On the final Monday each May, many Ohioans plan trips to see family. Taking advantage of the (albeit brief) reprieve from work, with school now on recess for most, families gather, the state's 21 interstates are taxed to their limits, and even if just for a long weekend, we remember. Often confused with Veterans Day, the day we celebrate the sacrifices of all military veterans, active, living, or no longer with us, Memorial Day focuses specifically on honoring the latter.
Ohio State's football history – and really the university's in general – is indelibly tied to our nation's armed forces. From the first commissioned officers from the university in 1878 to the 22 football players who put their academic and student-athlete interests on hold to fight in World War II, the lineage of military and cultural commitments intertwining is as long as it is rich.
Current walk-on fullback Craig Cataline spent four years in the Navy (including a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf), and epitomizes all the different ways the university, its football program, and one of the largest military presences at a major university in the country are interwoven. Even today, Ohio State hosts one of the only ROTC programs where Army, Air Force, and Naval options are not just available but operating from the same location. Modern program forefather Chic Harley, legendary head coach Woody Hayes, and even former Rhodes scholar wide receiver Mike Lanese all served in our nation's military. And so did former All-American quarterback Don Scott.
Unless you hail from Canton or are an aviation major, the odds are the name Don Scott might not register immediately with you. Canton McKinley is specifically where Scott's athletic career really began to take off. Though he started his high school career attending Canton Lehman High School (where he played defensive tackle), he'd start on the McKinley basketball, football, and golf teams while also dabbling in baseball (which he'd later play at Ohio State as well as basketball and football). Scott came into his own as a quarterback his senior year at McKinley during which he completed 48-of-93 passes for 991 yards and 11 TDs while also rushing for 657 yards on 74 attempts. He even kicked 34 extra points successfully for good measure.
Scott's two McKinley teams were state runner-ups both years he was there losing only to – you guessed it – arch rivals Massillon. He also led the basketball team to consecutive state semifinals and one state finals berth. Though freshmen then were unable to compete at the varsity level their first years on campus in major college athletics, Scott's impact on Ohio State's athletic history would take root during that initial year before he stepped up to the "big leagues" his sophomore season.
His first year on OSU's varsity team, Scott, who was built close in stature to a modern athlete at 6'2" 210 pounds, would start at Ohio State at tailback. Despite a solid year, the team's overall success under head coach Francis Schmidt was paltry, including Schmidt's first-ever loss to Michigan. Ohio State finished the '38 season 4-3-1 overall (3-2-1 in Big Ten play), but the season-ending home 18-0 loss to #17 Michigan left a sour taste in everyone involved's mouths.
Schmidt, whose team had been shut out three times in nine games that season, knew his offense needed a kick in the pants. Enter Don Scott, Ohio State starting quarterback. The 1939 season would kick off with a bang with the Buckeyes routing Missouri, 19-0, and then Northwestern the next week, 13-0. Epitomizing the effective downhill running vision Scott brought to the position, Ohio State would later in the season head to the University of Chicago's Stagg Field where they'd proceed to rout the Maroons, 61-0. Though OSU would lose to Michigan for a second straight year, the Buckeyes' 21-0 victory over Illinois the previous week gave them a Big Ten championship. Scott would later be named an All-American.
Scott's senior season started promising enough with OSU handling Pitt, 30-7, and surviving Purdue, 17-14. Three straight losses after that (including a 21-7 road loss to then #1 Cornell) would start the gears in motion that would lead to Schmidt's resignation. A deflating 40-0 blowout loss at home to Michigan would end Schmidt and Scott's Ohio State careers respectively, and though little consolation, Scott would be named an All-American for a second straight season.
Going into his sophomore season, Scott had joked, "Upon graduating I would like to enter into an engineering practice, but would consider a 'palm greasing' pro football offer." That tongue-in-cheek dream came to fruition when the Chicago Bears took Scott with the ninth pick in the first round of the 1941 NFL Draft. Three other Buckeyes would go in that year's draft, but no other before the 10th round.
Scott's professional football career would never get off the ground, however. While an undergrad, Scott had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, an initiative by the U.S. government aimed at increasing the number of qualified pilots in the instance of military necessity. World War II would prove just that. Scott, as many of his peers at the time did, enlisted in the Army's Air Corps, becoming a commissioned pilot.
Though he did participate in nine bombing missions, on October 1, 1943, while going through a training exercise in England, Scott's bomber crashed, taking his life at just age 23. It's hard to put into perspective what this news would be like given the differences in the military (draft vs. volunteer army), the few societal parallels we have (such as that of former Arizona Cardinals/Arizona State star Pat Tillman enlisting), and the differing natures of current and past military conflicts, but imagine if after winning the Heisman, Troy Smith had elected to take on a tour in Iraq.
A month later, a still mourning Ohio State board of trustees voted to name Ohio State's new airport after the former Buckeye star, which it remains today. Canton McKinley's field remains christened in the former OSU great's name as well.
Given the change in times, it's hard to keep in mind what it was like for football to take a back seat to the perils of a world engaged in conflict. Scott's sacrifice has few equivalents in today's society, but that certainly doesn't mean it's forgotten. For Scott and all the other Buckeyes, of student-athlete and non-athlete alike, who gave their lives so that we can spend each weekend in the fall obsessing over trivial matters, the least we can do is remember. Whether you're with loved ones, volunteering, or honoring someone lost with your time off this weekend, take a second to pay homage to those that made it possible. And though this is a weekend specifically reserved for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, today (and every other day), it's never a bad idea to use every opportunity you get to thank those who served (or are serving) valiantly that are still with us.