Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Buckeyes' instant classic

Team on way to becoming legends in Ohio

By Rusty Miller
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Over the 34 years that had passed since Ohio State last won a national football championship, the names and accomplishments of the players on that Buckeyes team had never been forgotten.

Now an entirely new set of characters will join them.

Ohio State's breathtaking 31-24 double-overtime victory over Miami in Friday's Fiesta Bowl will become legend.

"It's just terrific because Ohio State football is very special to the people who live in Ohio and those who live throughout the country," said Archie Griffin, a football icon who won two Heisman trophies, played in the pros and then returned to become the No. 2 man in the university's athletic department. "I can just imagine the number of people who were watching on television. You know they couldn't pull away from it. Just look at the crowd that was here tonight. That was just an awesome, awesome display."

Griffin is still stopped for autographs and makes personal appearances a full 27 years after his college career ended. He has an idea the current Buckeyes will have a similar life ahead of them.

"Those who follow Ohio State will never forget it," Griffin said outside the Buckeyes' Sun Devil Stadium locker room.

Athletic heroes seldom fade away in Ohio, home to six major-league teams, small-college football dynasty Mount Union and reigning Division III men's basketball king Otterbein.

Bevo Francis scored 113 points in a game for Rio Grande College 49 years ago, yet his legacy continues and he is still a celebrity in his dotage. Columbus radio and TV stations are flush with former players who still live off the interest from what they did years ago.

The state is dotted with small towns - and not so small towns - where the city limits still share space with signs commemorating long-ago state high school championships.

Imagine what it will be like for a new pantheon of heroes whose names are forever linked to a championship for the state's dominant university by its passionate fan following.

Brockington, Tatum, Kern, White, Otis, Stillwagon, Provost, Mayes, Foley - the names from the 1968 national championship team are still said in reverent tones in the state.

Joining them now will be Krenzel, Doss, Clarett, Gamble, Wilhelm, Stepanovich, Jenkins, Groom and Grant.

"It's overwhelming, man. I mean, so many people live and die by Ohio State football," said Donnie Nickey, a senior free safety from Plain City. "To win the last game and the national championship, to know that a lot of the stuff that you hoped for is going to happen, that's overwhelming. All that sweat, how you bleed all year to play in the Horseshoe. To play 14 games and win them all and for it to mean so much to all these people, it's very gratifying."

Fresh from the biggest game of his life and surrounded by celebrating teammates, Nickey fought back the tears as he considered how important the victory was to so many people.

Linebacker Matt Wilhelm said the Buckeyes always knew what the Fiesta Bowl meant.

"We all had that in the back of our minds going into the game, that we'd be a part of Ohio State history for a very long time," the Lorain native said.

Just as in the movie "Hoosiers," this is one championship season that is assured of being remembered for years and years.

Saturday's Columbus Dispatch - with the Pearl Harbor-sized headline "CHAMPS!" on the front page - sold out. The newspaper was printing more copies to meet the demand.

Ohio State fans were lined up for an hour before the doors opened Saturday morning at specialty shops around the city that sell T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts with the Buckeyes' logo on them.

Tight end Ben Hartsock was humbled by his role in the event.

"It's something I'm extremely proud of. I'm going to have a ring - I'm not a ring kind of guy - but it's something that shows how fortunate you are," said Hartsock, a farm boy from outside Chillicothe. "You're just a fraction of a percent of the population that's a part of a team like this, to play collegiate sports and be a part of this great university that we have, to have those great traditions.

"Now to be one of those teams at this great university that has written a chapter of history. It's going to be talked about for years and years. It's an amazing feeling."

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