OSU seniors chase demons

Sunday, November 22, 1998

COLUMBUS - Thousands of Ohio State fans stormed the field just before the end, wanting to purge a decade of Michigan disappointments in one afternoon. Just then, the senior linebacker Jerry Rudzinski decided he needed to look up into the stands one final time.

"During timeouts, I'd take a moment to look around at the crowd, to see all that scarlet and gray," he said.

The police and the security cops yielded. The red-wearing fans spilled onto the grass. Ohio State beat Michigan for the first time since '94 and the second time in 11 years 31-16. The field looked like it was bleeding.

Rudzinski noticed. You tend to notice more when your time is tight, when the clock stops ticking at precisely four years. You go from insider to outsider, just like that. When time is short, it is also precious. Damn right, Rudzinski noticed. Noticed it all.

"When the people rushed the field. I just shook my head and said, 'this is as good as it gets,' " he said.

The Buckeyes dominated Michigan. They scored 14 points in the first five minutes, then relaxed and let loose their talents. "We came out smoking," said coach John Cooper. "We were not going to go against Michigan and tighten up."

They never led by less than 11. The question of how the Bucks would react in a close game, with 10 years of choking and bad karma as their reference points, never came up.

Michael Wiley ran 53 yards off right end for the first score, Joe Germaine threw 16 yards down the middle to Dee Miller for the next. Ohio State freed itself from its familiar Chicken Little position, and just played.

Buckeyes wideout David Boston, the cockiest jock ever to come from a town called Humble (Texas), caught 217 yards worth of passes, each yard a response to the pounding he has taken since last year's loss at Ann Arbor, a game Boston "guaranteed" Ohio State would win.

"I've matured," Boston said.

Jerry Rudzinski noticed it all. "I always watch the offense," he said.

If you're lucky and good, you play four years of college ball and finish with a moment like the one Rudzinski got Saturday. You work, you sweat, you do what's required. You leave with a roar ringing your ears.

"It's why you play," Rudzinski said.

It's possible for poetry to appear in shoulder pads. You know that if you've watched Deion Sanders return a punt. Or if you saw the scene unfolding around Rudzinski and the Buckeyes late Saturday afternoon.

"I wanted to get into the locker room with my teammates and sing the fight song," Rudzinski said. "But part of me didn't want to leave that field."

He was asked if there were a picture he'd take from his last game in Ohio Stadium. If in 10 years you close your eyes and recall this day, what might you see?

"Running through the Tunnel of Pride at the beginning of the game, and seeing my parents at the end," Rudzinski said.

This is the way the game should be. Distilled to its essence, rinsed of money. There's a clarity to it that everyone should know. It's nothing more than winning your last game at home, hearing the roars and finding your parents in the welcoming line.

"This is the best feeling right here, going out a winner in the Horseshoe," said Miller, another senior.

David Boston doesn't grasp that yet, but he will. He's a junior. Boston was the star of the game. When someone asked him if he celebrated, Boston said, "I was the first one off the field. For real. I came off with the refs."

Rudzinski knew better. He has one game left to play football, in whatever bowl OSU attends. He's a two-year starter, but not a pro prospect. One game before a career and a lifetime is done.

Rudzinski lingered in the madness. "I was in no hurry to get back to the locker room," he said. A small gash decorated his chin, a game souvenir. It was scarlet.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.