Those crisp leaves and their dazzling colors are just part of what makes Ohio special each autumn.
As if football wasn’t enough.
The obsession for the sport is so strong it was probably best captured by author Jerome Brondfield in his 1974 New York Times best-seller “Woody Hayes and the 100-yard War.”
“Ohio is a state, first of all, which if it has raised any kind of False God before the Lord, looks upon football with idolatrous eyes,” Brondfield noted. “Where an appearance at the Friday night high school football game is probably more obligatory than at church on Sunday morning.”
What has fueled such passion?
Grab a handful of pigskin, grip the laces and examine this phenomenon.
Leading high school lore, Massillon started a tradition in 1954 that lives to this day. Each boy born in the city of 32,000 receives a miniature rubber football from the booster club.
Everyone knows the allure of college football at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are only part of our story.
On June 28, Cedar Point celebrated the 100th anniversary of the forward pass. Why?
Notre Dame quarterback Gus Dorias and end Knute Rockne famously honed their passing combination at Cedar Point’s beach during the summer of 1913. While passing was legal, few teams employed the strategy. But the Fighting Irish had to try something revolutionary when facing overwhelming favorite Army in New York. On Nov. 1, Notre Dame unleashed its stunning passing attack to upset the Cadets 35-13, launching the program to national prominence.
The Fighting Irish also can look to Ohio for producing two of Grantland Rice’s immortal Four Horseman. Now running the program from the sidelines, Rockne called Don Miller the greatest open field runner he ever coached. Ironically, Miller barely played at Defiance High School. The other Buckeye native, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, hailed from Massillon, where he was a very good but not great player when viewed in the context of elite Tigers.
The National Football League, the most successful professional sports organization in the Western Hemisphere, was founded on Sept. 17, 1920, at a Canton garage. Pro football owners met at the Hupmobile auto showroom of Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA). It was renamed the NFL in 1922, and the league’s first president was Jim Thorpe.
Although Thorpe played at various Ohio stops, he was not a native. Yet plenty of other stars have compiled a superb legacy for us, and represent each corner of the state — punctuating every era of the sport.
Quarterback Benny Friedman was perhaps the game’s first gunslinger in the 1920s. A college and pro football Hall of Fame selection, Friedman was a graduate of Cleveland Glenville and an All-American at Michigan. Meanwhile, one of the sport’s most accomplished receivers, Middletown’s Cris Carter, was inducted in Canton earlier this summer.
Len Dawson jump-started the state’s interest in passing when he put up monster numbers at Alliance High School in 1951 and 1952. He went on to an outstanding career at Purdue and was Super Bowl IV MVP for the Kansas City Chiefs. Dawson’s image is cast in bronze at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he has plenty of in-state company.
The NFL’s first defensive MVP was Minnesota Vikings end Alan Page, who won the honor in 1971. A Canton Central Catholic graduate and Notre Dame All-American, Page has been a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice since 1992.
Among other Ohio schoolboys permanently honored at the Pro Football Hall of Fame are Lou Groza, Jack Lambert, Dante Lavelli, Dick LeBeau, Tom Mack and Mike Michalske. Dawson and Groza are both members of the National High School Hall of Fame, too.
The state’s College Football Hall of Fame enshrinees include but are not limited to Bob Babich, Dave Brown, Howard “Hopalong” Cassady, Bob Chappuis, Tom Curtis, Wes Fesler, Randy Gradishar, Tom Hamilton, John Hicks, Les Horvath, Jim Houston, Gomer Jones, Dick Kazmaier, Rex Kern, Mel Long, Jim Lynch, Jim Mandich, Napoleon McCallum, Jim Stillwagon, Pete Stinchcomb and Aurealis Thomas.
Among the Buckeye products to have reached both hallowed halls are Cliff Battles, Bob “Boomer” Brown, Larry Csonka, Dan Dierdorf, Clark Hinkle, George McAfee, Jim Parker and Bill Willis.
Ohioans have won 10 Heisman trophies, and five Buckeye boys were No. 1 overall NFL draft picks: Orlando Pace, Ki-Jana Carter, Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson, Tom Cousineau and Frank Sinkwich. Cleveland St. Joseph’s grad Desmond Howard claimed the 1991 Heisman Trophy for Michigan and was MVP of Super Bowl XXXI.
At the prep level, Art Schlichter, Keith Byars, Robert Smith, Andy Katzenmoyer, Maurice Clarett, and Ted Ginn Jr. were all voted national high school football players of the year by one source or another in the past 35 years. There could have been at least one more, too. LeBron James was twice an All-Ohio receiver at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s before not playing his senior year. National recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said James may have been the No. 1 prospect in the nation his senior year had he played football.
Review that list of names and think about this: Over the next 12 weeks we will profile the cream of the crop of Ohio football. Each Tuesday during football season, we’ll reveal an individual who ranks among the 11 best players and top coach in the history of this state.
Design your own list and let’s compare notes.
Here’s our only hint, none of our personalities have been mentioned once in this story.
Are you ready for some football?