Ohio Against The World: The story behind the Sugar Bowl sensation
Alabama and the SEC aren’t the entire world — at least not in the greater macro sense. But when it comes to college football, the conference has been the center of the universe for the past decade or so. A dominant force in the BCS era, at least one SEC school reached the title game in the system’s final eight years and only Florida State last season prevented an incredible eighth straight SEC championship.
That all changed on the first day of 2015, the dawning of a new era in the sport.
No. 4 Ohio State went into last Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal (the first in the sport’s history) Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama as the underdog. Plenty of critics wondered if the Buckeyes deserved to be the final team in the playoff, as they catapulted into the top four of the final standings after a 59-0 dismantling of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Debate only further intensified when TCU, one of the Big XII teams in the mix for the fourth playoff bid, crushed Ole Miss, the only team to beat Alabama this season, in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Then came New Year’s Day and the Buckeyes’ chance to prove the doubters wrong.
Led by a third-string quarterback in his second start and winners of a conference maligned by many, the Buckeyes had a chip on their shoulder in the Superdome. It’s a theme that ended up being exemplified by a 21-year-old fan in the stands shown on TV flaunting four words that would soon go viral.
"No matter where you are from, you can conquer anything" — that’s how Ohio Against The World, an apparel company based in the northside neighborhood of Cincinnati describes the motto of its brand on its Facebook page.
While the base of the concept is focused on the Buckeye State, the company calls its creed a "mindset that everyone should incorporate into their lifestyle."
"You don’t necessarily have to be in a major city but you can have a major idea and be resourceful enough to follow through," said James Sutton III, a brand manager who has been with the company since its start in 2009-10.
Ohio Against The World’s products are relatively simple looking, so much so that one snarky Twitter user would never ever purchase the apparel.
I love my home state but there is no way I would ever pay 60 dollars for a Hanes sweatshirt that's says "Ohio against the world"
— Becca (@beccawwh) January 2, 2015
Those hoodies are actually $50, in black (with white and grey lettering) and red (with black lettering). They also sell snapback hats and tees.
The meaning of "Ohio Against The World" is much more significant to the people who have devised and built it.
"Just tell them to keep watching," Sutton III said about critics. The biggest success story is that people are rallying around the idea that you can be something larger than yourself or be your best self is what people are connecting to."
During the summer, the brand received greater exposure when Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James sported one of its hats in an Instagram post.
The moment served as a wakeup call for the group.
"We weren’t prepared at that time," Sutton III said. "But we also promised ourselves that if another situation happened like that again, we would be able to compete with Nike or Puma or Reebok or any other brand for that matter."
A similar situation would arise again, on the first day of the New Year, just not involving one of the most prominent athletes in the world this time, but instead a not-so-famous college kid.
De’Nard Pinckney wasn’t yet sure of his plans for ringing in 2015 — until he got a call from his cousin J.T. Moore, a senior tight end for the Buckeyes.
"He asked what I was doing for New Year’s," Pinckney said. "I was like ‘What are you doing?’ He was like, ‘Well, obviously we’re going to play down in New Orleans.’"
Little did Pinckney know then that the phone call would be the trigger that would eventually lead to a viral moment and night he won’t soon forget.
In the beginning of December, Pinckney, along with his siblings — older brother and sister, as well as younger brother – decided they would take their cousin up on his offer to watch the Buckeyes play the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.
Pinckney, who played football for Fordham University in New York, wasn’t born a Buckeye but bred into one, moving to Ohio when he was 10 or 11.
"Coming up here, we knew nothing about Ohio State and all that – the hype and everything like that," Pinckney said. "It [Buckeye fanhood] developed when I was 14 or 15, when I really got into college football."
After a 13-hour drive down to the Big Easy, the Pinckney clan was there in the Superdome, De’Nard clad in a grey sweatshirt emblazoned with "Ohio Against The World" in black, capital letters.
About that shirt — it wasn’t even De’Nard’s.
"I’ve been playing football in New York for four years so basically all my gear comes from my school," Pinckney said. "I didn’t really have any Ohio State shirts or jerseys or anything like that."
But he had to rep the Buckeyes for his cousin’s big game, so his friend Emily, who goes to Ohio State, was able to help out.
"She says, ‘Nothing I have is going to fit you – but I have this sweatshirt,’" Pinckney said. "And I immediately go, ‘Please tell me it’s the Ohio Against The World shirt.’"
Another phone call, another serendipitous exchange.
Pinckney’s borrowed sweatshirt made people take notice as he tailgated before the game. Soon, people around the world would be seeing it.
After Ohio State’s Michael Bennett made a big third-down sack on Alabama’s first drive of the second half, a couple boisterous Buckeye fans — De’Nard and younger brother, JJ – were shown on the TV broadcast of the game.
"I remember we see the play and we just start going crazy. My phone’s in my pocket," Pinckney said. "My older brother, Bernard, he’s like ‘De’Nard, look at your phone.’ He’s like ‘Check your phone.’
"I look at my phone. I have like over 200 text messages and Twitter notifications," Pinckney said. "And I’m like ‘What’s going on?’"
A screenshot of De’Nard, in the "Ohio Against The World" sweatshirt, and younger brother JJ in OSU garb beside him, was only trending worldwide.
Ohio Against The World pic.twitter.com/0coSogNI29
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 2, 2015
As the game continued, and the Buckeyes ultimately knocked off the Crimson Tide 42-35, "Ohio Against The World" grew into a social sensation and rallying cry for the fanbase.
"After the game, I knew it had gotten around the world but I didn’t know how crazy it was," Pinckney said. "We were walking out of the stadium and people keep stopping me like ‘Hey, Ohio Against The World kid, you’re everywhere."
On Bourbon Street, Pinckney said, he couldn’t go ten steps without being stopped to take a picture or to high five a group of people.
Ohio pride — never lacking.
"We saw probably 30,000 visitors to the site within 24 hours, which we never saw," Sutton III said about the unprecedented surge in traffic to OhioAgainstTheWorld.com generated by the Sugar Bowl.
While Sutton III said they couldn’t yet measure the impact on sales, the company has been garnering interest in different places even before the Buckeyes win: "Ohioans are everywhere. Major cities – we get orders from L.A. and New York and Miami – and then you also get these little towns in Iowa or Oklahoma."
Milirary bases too, plus a bevy of other places around the world from Asia to London to – how about this one — the state of the Buckeyes’ opponent in Monday’s title game.
"We ship a lot of T-shirts to Oregon, so don’t be surprised if you see Ohio Against The World shirts in Oregon," Sutton III said.
You also shouldn’t be surprised if you see the brand in Dallas or Arlington in the coming days.
"We’re all going down to the game," Sutton III said. "We’ll be down in Texas looking to connect with new supporters and old supporters alike, and help push the Buckeyes to a win."
De’Nard Pinckney, affectionately known as "Ohio Against The World kid," won’t be at "JerryWorld" Monday. As for his now-infamous sweatshirt, Pinckney said: "I think I’m going to try to throw it on one last time for the National Championship, then frame and save it for my kids, and tell them, ‘Hey, once upon a time, your old man, he was world famous.’"
Fame in the age of social media – sure can be fleeting.
So can glory in college football, as the loser Monday will quickly learn.
"We’ve heard from a few of the Buckeyes players and they’ve embraced the idea," said Sutton III. "We definitely support them. It’s ‘Ohio Against The World.’"
Watch out, World.