Before the dawn of two centuries past, Ohioans and Michiganders were settling their differences through violent, combative sport on a pitch of grass and dirt.
One-hundred and twenty-two years later, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have yet to sort out those grievances.
It’s a battle that’s been unfolding so long, two of America’s largest stadiums have been erected around it, but it’s not just in the ’Shoe and Big House that the war is waged, nor is the conflict limited to the confines of Columbus and Ann Arbor.
The hottest bed for rivalrous contention may just be Toledo, Ohio, a city caught in the crossfire of geographical middle ground, households divided and –– very nearly –– a war outside the parameters of the gridiron.
“I was helping a guy fit car mats one day. He stops all of a sudden and says, ‘You are an Ohio State fan, right?’” Chris Mason, owner of the Toledo-area Buckeye Wolverine Shop, said. “Totally disrupted, and I looked at him real serious and I said, ‘I am right now.’ And he goes, ‘Well that’s a pretty good answer.’”
Chris and his brother Mark Mason got in the business of monetizing the area’s split allegiances nine years ago when they bought and refurbished a store that best showcases Toledo’s bipartisan college football fandom. The Buckeye Wolverine Shop, less than an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor, is a treasure trove for Ohio State and Michigan merchandise and memorabilia, split 50-50 with gear from both sides of the rivalry.
“It is absolutely comical around here,” Chris Mason said. “You’ll walk up to somebody, and they’re over on the Michigan side or they’re over on the Ohio State side, and I’ll say, ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ ‘Oh, no, I’m just finding something for my boss or my brother-in-law.’ And they’ll literally pick things up and walk up to the front holding it away from them. It gets pretty comical because you have to bag stuff separately. They don’t want it touching.”
For the sake of business, Mason keeps his personal allegiance close to the vest so as not to ostracize a portion of the customers. He said it’s common that family members on opposing sides will come in and argue among themselves, particularly as The Game draws nearer.
Less than a quarter of a mile south of Mason’s shop, South Reynolds Road turns into Conant Street, named after Horatio Conant, a physician instrumental in an Ohio-Michigan discordance some believe to be the precursor to the modern football friction.
The Toledo War was a territorial dispute over the boundary lines drawn for Ohio and Michigan that lasted more than 30 years, originally stemming from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Though there were no casualties in the conflict, both sides sent militias into the disputed area, which included the mouth of the Maumee River, in the 1830s. Forces from Ohio and Michigan met at opposite banks of the river, and it took the involvement of President Andrew Jackson to finally resolve the situation peacefully in 1836.
Nearly 200 years later, Toledo native and 2014 Ohio State graduate Katie Sullivan became something of a front-line soldier in the conflict’s modern iteration.
“My dad is an Indians, Cavs, Browns, Ohio State fan. My mom is a Michigan, Tigers, Pistons, Lions fan,” Sullivan said. “My mom’s mom went to Michigan, so my whole side of that family are huge Michigan fans. My dad’s side of the family is all Ohio State fans. That’s just how I grew up.”
Growing up in Whitehouse, a suburb of Toledo, Sullivan’s allegiance was chosen for her –– split between Michigan and Ohio teams across sport and league. For college football, Sullivan was raised in support of the maize and blue, something she said was not well-received during her time at Ohio State.
Watching The Game at a bar three years ago, Sullivan said her Michigan sweater stood out like a sore thumb in a crowd of scarlet and gray. Unlike the Toledo War, tensions eventually boiled over into something physical.
A Buckeye fan approached Sullivan during the second quarter and asked why she was sporting the enemy’s garb. Perturbed that Sullivan was a Michigan fan, she pressed the issue, prompting Sullivan to respond with, “Do you even know who your quarterback is?” The Ohio State fan proceeded to spit in Sullivan’s face, and the altercation had to be broken up.
“It’s just what I expect at this point,” Sullivan said.
The rivalry has always been big, former 43-year Ohio State athletics employee Larry Romanoff said. But the native of Ottawa Hills, less than 15 minutes from downtown Toledo, said Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler’s first clash in 1969 took it to the next level.
That was the first of 50 consecutive Ohio State-Michigan games Romanoff would go on to attend, but he wasn’t rooting for his childhood favorite Wolverines.
“I wrote a letter to Bump Elliott of Michigan. I wrote a letter to Woody, seeing if I could become team manager,” Romanoff said. “Woody and his assistants sent a letter saying they’d love to have me. I never heard from Michigan.”
Romanoff stuck around not only for the “10 Year War,” but up through the end of the Meyer-Harbaugh era, and the three shared more than one another’s presence in a football stadium once a year.
Meyer and Harbaugh were also born in Toledo, seven months apart in the same location –– Mercy Hospital.
The Game isn’t played in Toledo –– and never will be –– but it sure does live there. It means something more to the customers at the Mason brothers’ store, a fan willing to get spit on in the name of her team and Romanoff: It’s just where they’re from.
“That’s the way I was raised,” Romanoff said. “That that game is of utmost importance.”