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DEFIANCE — A truck driver from Defiance had a portrait of Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer inked on the inside of his forearm — one of his 17 Buckeyes-themed tattoos.
A couple in Sandusky named their daughter Scarlet Gray.
A Fremont man painted his face to win a basket of cookies as the best-dressed OSU fan at a local fund-raiser, only to become the school’s most prominent supporter. He now awakes at 4 a.m. on game days to spend two hours transforming into Big Nut.
How zany are Ohio State fans in northwest Ohio? Maybe it’s best not to ask.
“If I miss a game, there better be a death in the family,” said Jon Peters, the 53-year-old better known as Big Nut. “Because, if not, there will be.”
Buckeyes fans on the front line of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry are but a minority of a sweeping, unsurpassed football tribe. A study by the New York Times — using a formula that included fan surveys, team revenues, and Google search traffic to allocate the nation’s roughly 75 million to 80 million college football fans — found Ohio State to have an estimated 3.2 million supporters. (Michigan was second with 2.9 million fans, followed by Penn State and Notre Dame.)
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Yet perhaps nowhere is that passion channeled in more unique ways than in these contested lands.
Expressing the sentiment of many of northwest Ohio’s scarlet-blooded diehards, Terry Hoellrich said, “If there is a bigger fan, I would sure like to meet them.”
Mr. Hoellrich, 57, lives for Buckeyes football, to the point where he said he can provide a scouting report on every high school player the team is recruiting.
As the owner of a rig that hauls farm machinery, he drives 17 hours per day to fund his “obsession.” The reward is tickets to several OSU games, a 93-inch television in the Buckeyes-themed home he shares with his understanding fiancee, and, of course, the tattoos.
Mr. Hoellrich got his first Ohio State tattoo seven years ago — Brutus Buckeye spitting fire at a Block M — and never stopped. The motif could best be described as Earle, Woody, and Fire. He has entrusted the job to three artists, including Toledo’s Jenna Spencer, spending thousands of dollars on a collection ranging from the likenesses of former coaches Jim Tressel and Woody Hayes to the declaration, “Damn Right I’m a Buckeye.” Most come equipped with flames. His head and neck remain as the only vacant real estate.
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“I’ve always been the type of person who likes different things,” Mr. Hoellrich said. “I don't like what everyone else likes, so I try to find something unique. When you’re out here on the road, you’ve got a lot of time to think ... And I’m just a nut when it comes to Ohio State.”
He is hardly alone. Ohio State has offered the inspiration for baby names too.
The wave of babies named Tressel, for instance, began in Clyde. Jason Webb and Pam Schubach lived on Buckeye Street there when, in 2002, they learned they would be having a baby boy. Amid the glow of the Buckeyes’ national championship later that year, Webb thought it only natural to name their son after the man who guided them to the peak.
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“He said Tressel should be on the wall next to Jesus and grandma,” Ms. Schubach said with a laugh. “Tressel brought him the championship, so he had to name his firstborn after him.”
Fortunately for Mr. Webb, the boy’s mother liked how the name flowed. And on April 23, 2003, Tressel Webb was born — the first baby to be named Tressel in Ohio since 1985.
Today, despite the scandal that ousted Mr. Tressel in 2011, Ms. Schubach said she has no regrets about her son’s name. “I still respect the guy,” she said.
Young Tressel has embraced his namesake. Friends call him, “Coach,” and he once dressed as Mr. Tressel for Halloween, complete with a sweater vest, tie, and powdered hair. Now in sixth grade, the 11-year-old recently began playing organized football. He is a running back and wears No. 27 after former Buckeye’s great Eddie George.
“He loves Ohio State,” Ms. Schubach said. “We don’t have a rebel.”
Sandusky’s Justin and Kim King aren’t expecting one either. If their second daughter is anything like her older sister, 4-year-old Violet, who greets fall Saturdays with a cheer of “Go Buckeyes,” her name will suit her just fine. ’’
“We liked the name Scarlet, so I just kind of threw it out there. Why don’t we do Scarlet Gray?” said Mr. King, a math teacher at Sandusky High School. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to stick. But it did.”
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Needless to say, 1-year-old Scarlet Gray King is unlikely to swap colors for the Wolverines’ maize and blue.
“I’m hoping that she sticks with it, but I can’t force her,” Mr. King said, laughing. “You always have that black sheep in the family.”
In Fremont, meanwhile, Mr. Peters picked up his appellation later in life.
A devout Buckeyes fan ever since his grandfather took him to his first game at the Horseshoe in 1976 — a 22-0 loss to Michigan that matched hometown Fremont stars Rob Lytle of Michigan and OSU’s Bob Brudzinski — Mr. Peters decided he needed to raise his game. It was the 1995 Ohio State-Michigan fund-raiser at Ole Zim’s Wagon Shed in Gibsonburg, Ohio, and his competition in the best-dressed fan contest included two older women in cardigan sweaters.
“Fortunately, I won,” he said, “because, as you know, the Big Nut likes to eat.”
The Big Nut
Mr. Peters first gained notoriety as Big Nut at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, where he was shown on TV in all of his face-painted — half scarlet, half gray — and scarlet-accessorized glory. Since then, he has become a hit with fans and can be seen every home and road Saturday cheering wildly for Ohio State, often from the front row.
The secret: “Spend lots of money.” An approving wife doesn’t hurt either. It takes anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours for his wife, Terese, to apply his face paint just so, “depending on her mood,” Mr. Peters joked. The couple then hits the road for Columbus by dawn.
As for his rivalry with the Buckeyes’ other “Super Fans,” Mr. Peters said there is none. In fact, he has shared lunches with Buck-I-Guy — known for his cape and cowboy hat — and Buckeye Man.
“I don’t try to make this a competitive thing,” said Mr. Peters, who created a scholarship fund for Sandusky County seniors attending Ohio State. “I’m not trying to be Ohio State’s No. 1 fan. The Big Nut does his own thing his own way. If I can put a smile on someone’s face, that makes my day complete. As long as the Buckeyes win too.”
In a more poignant way, Jim Shumaker of Fostoria knows what the smallest things can mean.
Mr. Shumaker, 82, a retired engineer, said the Buckeyes have helped provide a diversion in his most trying years.
A lifelong fan, he remodeled his basement several years ago into an Ohio State shrine, where he and his buddies gathered to watch games.
No detail is missed, from the Buckeyes-styled refrigerator and bar top to the scarlet and gray couches.
Last week, though, Mr. Shumaker prepared to move on. A Realtor touring the home told him it was the nicest downstairs she had ever seen.
Mr. Shumaker is now in hospice care after a long battle with cancer. He is at peace, though with one more wish.
“I want to live long enough to see the first game,” he said, eyeing the Buckeyes’ opener Aug. 30 against Navy. “But I think I'll have to watch it from heaven."