“My photograph is in that book!” exclaimed a tall, rangy, skuzzy-bearded guy, maybe late 50s, wearing an old, red ballcap with the word “Vineyard” over the image of a black dog. Is he supposed to be a guard-dog for the Thunderbird winery? An oenophilic junkyard dog?
He was pointing to a large-format, comb-bound book – displayed on an easel on our counter – of “Hotline to Victory”, one of three increasingly scarce books by the late, sometimes-great-and-certainly-legendary former OSU football coach, Woody Hayes. (Genuflect now in the direction of Ohio Stadium as you say His name, unless of course, you were offended when he ended his storied career by punching a Clemson player on the sideline, and was caught by a TV camera.)
In ColumBucks, Ohio, we’re always alert to the possibility of selling the expensive Hayes titles to Buckeye booknuts. The most important Hayes-ing of rookie bookies in Columbus is to advise them of the desirability of Woodies. His books sell as well as the ubiquitous handmade strings of buckeye necklaces urged on the 100,000 or so worshippers at a Saturday home game in The ‘Shoe – for “Horseshoe”, a shape-inspired nickname for the stadium – by the clutter of vendors – some licensed – lining the hallowed paths to the sacred field.
The scarcest Hayes book is his first, “Football at Ohio State”, a rare large-format softcover which currently sells for $350, and like “Hotline”, was intended only for the football coaches of Ohio, not the general public, so few copies show up. The most popular, and the only one to ever be bookstore-stocked is “You Win with People”, which had two editions, and while not common, can usually be found once in a while in secondhand bookshops.
We have three in stock right now, but considering the football-crazy population around here – where some people have painted their homes scarlet and gray, the motto of Columbus bookdealers is “You win with Woody”. We’ll buy as many copies of any Hayes book offered to us.
Woody enjoyed his fame, and happily signed a lot of his books; which adds about 50% to the value. He always used a red – oops, scarlet – marker and wrote, “Go Bucks! Woody Hayes”. If he had ever been induced to write “Go Michigan!” in a book – in Wolverine blue, it would now sell on Ebay for thousands of dollars, but that was as likely to happen as President Bush saying, “Oops, my bad about Iraq.”
All bookdealers understand this Buckeye mania to possess anything related to the highly-successful football team, so we buy any related books extolling past OSU glories: “Archie”, the biography of Archie Griffin, the only person to ever win the Heisman trophy twice, and so beloved that he has become the very popular president of the Alumni Association; “100 Yards and a Cloud of Dust” – about the team’s old style of straight-ahead running attacks as though the quarterback’s arm was good only for handing off to running backs or lifting beers on High Street, not passing the ball downfield; and several dozen more tomes praising the Scarlet-and-Gray.
Each bookstore in town has a prominent section of such titles to tempt customers, the majority of which are either wearing Buckeye regalia, have block O flags on their cars in the parking lot, or large banners waving on their homes in all neighborhoods of the city. This is not a town for non-football fans, as this baseball fan has regretfully learned. Professionally, though, I do enjoy the cha-ching of turning scarlet-and-gray into green.
This particular former Buckeye player reached for our book on the counter, and asked, “What are you getting for that these days?” He opened the book and saw the price: $225.
His eyebrows reacted to the steep price by scrambling up his forehead like a quarterback evading a blitz. His voice, though, remained steady as he said, “Hmmm…I’m not surprised.
“And this copy is in really good condition, unlike some of the copies I saw shortly after it first came out, in ‘69, wasn’t it?, and coaches were already mutilating it as they made Xeroxes of the plays for high school kids to try and execute.
“Let’s see if I can find my picture,” he muttered, laying the book on the counter and beginning to page through it.
He had trouble finding his face, and talked while he flipped the pages back and forth, growing frustrated.
“These photos illustrate a bittersweet situation,” he said, his eyes never leaving the book, though he was talking to me. “I was the starting quarterback for two years, Two years! But for my senior year I was replaced…and we won the national championship.”
He wasn’t the first Buckeye player to identify himself in the store, but I don’t remember any quarterbacks. One former member of the Buckeye Band – known deservedly as The Best Damn Band in the Land – got excited one day when he spotted an old record album of a ‘70s version of the marching unit and pointed out his face wearing thick black-rimmed glasses amidst a sea of black berets and scarlet uniforms. I asked that trumpet player if he’d like to buy our copy. “Nah, I already have five or six of them.”
I asked our first quarterback who the QB was that replaced him.
He looked up and his eyes met mine.
“I won’t say his name.”
“Just like Woody wouldn’t say the name of arch-rival Michigan?” I offered.
“Exactly! He would always call it ‘that school up north’.”
I knew that it would be easy to research his replacement if I really cared enough to look it up (I don’t), so I didn’t push him to reveal something he obviously still hadn’t come to terms with, 40 football seasons later.
