Madison County hamlet. So when Woody Hayes, the Woody Hayes, pulled in for a fill-up on that lazy summer day in 1963, the news traveled up Main St. to Smitty’s bar before the coach’s gas tank was half-filled and was already old gossip at Doc Mellott’s Rexall by the time Glenn had scrubbed the last dead bug from the coach’s windshield.
Sidling up to the car, the kid peeked into the window at a back seat buried beneath a pile of helmets and pads. It was proof sufficient. Timidly, he made his way around to the driver’s side.
”Are you Woody Hayes?” he asked the thickset driver in the white short-sleeved shirt.
The coach turned slowly to size up a youth whose name would never appear on his recruiting schedule. He formed a fat, fearsome-looking fist, then slowly flexed his arm until a great hummock of bicep was the only thing that stood between his grin and his gape-mouthed admirer.
”What do you think?” Woody asked, nodding toward the muscle.
…In my youth, my opinion of Woody Hayes was a mixture of personal awe coupled with the echo of comments voiced by my father and his cronies as they sat around the radio nursing longneck Strohs and listening to the game. To them, Woody was half prophet, half good ol’ boy — Moses with Charlie Weaver’s voice. It was not that they thought him above reproach, for their hindsight refinements of the plays Woody called were always good for another six-pack after the game was finished. Years later I would recall my father’s post-game dressing down of Woody, aimed, as it was, at the radio speaker of the Philco. I was seated in the stadium watching the coach as he paced the sideline studying what appeared to be an index card. He called three consecutive power slants into the line, gaining four or five yards at the most. The punting team ran onto the field, and Woody was still contemplating the card when the fan seated next to me shouted, ”Dammit, Woody, turn it over. There’s plays on the other side.”
If you grew up in Columbus in the Woody era, you know that scene like you know Christmas morning. He was simply part of the fabric of life, whether you attended OSU or not, whether you liked football or not. But of course, the times they were a-changin’; Harden continues:
Woody Hayes and Ohio State football were congenitally joined at the hip; yet, the first time I personally heard him speak in public, it had nothing to do with the game. It was the spring of 1970. My first quarter as a freshman at Ohio State was about to be cut short by the campus riots. The Oval was filled with strikers, gawkers and campus cops. Some firebrand revolutionary who wouldn’t have known Lenin from Irving Berlin was admonishing the crowd to seize the moment as they chanted, ”On strike! Shut it down!” There in the throng, sandwiched amid the tie-dye revolutionaries, stood Woody Hayes. Arms folded across his chest, he listened quietly to several speakers until one of the organizers spotted him and summoned him to the platform.
To the strikers, it was intended to be a moment of high camp. They had spotted Quasimodo in the bell tower and hauled him down to make sport of him.
As Woody stepped to the microphone to catcalls and hisses, the strikers taunted, ”First and ten, do it again. First and ten, do it again.”
I can’t remember precisely what he said, but it had something to do with sportsmanship and fairness as those ideals applied to the crisis at hand. It was an appeal to reason squandered on a group to whom Woody represented the father who never liked their politics, their hair or their music.
Of the myriad of feelings I had experienced growing up with Woody, pity was a new one. How, I wondered, could he ever have imagined that a fatherly pep talk would have calmed that hellbent rabble?
…I was watching the Gator Bowl at a friend’s house in 1978 the night Woody took the swing that ended his career. He went down, a writer friend of mine observed, like Melville’s Ahab, a man pinioned to his obsession. It was sad. All of my life, he had been bigger than life. I was not merely witnessing a man losing his job. Popes are supposed to remain popes till they die.
I fully expected Woody to become an embittered recluse, whiling away his last days watching old game films in a darkened room like some latter-day Philip Nolan in E.E. Hale’s The Man Without a Country.
He did not, and, peculiarly, what transformed him from exile to elder statesman was his tenacious hold on the values and ideals I had thought so shallow on that spring day when he took on several hundred campus protesters.
Compensation. The pay-forward theory. It had seemed like some flimsy platitude penned by a greeting card company for a high school graduation card. Not for Woody. He lived it, breathed it.
I don’t know why I’m thinking about Woody Hayes today. Bo Schembechler is the one who just died. But I didn’t grow up with Bo, except as once-a-year nemesis. I grew up with Woody.
UPDATE: I assembled most of this entry last night but didn’t post it, for two reasons: I wanted the Tibetan girls to stay at the top of the blog for at least 24 hours, and I wanted to see if the Freep’s star columnist could top Harden. He wrote approximately four times the length, but it should not surprise anyone who’s read both writers to know the answer is: No.