With the elements conspiring against them and the temperature dropping, just one thing was certain at the north end of Ohio Stadium on Saturday night.
The members of the Navy, Army and Air Force ROTC charged with lowering the massive flag that oversaw the final home football game of the season weren’t going anywhere until it was safely lowered and stored away. That meant that after enduring a torrential downpour that blanketed the second half and with the temperature plummeting toward freezing, the American flag that was currently tied into a knot about 100 feet in the air inside an empty stadium was their only priority.
“As soon as the clock hits zero we start hoisting it down and getting out of there,” said ensign Christopher Harris, the officer in charge for the flag ceremonies at Ohio Stadium this year. “We try to do it as quick as we can. Then zero-minute mark came down, my guys get on the line and they try to hoist it down and it doesn’t move at all. It didn’t move an inch.
“At that moment, we knew we were going to be there for a minute because obviously we’re not going to leave it up.”
It would be 23 minutes, to be precise, from when the Buckeyes finished a blowout win against Illinois before the flag finally reached the safety provided by the arms of the members of the Army and Air Force ROTC. It’s the job of the Navy’s ROTC program to raise and lower the flag, while the other two service academies assist with handling it.
And that meant that while the Navy’s men worked to free the flag, the Army and Air Force could only stand at attention with water pooling around their shoes.
“They knew the deal, and they knew that their brothers in the Navy were going to get it down some way and get everyone home,” Harris said. “It was certainly tough because it still was raining quite a bit when we were trying to get it down and the winds were still very high, but not one of them faltered. That was never a thought.”
The thought of anything but a routine flag retrieval seemed silly when the temperature was 67 degrees at kickoff if not for the forecast. The ROTC members were prepared and wearing their cold-weather gear and rain gear, but wind gusts clocked at 60 miles an hour by the fire department combined with heavy rain tied the flag around the pole.
Shaking it loose would require some ingenuity with the two lines that run to the top, one for pulling up and one for pulling down.
“The flag had wrapped itself around the pole and then the bottom of the flag came through and over the top and literally created a knot,” Harris said. “It didn’t move an inch, and we had to get creative. We had to undo the pulley system. We had to do a whole lot of pushing and pulling.”
By this point, nobody from the crowd of 105,282 remained inside the stadium. Unlike when the flag is raised, there was no recognition of their achievement or recognition of the effort taken to retrieve the flag. A photo I took from the press box had, as of Tuesday evening, been liked 1,544 times and retweeted 573 times.
Here’s a sight. Military personnel still at attention in empty Ohio Stadium while attempting to lower a flag that is wrapped to the pole and not coming down. pic.twitter.com/GHYLaDM2SV— Adam Jardy (@AdamJardy) November 19, 2017
With multiple professional athletes and sports teams drawing headlines for having declined to stand for the national anthem, Harris — who, as a Navy representative, could not offer his personal opinions on the situation — said the reaction to the photo of his men doing their duty resonates with all Americans.
“It makes me proud that there’s still people out there that are proud and enjoy the fact that this is what happened and are able to come together on social media and appreciate that,” he said. “That makes me very proud.”