Just under ten years ago, on a cool Arizona night, I stood in the first row of the second deck of Sun Devil Stadium and had all my dreams come true. I'm a Cleveland fan, which means, as you're probably aware, that sports heartbreak is my religion, and not one of those progressive Christian religions where they pretend to like gay people — a dark, terrifying, self-flagellating religion. Like some satanic cult you would see in a horror movie. Or Catholicism. But on that January night in Arizona, despite everything sports had ever taught me to expect, I watched running back Maurice Clarett and coach Jim Tressel lead the Ohio State Buckeyes past the Miami Hurricanes. And as all of my nerves and baggage began to slip away, I heard my dad say, in a voice more befitting a cathedral than the bleachers, "We finally won."
But in the years since that undefeated, championship season, The Ohio State University has been accused of countless NCAA violations (including illicit payments to 2002 hero Maurice Clarett), been the subject of multiple investigations, attempted to cover up its players' and boosters' wrongdoing, and been caught covering up its players' and boosters' wrongdoing. It has faced numerous sanctions, including this season's bowl ban. Many Ohio State fans attack the merits of the NCAA rules that were violated, and they're not necessarily wrong — I for one think players should be paid — but this wasn't a case of civil disobedience. Former coach Tressel pretended, quite sanctimoniously, to be following the rules that he was in fact breaking so he could gain a competitive advantage. There's a word for what that made Ohio State: cheaters.
Since the scandals became public in early 2011, I've watched the Buckeyes from a distance. I still watched every game. I still hated Michigan, but it wasn't quite the same. When you truly love a sports team they become an integral part of your identity. Your fandom says something about you. Yankees fans, for example, see themselves as devotees of excellence. Since Tressel and the tattoos and the cars and the cover-up, whatever identity I had as an Ohio State fan had been torpedoed. What did being a Buckeye mean now, and did I want to be associated with whatever that was? I wasn't sure the team and I were a "we" anymore.
And that's where I was when I sat down at home with my dad last weekend to watch our Buckeyes, our cheating Buckeyes, now led by another seemingly honorable coach in Urban Meyer, play arch-rival Michigan for a shot at Ohio State's first perfect season since 2002. Leading up to the game, I was disgusted by the way Buckeye fans were addressing the bowl ban, a punishment that would prevent them from competing for a national championship regardless of whether they won the game. One friend of mine said, "If we win this game, Gene Smith should be castrated at midfield." This was a sentiment I heard over and over again, if not in such graphic and violent detail: the thinking went that if Ohio State's athletic director Gene Smith had pre-emptively self-imposed a bowl ban last season, the NCAA would never have banned the Buckeyes from the postseason this year. But how, I thought, could Ohio State fans complain about a punishment that the team most certainly deserved? Isn't having to give something up the point of a punishment? Nothing hammers home a lesson more than missing out on a potential title. But my friends and my father still cursed Smith's name as the game began.
Then things began to change. Michigan coach Brady Hoke wore a short-sleeve shirt in the cold, as if he wanted the whole world to talk about what a tough guy he was, triggering my reflexive sports hatred. Hearing the Horseshoe crowd singing the Seven Nation Army riff like Jack White had hypnotized them to be insane, screaming machines reminded me of the sheer and overwhelming power of 100,000 people gathered together. (Of course, Michigan and Penn State home crowds, among many others, do the same chant. Stadium music directors don't actually seem to listen to that much music.) Seeing the defense struggle in the first half and come out in the second as though possessed by the spirits of the 1976 Steelers brought back memories of a 2002 team that often had their biggest moments late when the game seemed to be slipping away.
But the biggest moment was the introduction of Jim Tressel. The man who had driven a stake between me and my beloved football team was allowed special dispensation to come to the game for a ceremony that honored the ten-year anniversary of the 2002 National Championship team. I expected to be angry, but I wasn't. In that moment, I didn't see the scandals. I didn't see the cover-up. I didn't see the hypocrisy. I saw the man who gave me some of the happiest sports memories I ever had. I saw a man humbled by the warm reception he was given. I saw a man who made Michigan fans hate their lives for a decade, and I realized that being a Cleveland fan has always meant being loyal to teams that others might walk away from. I didn't like everything Tressel had done, but I was still on his side. I was on his team.
And when the fourth quarter rolled around, and Buckeye back Carlos Hyde refused to be tackled, picking up first down after first down, using Michigan star Denard Robinson's patented "eating up the moment" celebration the whole way, I found myself wanting to punch Gene Smith. Because there's a national championship game in about a month, and we want a piece of Notre Dame.