The Greater Columbus Sports Commission’s "Morning Sports Report" has become an annual event for the GCSC to bring together various members of the athletics community in Central Ohio to recap the events of the past 12 months and highlight those to come in the future.
Along with the 2015 NHL All-Star Game and associated festivities, the newest feathers in the cap for Central Ohio in the coming months are seven high school football championship games that will be held at Ohio Stadium in December.
While the 2014 (and ’15) OHSAA football championship games were awarded to Columbus a little more than four years ago, they finally become reality late this fall with seven games scheduled to be held Dec. 4-6. That will end a run of 24 straight years Canton and Massillon hosted the games in Northeast Ohio.
"Every student-athlete that grows up in the state of Ohio that plays football, their dream is to play in Ohio Stadium," assistant OHSAA commissioner Beau Rugg said Thursday morning. "So we’re really really happy to provide that opportunity to them. Of course all the amenities in the stadium that we can provide to our fans is awesome. It’s certainly great in a state like Ohio that has great sports to have great facilities in the geographic center of the state, so it’s a great fit for us."
Ohio Stadium is no stranger to being the site of high school championship games, but the last time it happened was 1989 when Cleveland St. Ignatius beat Cincinnati Moeller in Division I, Cleveland St. Joseph topped Fostoria in Division II, Ironton won the Division III game against Campbell Memorial, Wheelersburg triumphed over Warren JFK in Division IV and Minster won the Division V game against McDonald. Ohio Stadium hosted most of the championship games from 1982-89. Prior to that, title games were played in a variety of places including Akron, Dayton, Cincinnati and Springfield.
Before starring at Ohio State in the early ’90s, Bobby Hoying quarterbacked St. Henry to the top of the state’s smallest division for the first time in school history in 1990, but all these years later he still sounded a bit sorry the Redskins’ title came at Massillon’s Paul Brown Tiger Stadium.
"It was one of those games where we were down three touchdowns going into the fourth quarter, and we came back and won the game in Massillon’s stadium," recalled Hoying, who joined fellow former Ohio State standouts Paul Warfield and Beanie Wells on state at the Morning Sports Report on Thursday at the Columbus Convention Center. "I can’t imagine what that would have been like at Ohio Stadium to have that experience and come back to the ‘Shoe."
Hoying still got to play out his dream of playing at Ohio Stadium, though, something he is happy more kids will be able to do over the next two seasons.
"We’re all very lucky sitting up here playing in Ohio Stadium," Hoying said. "We know what that’s like, but to kids that won’t have that opportunity, I think it’s just a great, great thing to have that come back."
Warfield and Wells, like Hoying, are products of Ohio high schools, and they agreed there is something special about suiting up for a game at the old stadium on the banks of the Olentangy River.
"This is really the pillar of football for the state of Ohio," said Warfield, a multisport star at Warren Harding in the late 1950s. "I think every youngster who plays football in the state of Ohio understands what it means to be associated with football in Ohio Stadium. The years that I played at Ohio State, the stadium was 80,000. Today it’s over 100,000. We’ve had great, great players from other eras that have played there, and I think these youngsters will aspire to try to reach their goals in light of what they’ve learned about past history of playing in Ohio Stadium."
He was a halfback at Ohio State before going on to star as a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins. More than 30 years after he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — commemorating a career that included playing for the only undefeated NFL team of the Super Bowl era — he still recalled what it was like the first time he competed at Ohio Stadium. There were no Ohio high school football playoffs then, but the stadium hosted the state track and field meet.
"For a youngster to come to the state capital was a tremendous experience, but then to be at Ohio Stadium, where the legends such as Chic Harley or (later) Archie Griffin, for a youngster to have that experience to play in that massive stadium, it has to be an exciting point in his life," Warfield said. "Of course in track and field I wanted to be like the immortal Jesse Owens — and I’ll toot my own horn and say I broke Glenn Davis’ record in the hurdles — but it was a tremendous experience and exciting to me and I know coming back to Columbus is going to be big for Ohio high school football."
Wells, a five-star recruit who signed with Ohio State out of Akron Garfield, picked quite a game to make his first appearance at Ohio Stadium — the top five showdown with Texas in September 2005. It was a game the Longhorns won in the final moments thanks to a touchdown pass from Vince Young to Limas Sweed and also one that left a lasting impression on Wells. Yet he admitted the feeling a little less than a year later when he walked out of the tunnel in scarlet and gray for the first time as the Buckeyes took on Northern Illinois in the 2006 season opener was even better.
"The stadium was electric that night (against Texas), and the difference coming out for the first game and actually playing was I was suited up coming out of the tunnel," Wells said. "I didn’t come out of the tunnel during recruiting, and running out on that field and seeing 100,000 people chanting your name, I’m a kid from Akron and a small school and I was nervous."
For at least the next two Decembers, hundreds more will get a taste of that feeling — no scholarship offer required.