Ohio State Athletics
Home field advantage
The ’Shoe looks and sounds different this season. But even COVID-19, which has changed everything, can’t dim our spirit.
Traditions are as much a part of an Ohio State football season as turf and goal posts. But just as it’s changed nearly every other aspect of our lives, COVID-19 has interrupted these, too.
Even The Game — the storied rivalry between the Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines — couldn’t be counted on despite 116 previous meetings, including for the past 102 consecutive years.
The rivals were scheduled to play Dec. 12, but an outbreak within the Michigan program forced the game’s cancellation four days before kickoff. Instead, the No. 4 Buckeyes will have that day off and then represent the East Division in the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern Dec. 19. Ohio State’s games against Maryland and Illinois also were called off this season, and head coach Ryan Day, after a positive COVID test, watched on TV as his team beat Michigan State on the road.
Yet amid all this uncertainty, one thing could be counted on this fall: Ohio Stadium still felt like home on a Saturday once your senses adjusted to empty seats, fans crafted from corrugated plastic and recorded crowd roars.
“It’s surreal,” says Greg Graham ’83, in his 18th season as an usher at Ohio State home football games. “It’s almost like a scrimmage. But, on the other hand, I volunteered to work the games this year because I’m not going to miss one. It’s a special place for me.”
Video: Matt Stoessner; Interview: Todd Jones; Photographer: Logan Wallace
On this day, Graham stands a few rows from the field as the Buckeyes played Rutgers in what was a nearly deserted concrete canyon. There are in 1,275 people in attendance — staff, families of players and coaches, a TV crew and members of the media. Even this tiny crowd would be reduced further in a few weeks, when Ohio’s rising infection rate led the university to restrict game-day attendance to those directly involved in the game or its telecast. Normally, there would be 102,000-plus fans exuding thunder from the ’Shoe.
This season, from A deck you could hear Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields smack his hands together to signal a snap. You could hear the thud of the ball striking a kicker’s foot, the pop of pads during tackles and the lonely sound of a smattering of individuals clapping after the Buckeyes execute a big play.
Silenced were the marching band, cheerleaders, Block O students and the antics of Brutus Buckeye — all of them are watching from home like the rest of us. Their absence was felt by the coaches and players. “There is no juice in the stadium,” Day said after the Rutgers game. “You have to bring your own energy.”
To be in Ohio Stadium during a 2020 game was to deeply miss our beloved traditions, but the lucky few among the empty seats also discovered much-needed emotional lifts.
“There’s some normalcy in our lives right now because they’re playing,” says Rhonda Burkhardt ’95, in her 20th year as a redcoat. “It kind of helps you forget about everything going on outside the stadium.”
Despite the unfamiliar atmosphere inside the stadium, the Buckeyes create communal pride — as they have since their first game in 1890.
“It’s still Ohio State football,” says Graham, who has attended every home game as a fan or usher since 1979. “This is still like manna from heaven to be here.”