Troy Smith's nightmares look like this. So do mine.
Sports fans are a lot like collectors. We start young, and over the years we collect memories -- good and bad -- that sit in our minds like dust covered items in an old man’s attic. Our minds work like any attic; the years pass and older, less important items are moved to the back to make room for the fresh members of our collections.
Occasionally we’ll allow ourselves to pull down the creaky ladder and crawl up and through those memories, wiping the cobwebs clear to revisit a specific event. We typically don’t have to dig deep for our favorites. For Ohio State fans, the 2002 National Championship game is likely at the forefront, surrounded comfortably by the ‘06 Michigan game and the ‘09 Rose Bowl.
The sanctions levied against Penn State Monday -- least significantly the vacation of all JoePa’s victories since 1998 -- forced me up that ladder to visit my attic. I had to crawl through years worth of games and events to the furthest corner where the most painful incidents are kept. The back-to-back National Championship losses sit heavily with angry, rough edges next to any word that ends in "-gate."
After some digging -- "Oh, 2004 Northwestern game, I remember you... Hey look, it’s Maurice Clarett in the summer of 2003! "-- I found the memory I was after; a memory that the NCAA had just given me the right to throw away. I grabbed it and turned toward the trash can.
October 8, 2005
Over 107,000 white-clad fans created a hornets nest of hysteria, directing all the vocal strength they could muster at the members of the visiting No. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes. "I’d rather be in their shoes than mine," I thought as I passed through the emptying tables at Carrabba’s Italian Grill -- forced away from the televisions that hung on either side of the vacant bar to bus the tables that had just cleared.
The night was winding down. The two and a half hour wait that crowded the lobby earlier had shuffled through and most of the restaurant’s remaining guests were finishing up. I had spent the majority of the night trying to work the tables in front of the bar in an effort to catch as much of the game as I could. One thing I was learning though -- other than the fact that Penn State’s front seven could destroy anything good and holy in this world -- was that working at the busiest restaurant in Canton, Ohio didn’t allow you to sit in front of a television for three hours.
I cursed myself for not taking greater efforts to get the night off. I had paid a fellow busser twenty bucks to cover my shift for the Texas game four weeks earlier, and had watched in horror as the Buckeyes let that game slip through their hands. After a summer of becoming a truly crazed fan -- I could list the entire two-deep at defensive line if you were so inclined to ask me -- it was hard to watch my team lose out on the National Championship so early. But the Buckeyes had bounced back from the Texas loss, and with a little help in front of them, it was still possible for Ohio State to make it to Pasadena and play for it all.
They had to survive Happy Valley though, and it wasn’t looking good.
From what I could gather between trips to empty tables and the bar -- Troy Smith had been running for his life most of the night, but Ohio State’s defense had kept the game close. With just under four minutes left in the fourth quarter, Ted Ginn allowed a Penn State punt to dart by him and settle at the 11 yard line. Trailing by seven points, Ohio State needed 89 yards to force overtime. With most of my work finished, I could finally park in front of the television and watch the most important drive of the season.
Before the Buckeyes could even get going, an offensive lineman’s early movement forced a yellow flag into the air. I threw my hands up in frustration as the refs backed Ohio State up to the six yard line, then became even more exasperated when Smith couldn’t get away from Tamba Hali and was sacked, again, for a one yard loss. Ohio State had just called a timeout when one of the restaurant’s servers -- a very short man who overcompensated by lifting far too many weights -- approached me.
"Hey man, I need you to bus 30 and 31," referencing the tables he had been working. I knew he was the closing server so his tables didn’t need cleared immediately, but he was the kind of guy who liked to tell you what to do whether he had the authority to do so or not. I told him I’d head right over and he walked away.
The Buckeyes were back on the field and Smith was again evading pressure after the ball was snapped, but this time he was able to find Ginn on the sideline for a huge 27 yard gain. After hurrying to the line, Smith hit Santonio Holmes in stride and he carried the ball to Penn State’s 48 yard line.
"Holy crap, they might actually..." my thought was interrupted by the same impatient server, "Dude, I’m not paying you to stand around and watch a game. Go bus my tables."
I wanted to tell him that his power trip was as obnoxious as his obvious steroid use, but Smith had just stopped the clock with another completed pass to Roy Hall out of bounds, so I walked in the general direction of his tables and waited for him to leave. Luckily he was summoned by a different server, so I made my way back in time to see the ball snapped on second down.
Smith took the shotgun snap and scanned the field in front of him. The defensive end on the right side -- "God is that Hali again?! " -- beat Ryan Hamby off the line and was running full steam ahead toward my quarterback. I didn’t need to watch -- instinctively I knew what was about to happen -- but I did as Hali hit Smith so hard the ball popped loose, one that Penn State pounced on under the deafening roar of Nittany Nation.
And just like that, one of my worst sports memories was created, collected, and stored in the furthest corner of my mind.
This memory was clasped in my hand, hanging over the trash can waiting only for me to relax my fingers to drop it into oblivion forever. It would fall and I would never reference it again because it never happened.
Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and mainly Jerry Sandusky deserve the punishment Penn State received. You could argue that vacating wins, limiting scholarships, and banning the team from bowl games fell short by a large margin in regards to an appropriate punishment, and we all know the book isn’t closed on those individuals.
But to the Penn State fans who frequently reference this game as the best they’d ever seen -- they deserve to not only keep their memory of it, but to have mine as well.