ANN ARBOR — When Ohio State travels to Michigan for the 110th edition of college football’s most famed blood feud, it will feel like everything is on the line.
It is hard to imagine it any other way.
Yet Saturday’s game will be played 50 years to the day after this larger-than-life rivalry — inflamed by warfare both real (Toledo War) and perceived (Ten-Year War) — suddenly felt strangely small.
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On Nov. 30, 1963, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination eight days earlier, the Buckeyes traveled to Ann Arbor for the second time in a week.
The details of Ohio State’s 14-10 win are trivial. Players now remember more the tangled emotions of twice preparing to face their rivals — the way the explosive but erudite Woody Hayes cast aside his own political beliefs to comfort a team just as dazed as the rest of the nation — and the eerie sense of playing this game of all games in a nearly empty Michigan Stadium.
With the flag at half mast, only 36,424 fans were scattered about the massive 101,001-seat bowl — the smallest crowd at Michigan since the 1930s.
“It was as if we were playing a scrimmage with some people walking in as opposed to the Ohio State-Michigan game I knew,” said Greg Lashutka, a tight end for the 1963 Buckeyes who later became a two-term mayor of Columbus in the 1990s.
“When I was being recruited [by both teams], Michigan Stadium was packed in 1961, and Ohio Stadium was always packed. It was so contrary to everything I had heard about the game, but nobody cared. We were just playing the game. There were bigger-than-life issues that we were wrestling with.”
All recalled precisely where they were the day their world changed on Nov. 22, 1963.
Michigan freshman running back Jim Detwiler, a DeVilbiss grad, was standing on the steps outside a classroom when a passer-by cried that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Though President Kennedy resonated with college students everywhere, he had a particular connection to Michigan. It was there in October of 1960 where, at 2 a.m. on the steps of the Student Union, the Democratic presidential hopeful had first proposed the idea of the Peace Corps to a crowd of 10,000 students.
Detwiler said students were “openly weeping.”
Ohio State, meanwhile, was already in town. After busing to Ann Arbor in the morning, the Buckeyes practiced at Michigan Stadium and were walking across campus when news of the shooting broke.
“We discounted it at first, and thought there was some craziness in the air,” Lashutka said.
Though recollections of the timeline are faint, players said Hayes promptly gathered the team at their hotel in Ypsilanti. Star receiver Paul Warfield remembers watching with roommate Matt Snell as CBS’ Walter Cronkite informed the nation of Kennedy’s death at 2:38 p.m.
“You’re disillusioned a little bit, asking how this could have happened,” Warfield said in a phone interview this week. “Our emotions, our mood was shock and disbelief.”
A team meeting followed. Floyd Stahl, a 64-year-old OSU assistant who had coached Kennedy as a junior varsity football player at Harvard, shared stories about the president while Hayes explained what was next for the country.
“He talked about the peaceful transition of democracy,” Lashutka said. “Other countries go through revolutions, but he talked about the founding fathers and the structure in place. He told us about other assassinations, and that this was our tragedy.”
Warfield called Hayes, a military history buff, “the right person to be there at that time.”
“He was a true American,” Warfield said. “He loved the state of Ohio first of all, but certainly he loved country. Woody Hayes put into perspective what our country was about and as much as possible made us feel a sense of security that things were going to be fine. ... He knew how our government worked as much as any political science professor. He made us all feel a sense of comfort.”
As for the game the next day, Ben Espy, an OSU halfback from Sandusky, said “no one wanted to play.”
Some teams trudged on. Doyt Perry’s Bowling Green Falcons hosted Xavier as scheduled, and the NFL played Sunday as the president lay in state — a decision commissioner Pete Rozelle later called the biggest mistake of his 29 years in office. But most college games were pushed back, including the OSU-UM game and a battle for the Big Ten title between Illinois and Michigan State.
Ohio State returned home, reported back to practice Monday, and awkwardly went through another week of preparation. Michigan did the same, with a break in between to attend the Lions’ 13-13 Thanksgiving tie against the Green Bay Packers at Tiger Stadium.
With muted enthusiasm, OSU and UM reconvened at Michigan Stadium on Nov. 30. The Buckeyes were 4-3-1, while Bump Elliott’s Wolverines, led by star quarterback Bob Timberlake, were 3-3-2 and 13 years removed from their last Big Ten title. If the rivalry usually transcended the records, players said not even Hayes had it in him to pour kerosene on the conflict this time.
Fans stayed away too.
“The Michigan-Ohio State game is a huge, huge event, and it was just another game,” said Warfield, who was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1983.
Warfield caught a 35-yard touchdown, and the Buckeyes won their fourth straight game over UM. But 50 years later, that is not what he nor anyone else remembers about that week.
“We were glad the season was over,” Lashutka said. “It wasn’t the America we had leading up to that tragedy. We were glad to win, but it was a hollow victory.”