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Published: Friday, 1/3/2003

Buckeye fans at home in Arizona

BY JOHN HARRIS
AND DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITERS

TEMPE, Ariz. - If the people in Arizona didn't know what a Buckeye was before, they do now.

Ohio State fans have descended upon central Arizona for tonight's Fiesta Bowl football game between Ohio State and the University of Miami.

The game, which will be televised at 8 p.m. on WTVG, Channel 13, is the finale of the college football season. The winner will be the national champion.

Ohio State hasn't won a national title since 1968, so its fans are especially enthusiastic. They are congregating in pubs and restaurants throughout the “Valley of the Sun.” Some of the gatherings are well-planned. Some are spontaneous. Most are raucous.

Local newspapers and TV stations have done stories on the phenomenon that is the Buckeye faithful.

In the state capital of Phoenix, in Scottsdale, and in Tempe, Buckeye fans outnumber Miami fans 5-to-1. Maybe more.

“People here didn't even know what a Buckeye was, so I explained that it was from an Ohio tree, that it was a useless nut that even squirrels didn't like, and people carried them around in their pocket for luck,” said Tamera Taylor, a Toledoan.

The education doesn't end there.

Before tonight's game, Buckeye fans will tailgate in the parking lot at Sun Devil Stadium, showing fans of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals - if they can find any - how that time-honored ritual is done properly. All that's left will be teaching the locals the words to Ohio State's alma mater, “Carmen Ohio.”

The easiest way to determine that Ohio State fans have taken over Maricopa County is to count the large number of people dressed in Buckeye colors walking on sidewalks, shopping in stores, and eating and drinking in local establishments.

Wednesday night, at the intersection of South Forest Avenue and East Fifth Street in Tempe, a couple of hundred Ohio State fans squeezed into the Varsity Club restaurant and bar.

Looking left and right and then over her shoulder at the sea of people wearing red and white was Columbus native Debbie Weaver, who now lives in nearby Chandler.

“We moved here five years ago, but we're Buckeyes at heart,” Ms. Weaver said. “This is so awesome. It does feel like they brought Ohio out here.”

“This is a dream come true,” said Sean Kocheran of Columbus, who traveled to Arizona with his wife, Janice. The Kocherans were celebrating with Columbus natives Tim and Darlene Richards, who moved to Phoenix eight years ago.

“The Buckeyes are a Cinderella story,” Mr. Kocheran said. “This isn't the strongest team we've had in the last 10 years, but Tressel keeps them together and somebody steps up and makes the play when they need it. That's what makes this team great.

“The Buckeyes are like family. This is like family,” said Sean Kocheran, gesturing around the room.

The Varsity Club is less than a mile from Sun Devil Stadium.

“It feels like a home game,” Mr. Kocheran said.

Seated nearby was Ray Matwich of Warren, Ohio, who traveled with his wife, Susan, to cheer for the Buckeyes and to watch son Geoff play trumpet in Ohio State's marching band. The band will perform at halftime of tonight's national championship game.

“It's like being in Columbus,” Ray Matwich said. “We're staying in Phoenix, but we took a bus here and this has been great. There's nothing but Buckeye fans here. It's unbelievable.”

“The band has been out here three or four days,” said Geoff Matwich, a senior at OSU. “We've had practice. We had the [Fiesta Bowl] parade and the New Year's Eve party. It's been really exciting. I saw two or three Miami fans. That's about it.”

“At least five-to-one,” Ray Matwich said. “Buckeye fans over Miami fans.”

Most of these Buckeye fans will return to their homes this weekend.

But not Ms. Taylor and her husband, Richard Flick. They're in Arizona to stay.

They are big Ohio State football fans, but they plan to watch tonight's game from Buckeye, Ariz., a little town about 40 miles west of Tempe.

They pulled up stakes in Toledo a few days ago with all of their most cherished possessions - pig collectibles, a Harley Davidson beer can collection, and memorabilia of the late Dale Earnhardt - packed to the ceiling of their car, and $1,000 in their pockets.

Ms. Taylor, 39, had worked at two Denny's Restaurants in Toledo that were both closed. Mr. Richard, 48, a Scott High School graduate, was laid off from his job in Toledo.

They were bound for Phoenix to discover fame and fortune, but when they got there Ms. Taylor said she was overwhelmed by the size of the city.

“When we hit Phoenix I never saw a town that big and I said, `Get me off the beaten path,' so we got on Route85 and headed for Yuma,” she added. “On the way there we pulled into the Sonic Drive-In and I saw cotton fields and cows and I thought I was back home in Georgia, where I was born.

“We had traveled 3,200 miles getting here after leaving the Buckeye State and there was Buckeye. I said, `This is it. This is as far as we're going. We'll get a motel room and I'll find a job.'

“I don't know what it is about Buckeyes, but I cling to them.”

Ms. Taylor got a job at the Sonic and the couple moved into the Curv-In Motel, located on the bend in the road across from the Sonic.

Buckeye was originally named “Sidney” by Malin M. Jackson, after his home in Ohio. He helped build a nearby canal in 1886, which he named the “Buckeye Canal.” Because of its significance to the area, the name of the town was changed to “Buckeye” in 1910.

“I want to go to this football game so bad,” Ms. Taylor said. “The closest I've gotten to an Ohio State football game was a tailgate party. Richard has gone to about 50 games and keeps his ticket stubs in a scrapbook.

“We're strictly Ohio State football and NASCAR fans. When Dale Earnhardt was killed a couple of years ago, my husband cried for three days straight.”



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