“Here it is!” he cried, happily pointing at a full page of seven small black and white photos under the heading, “The Third Choice: Senior Quarterback Bill Long scored Ohio State’s second touchdown in the 1968 upset of Purdue.”
It shows a young Bill fading back to pass – his face obscured by his football helmet, looking for a receiver but finding none, then having to scramble for running room, and finally diving across the goal line for the score.
Four decades later he stood there amazed to see his past represented in our bookshop, and proudly described the play from his perspective, his forefinger moving from photo to photo, reliving the moment, back again to his junior year in college, all the years since then swept away by paper and ink.
I quickly asked him if he’d sign the page, and he just as quickly said, “I’d love to!”, making me wonder if anyone had asked the replaced star to do that in the years since the play-book first came out.
When he finished I took the book and looked at his signing: “Tuck that ball away! Go bucks! Bill Long”.
“This is a great bookstore, not many like it any more,” he observed, swiveling his head around to take it all in. “I’ve always had the dream to retire to my hometown and open up a used bookshop.”
Another customer, wearing a crisp white-on-green Notre Dame ballcap had been listening to Bill, and stepped forward to ask to see his page of stardom.
The crinkly-eyed guy with the body of a fullback admired the QB’s page, then began leafing through the book, turning the pages and looking at the play diagrams.
“Man! I used to coach high school football in Texas for 10 years, and we never had any playbook like this,” he exclaimed, looking up at the old quarterback, grizzled gridiron vets brought together by Woody. “It would have been very helpful,” he said, then punchlined with a broad smile, “We might actually have won a few games!”
He and his son bought a few non-football books, then left, saying to the quarterback and me, “It’s really strange. I’ve always been an OSU fan, and I loved Woody Hayes growing up, even though I was born and raised in Texas. And here I end up living in Woody’s Columbus, and my boys are all wild about the Bucks.”
Long replied that it wasn’t that strange; OSU and Texas had two of the premier programs in collegiate football. The stout Texan reached back to shake Bill’s hand, then banged out the side door as though he was shouldering into a tackling dummy. You just know that he and his boy were going to be talking football all the way home, though it’s the pigskin offseason, the middle of February, when the local Dispatch gives no more than a page and a half daily to OSU football news at this time of year.
It was obvious that the former football star was thrilled to be talking about his OSU playing days, not only to me, but to this former football coach – someone who really understood what it was like to suit up, as opposed to the bookdealer who was displaying the book with his pictures – a baseball-and-book-loving man whose athletic suiting-up days peaked with three minutes of varsity basketball playing time during my senior year in high school.
I wished that my colleague, Christine Hayes, didn’t have the day off, for she is Woody’s second cousin and would have enjoyed Long’s appearance and story.
This Buckeye star wasn’t done talking at me. He was so engrossed in his memories that he didn’t notice that I was taking notes the whole time he chatted away.
He looked up from the printed past to the bookshop present. “I’ve written two books myself,” he announced. “One was about the Tyson-Douglas fight, and the other was a novel about high school football.
“I took Woody’s name and made the newly-assigned high school coach in my novel a guy named ‘Woods’, but only after I killed off my father, who had been the coach.”
Sometimes I have to prod customers to continue their stories, but this man was a quarterback, not a defensive back, and he was moving forward, down the field, one story at a time.
“I told my father – who had flown 22 successful missions in World War Two – that in my story I gave him a 23rd mission, but he was shot down. Dad wasn’t thrilled, but he’s been such a big supporter of me all through my life that he just shrugged and said that it wouldn’t have been a bad way to go.”
As he replaced the book on its stand, Bill continued about his father. “Even though my mother was giving birth to my sister one autumn Saturday in 1967, he came to my game against Iowa. My mother was not thrilled, but she did understand, as my father truly had been my high school football coach, and had a lot invested in my collegiate career. The sports headline in the Dispatch the next day was, ‘Victory and New Sister Fill Bill Long’s Day!’”
I chuckled appreciatively, wondering whether that story represented him crossing our conversational goal line.
It was, but he had an extra point to go for.
“I’ll bring you a copy of my novel and you can put it out.”
Oh, yeah, like that will be a hot item. Now if it was the book by the unnamed quarterback who replaced him and took the Buckeyes to the national championship…
But naturally – and sincerely – I said I’d like to see it, and suggested that by the time he returns with a copy – signed, of course, we might be able to find another copy or two of “Hotline to Victory” for him to sign.
“I’d love to do that!” he replied, pleased to be in the spotlight once again.
Then he added, “I should buy one of those from you!”
That’s as likely to happen as he is to lead the Buckeyes to victory on one more Saturday afternoon in Columbus, OH-IO.