It's 4:00 on a late summer afternoon. That peculiar Ohio heat, the kind that sticks around longer than one from outside the heartland might expect, lingers. The weather is what Faulkner might have called Augusttremulous -- shimmering, trembling, with the anticipation of fall.
In the southeast corner of Ohio Stadium, a bell is ringing.
The bell is rung, as it has been since 1954, by brothers of Alpha Phi Omega. Brothers is a bit of a misnomer, as women are also part of APO's ranks (and in Ohio State's chapter actually make up the majority of members), but the important thing to know is that Alpha Phi Omega is the nation's largest co-ed service fraternity. Like all other things Ohio State does, they do APO big: OSU's is one of the largest chapters in the country.
Alpha Phi Omega at Ohio State is perhaps best explained by the musings of the author E.B. White (of Charlotte's Web fame), who reflected:
I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it difficult to plan the day.
No college students handle this struggle more professionally than the brothers of Alpha Phi Omega. It's an organization designed above all else to give back -- to the campus, the community, and the country -- and its influence shows on the members who pass through its ranks. They graduate and join the Peace Corps, or work with the homeless, or teach in underfunded schools, or counsel kids. (Some even become those highest beacons of civil service, sports bloggers.) That doesn't stop its brothers from having the kind of fun that only college students can get away with.
"It's given me the chance to meet so many incredible people who all have a strong love for service," says current chapter president Julia Aminov. "It's incredibly rewarding, because we are exposed to so much good within the Columbus community."
On top of their myriad services to Ohio State and the Columbus area, the brothers of APO do another good deed, one heard and not seen. Each home football Saturday, they wend their way to the bell tower in the southeast corner of the Horseshoe, and ring the school's victory bell for 15 minutes following a win.
Except for Michigan. Home or away, those wins get 30 minutes.
A well-kept secret about Ohio Stadium: its beautiful exterior plays host to an interior that is, in places, kind of ramshackle. There's the scoreboard the size of a city block, immaculate turf, a color scheme that melds modernity with vintage charm, of course. But beautiful people still have guts and bowels and intestines, no? The stadium is no different. The path to the bell tower is constructed of a series of afterthoughts, from the elevator stop (which opens up into a room where spare gymnastics equipment is housed), to the staircase (through a door, one grabs a handrail that hasn't gotten a fresh coat of paint since the Nixon administration), to the bell tower itself, one which makes Quasimodo's digs look positively palatial.
A quick left off the stairs and you're right under the bell, a heavy and imposing thing with all the grandeur a school as celebrated as this deserves. Long coils of rope reassure the bell-ringers that even if they were to get yanked into the air by the force of the thing, a friend might pull them down again. (The same happened to Aminov earlier last year.) Go straight off the stairs, and you're stuck taking the long way around a labyrinth of heating ducts, janitorial equipment, and whatever else necessary for the operation of a stadium that couldn't find a home. Think of it as Ohio State's Room of Requirement.
It is an ugly and occasionally very cold place, but the brothers of APO have found ways to make it a home nonetheless. Generations of members have carved their names into its cement walls, either during a final football game or during commencement (for which APO also rings the bell). The fraternity letters are displayed prominently, lest anyone forget just who is charged with this duty.
"It's one of the few traditions that spans the gap between athletics and academics," says Nick Dominique, former sergeant-at-arms for Ohio State's chapter. "[The bell] elevates all the values OSU stands for." Dominique says his time at Ohio State was shaped for the best by his time in APO. "Friends who, over time, became family," is how he describes his brothers and fellow bell-ringers. Sounds awfully microcosmic of the Ohio State experience.
It is just after 7:00 on a November evening. The bell, which by all accounts should have been ringing by now, is silent, a mirror of the stadium itself. It is the silence of grieving, of a punch to the gut, of a loss to a team clad in green and white who have dashed undefeated hopes in two of the last three seasons.
The late MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti once said of baseball: It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. I suspect much the same to be true of football. To root for a college team is to represent one of 128 schools all vying for the same title, and the knowledge that there are Purdue fans and Kansas fans out in the world does little to take away the sting of an Ohio State loss.
It is the heartbreak of the privileged to fall in defense of a title, not in the pursuit of one. To learn that there are others as (never more) deserving of riches as oneself, and to be forced to share them. It is a lonely heartbreak, because no one in their right minds would ever commiserate with the defending champions over the plucky underdogs. It's what made last year's title chase such a joyful thrill ride. It's what made this season feel like a chore as soon as January's confetti had finished falling.
But come Saturday, a game with the weight of history behind it arrives on our doorstep. Depending on the color of your shirt (and the decade), it is a game that makes or breaks the season for Buckeyes and Wolverines alike. It's the game that made John Cooper a goat and Jim Tressel the GOAT. It's a game that, regardless of rank, of power, of playoff hopes and dreams, never fails to remind us why we love this sport, this school.
It's a game that sounds like the ringing of a bell.