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The man behind the uniform

Photo courtesy of the Ohio State Athletic Department

Former Ohio State lineman Charles Csuri was hesitant to go to New York City on Sept. 1, even though coach Jim Tressel pleaded for him to do so.

Nike was unveiling its line of Pro Combat jerseys, and OSU’s uniforms were to resemble the ones worn by the 1942 squad, which Csuri was a part of, that brought the school its first national championship.

In an attempt to distance itself from creating another stale marketing gimmick, Nike designed the uniforms to pay homage to the team members who traded their OSU uniforms for those of the Armed Forces during World War II. Csuri served as a corporal in the Army during the war, and Tressel wanted him at the event to speak at the press conference.

Csuri reluctantly decided to attend the unveiling after his wife persuaded him. But at 88, getting around isn’t as easy for him as it once was, even though his dark hair and firm handshake belie his age.

At the event, Csuri spoke to a crowd of media about his former teammates while standing next to a stagehand dressed in the uniform. Unknown to him, there was a bronze star on the helmet and gloves with his initials printed on them.

When someone from Nike pointed the star out to Csuri as he was leaving the stage, he realized why Tressel was begging him to go.

“I was surprised, flattered, honored and slightly embarrassed,” Csuri said of the decal. “It was nice.”

Although Tressel kept that small tribute hidden from Csuri, he’s made no secret about his excitement to honor the 1942 team against Michigan on Saturday.

“We’re looking forward to the fact that we’re honoring that 1942 team, which one could argue that that’s when a great part of our tradition began in Ohio State football,” Tressel said. “Not to mention the fact that what those men did once the season was over, they went and served in the ultimate way.”

Few Buckeye football players have served their country better than Csuri.

The son of Hungarian immigrants, Csuri was born in West Virginia and grew up in Cleveland as his family struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

“There were a lot of hungry people,” Csuri said. “People were in a survival mode and had low expectations.”

During his youth, he developed an interest in football and art. He spent his weekday afternoons on the football field and his weekends riding the streetcar to the east side of Cleveland for art classes.

Csuri began attending OSU in 1940 and, like his other teammates, he was just happy to get the chance to go to college.

“We were all children of the Depression, so we had a different level of expectation,” Csuri said. “For most of us, it was just exciting to get a college degree.”

At first, getting that degree seemed like a difficult task. He was a mediocre student by his own account, lagging behind others who went to better secondary schools and primarily spoke English (Hungarian was his first language). His interest in art waned as the economy offered little hope to art as a means of living. Instead, he aspired to become a machinist or cabinet-maker.

He faced imposing odds on the football field as well. At 6-foot-1-inches and slightly more than 205 pounds, he said he was the smallest tackle in the Big Ten.

But Csuri played beyond his small stature, winning the Big Ten’s Most Valuable Player award and being named an All-American in 1942.

That year, he helped the Buckeyes to a 9-1 record and a national championship by clearing lanes for star running backs Les Horvath and Gene Fekete.

But Csuri’s football career was put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He spent a year at the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) studying analytical geometry, calculus and physics, while training to become an officer.

Csuri was sent into combat when the Army needed more troops and served as a forward observer with the 69th Infantry Division, helping to direct artillery fire. He entered at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge and nearly left in a casket.

At one point during the battle, the lines of communication between the front line and the artillery unit had been disconnected, and Csuri volunteered to take information back to Allied headquarters. In the snow-covered forest, he said, he ran across enemy lines, getting his helmet and belt pack shot off during the trek.

“You do things like that when you’re very young,” Csuri said. “When you’re 20 to 21 years of age, you think you’re invincible in a way, or you can’t conceive of your being killed in some respects.”

Csuri said he doesn’t remember much from that episode or the contents of the message he delivered. Nonetheless, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroism during the battle.

Not long after receiving the medal, he tucked it away in a drawer, where it stayed for several years before his daughter discovered it.

