Jim Stillwagon, one of the more illustrious and decorated defensive players in Ohio State football history and one of the “super sophs” who helped elevate coach Woody Hayes’ 1968 team to the national championship, died on Saturday night. He was 68.
“It’s just a very sad day for us and the Buckeyes,” said his former teammate Ron Maciejowski, the backup quarterback on the ’68 through ’70 teams long considered the benchmark of Hayes’ reign. “Jim was one of a kind.”
He died unexpectedly, according to sources close to his family, but a cause was not provided. Plans for a memorial service were still pending Sunday night.
“I’m sure a lot of us are going to get together,” said former OSU cornerback Ted Provost, a junior on that ’68 team. “On top of being a great player, Jim was a great guy.”
That’s why it’s going to be a particularly tough service, said Rex Kern, the starting quarterback of the ’68-’70 teams.
“Mace and I were just talking about this, recalling how when Jack Tatum passed away, at the funeral emotions just overtook, I see the casket open and see Jack Tatum lying there and I’m thinking, ‘This doesn’t happen to Jack Tatum,’” Kern said. “And ’Wagon is in that same category. He was bigger than life.”
Stillwagon was a versatile and hard-hitting middle guard. A three-year starter in the age when freshmen were ineligible to play, Stillwagon went on win the Outland Trophy and the first Lombardi Award in 1970, at the time the only two major national awards for linemen. He also was named a consensus All-American in 1969 and 1970.
Deemed not big enough, at 6 feet and 220 pounds, to be a factor in the NFL, he instead became a star in the Canadian Football League for the Toronto Argonauts from 1971 to ’75 before injuries cut short his pro career.
He was named to the CFL All-Star game three of those five seasons. Both he and Provost, who also played in Canada, returned to central Ohio to become private businessmen, Stillwagon settling in Worthington.
Past the football exploits, though, Kern laughed when asked for the first thing to come to mind when he heard the name Jim Stillwagon.
“Him always accusing me of stealing his tie the first time we met,” Kern said.
Hayes had the signing class of 1967 gather to watch the Ohio high school basketball tournament at St. John Arena that year. Staying at the Beta House with the rest of the signees, Kern noticed the muscled but well-groomed Stillwagon standing across the way, wearing a sweater and tie. Stillwagon, in turn, noticed Kern wasn’t wearing a tie, so he walked over and offered his.
“I put it on, and then I had to leave early and I forgot to give it back to him,” Kern said. “From then on he’d remind me of that, and I’m talking years later.
“As I told him, ‘ ’Wagon, I bought you another tie, I even gave you a Nautilus machine,’ and he’d always say, ‘Yeah, but you still stole that tie.’ I’m telling you, I’m gonna miss that guy.”
A native of Mt. Vernon, Ohio, by way of Augusta Military Academy in Fort Defiance, Virginia, Stillwagon made an impression from the start with the Buckeyes, Maciejowski said.
“He gave top-notch effort any time — practice, game, it didn’t matter,” he said. “He always was interested in doing his best. Always. He never took a minute off. He was dominant for three years. He made everything go on that defense.”
Unfortunately, some might remember Stillwagon more for an episode he had while riding a motorcycle in 2012 when he claimed a motorist tried to run him off the road several times in Delaware County. Stillwagon responded by engaging in a 14-mile chase with the motorist, firing shots along the way.
Though Stillwagon was charged with three counts of felonious assault, including the allegation that one of his shots had grazed the motorist in the head, a Delaware County Common Pleas Court judge threw out the case midway through the trial because of a lack of evidence.
In 2014, Stillwagon went on to sue the motorist, the city of Delaware and some of its officers for the incident, saying the arrest was based primarily on his fame as a former Ohio State star and that it ruined his life publicly and professionally. That suit is still pending.
But the original incident made national headlines, and as Maciejowski said, Stillwagon became somewhat of a pariah.
“I think it really wore on Jim because a lot of people turned on him,” Maciejowski said. “That was just not right. … He lost a lot of business over that period of time. People wouldn’t wait for the trial. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? That was something that was very disappointing to him.
“But Jim was a law-and-order guy. He believed you don’t do bad things to other people.”