I never really stood a chance of not becoming a Buckeye. My family may have moved to Central Ohio from New Jersey when I was midway through my kindergarten year, but I was watching Ohio State games on the giant console television set in the living room as far back as I can remember even knowing there was a sport called football.
It helped that the early days of my seeing the Buckeyes play on TV coincided with the careers of Archie Griffin and Pete Johnson, certainly, but there was never a doubt after my first trip to Ohio Stadium. I could hardly have had a better introduction to the live college football experience — and I wasn’t even there to watch the game (or at least I wasn’t supposed to).
The first time I set foot in the Horseshoe, the Buckeyes and Illinois Fighting Illini played a game for the ages.
At the time, I was in the Boy Scouts, joining my friend’s troop at his urging. I was working my way through merit badges and skill awards but not taking it terribly seriously. Our troop was among those selected to serve as ushers at an Ohio State game as the Buckeyes battled the Fighting Illini for the Illibuck Trophy on Nov. 8, 1980. I was a couple of months past my 14th birthday and excited to see the Shoe in person for the first time after seeing it so many times on television.
Before the game, we received our instructions on what to do to help folks find their seats and given our section assignments. I was placed in C Deck on the opposite side of the stadium from the press box. I don’t remember much about the instructions we got, but I do know we were supposed to be “working” rather than watching the game, although if there wasn’t much going on in our section, we could stand and watch a few plays here and there.
Nobody much moved during the game in my section because the game was just that compelling. Ohio Staet quarterback Art Schlichter and his Illini counterpart, Dave Wilson, engaged in one of the biggest aerial displays in the history of Big Ten football.
I didn’t have a seat. I wasn’t supposed to be sitting, after all. I was supposed to be standing in the aisle, helping people find their seats. The numbers seemed to be marked clearly on the section, the rows, and the seats to me. I had never been up that high and not had a roof over my head before and it was a little dizzying. I sat on the steps and tried to stay out of the way, keeping one eye out for any adults in a scout uniform.
In truth, I rarely took my eyes off the field. Schlichter was yet to experience his long fall from grace and he was a star in college. A good-looking, athletic guy who could throw the ball all over the field, the Washington Court House native had opened a lot of eyes by starting as a true freshman under Woody Hayes. By 1980, Schlichter was a beloved veteran Buckeye in his junior season with great weapons at the wide receiver position.
He wasted no time putting the Buckeyes ahead that day, hitting Gary Williams for a 43-yard score less than five minutes into the game. Midway through the quarter, he found Doug Donley from seven yards out and Ohio State was up 14-0 at the end of one.
In truth, it looked like the Buckeyes were going to run away with the game. A 2-yard Tim Spencer run and another 7-yard TD pass — this time to tight end Brad Dwelle — pushed the OSU lead to 28-0 and the Shoe was rocking. It hardly seemed to matter that Wilson hit Greg Dentino for an Illini touchdown just before halftime. The Buckeyes had it in the bag, right? After all, a three-touchdown lead at home with what had been to that point in the season one of the top pass defenses in the country felt pretty safe.
Wilson put on a show in the second half, carving the Buckeye secondary largely with short throws but mixing in some longer ones and keeping Ohio State off balance. He threw for 344 yards and five touchdowns in the second half alone.
A 26-yard pass from Schlichter to Donley increased the OSU lead back to four touchdowns, at 35-7. The Illini completely abandoned the run from that point on and Wilson went to work, capping the first Illinois possession with a 38-yard touchdown to tight end Lee Boeke. Wilson then found Dentino again late in the third quarter and then added a third scoring pass in the quarter when he hit Mike Martin with two and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter. That cut Ohio State’s lead to 35-28 and suddenly the Shoe was nervous.
I was no longer keeping an eye out for scoutmasters. This was a nailbiter with a full quarter to go and they could go ahead and kick me out of the troop if they wanted but I wasn’t taking my eyes off that field down below.
Things got tense when the Illini forced an OSU punt on the next series. Suddenly, Illinois was set up to be in position to tie the game. But Dentino fumbled the punt and Ohio State recovered.
Calvin Murray pushed the Buckeye lead to two scores on a 13-yard run and it became a bit easier to breath up in the thin air of C Deck. But that came in the first minute of the fourth quarter. There was a lot of game left and Wilson was feeling it.
A short touchdown pass to Greg Foster pulled Illinois back within one score, capping an 83-yard drive as an incredulous Ohio Stadium looked on.
The Buckeyes responded quickly, taking advantage of a pass interference call on a play designed to go to Donley. Spencer ran the ball for the final two yards, making it 49-35 with 10:55 remaining.
After getting burned all game long, the OSU defense came up big down the stretch. Just when it looked like Wilson was going to respond again, hitting a big pass play to Martin covering 62 yards, cornerback Vince Skillings knocked the ball free and his fellow corner Ray Ellis fell on the ball for the Buckeyes at his own 8-yard line.
Schlichter and the offense picked up only one first down, but took more than two and a half minutes off the clock and moved the ball out to the 37-yard line before having to punt it back.
The Illini took over at their 26, still down two scores but with nearly half of the final quarter remaining. A quick pass for 13 yards and a 22-yard pass play with a 15-yard personal foul tacked onto the end of it moved the ball all the way to the OSU 24 in just two plays. A sack helped a little but only temporarily.
Wilson moved the Illini to the 1-yard line and it looked like we’d be back to a one-score game again. But the Illini had a false start, moving it off the goal line. Two plays later, Wilson threw into the end zone and Skllings was there to intercept it with just over three minutes remaining.
Ohio State punted it back and Wilson tacked on a short touchdown pass to Foster with just 11 seconds left as the Illini offense ran out of time.
The Buckeyes had won one of the wildest games anyone had ever seen and I was there for the first time. I felt the roar of the crowd in my chest, even as I added to it with my own voice.
Wilson had thrown for 621 yards and six touchdowns on 43-of-69 passing. He also threw three interceptions, which is likely the only thing that kept the Buckeyes from losing that day. Schlichter completed 17 of 21 passes for 284 yards and a career-high four touchdowns without throwing a pick. The teams combined for more than 1,050 yards of total offense.
The back-and-forth affair that had started as a laugher and grew incredibly tense over the course of the second half was an incredible thing to behold. I’ve been fortunate to attend a few games that measured up to that first one, but to set the bar that high right off the bat was an unbelievable high.
I never did make Eagle Scout, topping out at First Class, just a couple of skill awards shy of Star. It didn’t feel cool to be a scout in my mid-teens and I found other pursuits. One of those was watching every Ohio State game I could.