Nearly 200 players will gather around the field at the Big House Saturday to take part in one of sport’s greatest rivalries — one that existed long before and will exist long after their involvement.
Like the years themselves, radio’s Paul Keels, superfan “Big Nut” and Buckeye student section Block “O” have witnessed many more Ohio State-Michigan rivalry games than any one player could participate in, and their continued passion conveys why it’s more than just a game.
“It’s the game of games of all games,” Jon Peters, more commonly known as “Big Nut,” said. “That probably sounds kind of cliche, but it is. There’s nothing that can compare because when those two teams get together, the excitement, the energy, is just so intense. The atmosphere is just so intense.”
Peters’ first taste of the rivalry was in 1976, when his grandfather took him to Ohio Stadium. It was 20 years later, though, that Peters’ extreme fandom started. In 1996 he began dressing up for local competitions, and by 2003, the scarlet and gray clad fanatic could be seen in his customary face paint at Ohio State games each season.
Since then, Peters has seen quite a few Michigan games, and both in-game crowds and television audiences have seen him too. And nearly every year, the man who gives away up to 100 Buckeye necklaces at almost every home game has had something to cheer about when the clocks hit zero.
“A rivalry is something where both teams — one will win one year and the other will win the following year, back and forth. But it’s been pretty dominant by Ohio State, obviously,” Peters said. “So I think there’s a lot of discontent, a lot of upset Wolverine fans out there. But that’s just the way it is. Sorry about their luck.”
But Keels, the voice of the Buckeyes for 22 years, remembers a time when The Game wasn’t quite so one-sided. In his 20s, Keels spent six years working in Detroit and broadcasting games for Michigan.
“I grew up in the ’70s, back during the “10 Year War,” when it was Woody [Hayes] and Bo [Schembechler] and usually, the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game was the Big Ten champion,” Keels said. “It would be the one Big Ten team that would go to the Rose Bowl. Now, even though we have divisions, and it’s not the same as far as the Rose Bowl being the destination — it’s still Ohio State-Michigan. That’s what makes it special.”
Keels has been a part of some of the rivalry’s most special moments, broadcasting Ohio State’s 2002 victory that spurred it onto the national championship, as well as 2006’s “Game of the Century.”
“I think it’s something that even the casual sports fans get excited about, whether they’re from one school or the other,” Keels said. “The casual sports fan in either state probably pays more attention to that game than they do any of the other games. But I think it also expands beyond both schools and both states. I think even the casual college football fans have come to understand that Ohio State and Michigan is something special.”
Ohio State wouldn’t have one of the most storied rivalries in sports without its students. Block “O,” the official student section of the Buckeyes, takes up the stands in Ohio Stadium’s north and south end zones.
“I think that carrying on tradition helps a lot,” Block “O” vice president Nicole Zaayer said. “Especially with the rivalry game, we’re doing a new rivalry run with Nike this year, and just trying to innovate and have something new to go along with the tradition, because tradition is such a huge part of Ohio State.”
Students from both schools take the rivalry beyond a single game. The whole week becomes a spectacle.
“I think the interaction between the two schools is a great thing. I think the students — It’s something that they look forward to every year,” Peters said. “It’s not just a one-day thing when it comes to these two universities. It’s something you look forward to. It helps create competition. It helps drive people to become the best that they can be.”
The traditions of Michigan Week are legendary on Ohio State’s campus. Block “O” helps build excitement for the game, whether it’s home or at Michigan Stadium.
“It kind of creates this kind of celebration for both universities, where everyone at the university — even if you’re not big into sports, you know about the rivalry, and you’re going to celebrate it,” Zaayer said. “The rivalry doesn’t just mean the football game. It happens with every sport. I think it kind of creates an opportunity for everyone at the university to come together and celebrate something really awesome.”
Inhabitants of either state, which share a border on top of the century-plus long rivalry, know that The Game transcends the categorization of simple sporting event.
“It’s becoming bigger than what just the game of football is about,” Peters said. “It’s bragging rights for the whole year. It’s just an amazing game.”