Before the 2010 season started, his daughter gave the medal to Tressel, who has it displayed in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

“It was good what I did, but what can I say?” Csuri said. “It’s one of those things that I did when I was very young, but I’ve long since forgotten about it.”

After completing military service in 1946, Csuri returned to OSU and served as a team captain during his senior year. But he was ready to move on from football.

Former OSU coach Paul Brown even recruited him to play professionally when he established the Cleveland Browns, but Csuri turned him down.

“You realize that war isn’t a TV show or movie, it’s something very different,” Csuri said. “You’re just simply not prepared for it.”

“When I came back, I didn’t have the psychological makeup to be as aggressive about things as I was before I went into the war,” Csuri said. “I had no desire to play professional football.”

Instead, he rediscovered his interest in art, studying from renowned art professor Hoyt L. Sherman with classmate and future pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Csuri thrived as a student after years of academic mediocrity.

He stayed at OSU and earned his master’s in art in 1948 before being hired by the school as an art professor.

After several years of teaching drawing and painting to undergraduates, Csuri began studying computers in 1963, hoping to find ways to use technology to expand his artwork and use what he learned when he studied before deployment.

“As I got into it and began to understand it, I saw the implications and I felt that it would have a profound effect upon the culture and the way that we communicate as a society,” Csuri said. “It was clear to me at the outset that this was going to go somewhere.”

When Csuri began working with computers, there was only one computer on the OSU campus. It was larger than most classrooms and returned information on punch cards.

Because there was no commercial software available at the time, Csuri — by then the school’s director of Computer Graphics Research — and a group of doctorate students had to invent everything they worked with, including the algorithms that would generate graphic images.

Getting money from the National Science Foundation to study computer graphics wasn’t easy either, as Csuri had no scientific credentials. But after writing an effective research proposal, he was granted $100,000 by the foundation in 1969.

From there, Csuri’s research was at the cutting edge of computer graphics. His work studying human movement and graphic simulations of different environments even received funding from the Navy.

In 1981, he co-founded Cranston/Csuri Productions, which was one of only three computer animation production companies in the world. The company lasted seven years before folding as productions like Disney became involved in computer graphics.

“The company turned out to be a kind of training ground for many of the people that went into the film industry on the West Coast early in the game on computer graphics,” Csuri sai

Some of Csuri’s former students include Chris Wedge, who directed “Ice Age,” and Steve May, the vice president of Pixar Animation.

While a professor emeritus in 2000, Csuri received the Sullivant Medal, the highest honor given by OSU. He’s someone who Tressel frequently cites as an example to his players of what it means to be a complete person.

“He has an enduring humility that’s refreshing,” Tressel wrote about Csuri in his book The Winner’s Manual. “He cared so much about the teams he was on that he was willing to sacrifice for them. He embodies all of the fundamentals we’ve been talking about.”

But as much as Tressel preaches to his players about being well-rounded human beings, Csuri is discouraged at the failure of many athletes to heed such advice.

“I wish young people could realize that there is life after football,” Csuri said. “It’s a little disheartening to me that I talk to players and that almost every one of them thinks they’ll make it in the NFL. They won’t. And the ones that do make it will be there temporarily.”

Only 12 members are still alive from the 1942 team, and some of them will be driven around on golf carts at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.

All of them will probably be wearing jewelry as well.

At an art function several years ago, Csuri’s wife spotted Tressel, who was wearing his 2002 National Championship ring. During their conversation, Tressel learned that the players from the 1942 team were never awarded championship rings and, within a few weeks, had personalized rings ordered for every living player from the team.

But the unity among those players, more than any accolade or piece of jewelry, is what Csuri most treasures.

“Of course you have to be proud of our record, but I think what was most meaningful to me was the kind of camaraderie we had,” Csuri said. “What’s nice about athletics is that there’s a quality of trust and confidence in one another that is rare. It’s something that’s very attractive to the players even after they leave college.”

The rings, like the uniforms, are an overdue tribute to a legendary generation that’s getting smaller every day.

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