In 1968, current events held no ticket into Ohio Stadium. Inside the Horseshoe, students cheered the Buckeyes instead of protesting the Vietnam War. Down on the field, Woody’s boys marched 3 yards through a cloud of dust, not tear gas.
For a few hours each Saturday in the fall, the ’Shoe fit as a snug sports sanctuary, where Super Sophs provided entertaining catharsis for a country fighting wars on two fronts: Vietnam, and a culture clash closer to home. Move aside Ozzie and Harriet, here comes Ozzy Osbourne.
Fifty years later, it remains easy to remember — or for the younger generation to imagine — the joy and satisfaction over what went down at Ohio State in 1968. The 27-16 Rose bowl win against Southern California led to a final No. 1 ranking in both polls, giving the Buckeyes their fourth, and Woody Hayes his third, national championship.
Easier to overlook in all the scarlet and gray nostalgia are the tumultuous times during which Ohio State secured its national title. Even as the Buckeyes were running spring drills, Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. Then Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. A raging Vietnam War enraged college students, who took out their frustrations and fears by protesting on campuses.
Racial issues led to more protests, including at Columbia University, where three school officials were taken hostage for 24 hours. At the Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a salute to Black Power. In Oakland, California, the Black Panthers emerged as a militant group demanding change, which created uncomfortable confrontations both across and within races.
John Brockington and Ron Maciejowski were black and white Ohio State sophomores in 1968. Race was not an issue for them in the locker room or on the field.
“We had no problem. None. I experienced nothing,” said Brockington, who will be recognized with his former teammates during Saturday’s game against Minnesota. “We practiced hard and played games and that stuff didn’t come up.”
It wasn’t until Brockington returned to his dorm on South Campus that that the sheltering football bubble burst.
“When we got to the dorm, or later off-campus, we mixed with kids who would bring in the radical stuff,” said Brockington, who played fullback. “When I got to campus in 1967, many of the black women would not date any of the black football players. They said we were Uncle Toms. Obviously, they didn’t read the book. They said Woody was a racist who didn’t play this or that black guy, but the white guy in front of him. Yada, yada. A couple times I was told I should quit the football team.
“Somewhere in there, women on campus all burned their bras. There were big trash cans and everyone threw their bras in there. Then they got mad at us for looking at them. Hey, we’re 18 years old. It’s something we’d never seen before.”
All that was tame compared with what was coming. In 1970, protesting Ohio State students would square off against the Ohio National Guard on the Oval. Rocks flew, tear gas flowed and eventually classes were canceled for two weeks to give peace a chance.
“But in 1968, some guys still had short haircuts,” said Maciejowski, the backup quarterback to Rex Kern. “You look at 1969, and it was not like that at all. The change from ’68 to ’69 was night and day.”
Except in the football facility, where life rolled on. The only angry outbursts belonged to Woody.
“On the team, we didn’t feel any of the culture stuff. We were so focused on football,” Maciejowski said.
So were the Ohio State fans, at least on Saturdays. And the ’68 team did not disappoint, defeating the O.J. Simpson-led Trojans in Pasadena to cap a 10-0 season.
The 1968 team remains beloved by fans old enough to remember it, more special even than the 2002 team that won the BCS title. No coincidence that both of those teams came along at just the right moment to salve the wounds of a nation, or at least divert attention from tragic times.
Much as Holy Buckeye and the 2002 national champions brought some relief and buoyancy to a Buckeye Nation still trembling over the events of 9/11 one year earlier, so the 1968 team was a welcome salve for a Buckeye State in need of a pick-me-up.
“I think there is a lot to be said for that,” Maciejowski said of the ’68 Buckeyes bringing light to dark times. “It’s like what happened with baseball and football raising our spirits after 9/11.”
Brockington said the ’68 Buckeyes were too young at the time to understand the impact they had on campus and beyond.
“But now we know that sports is a great way to get away from your mundane, everyday problems,” Brockington said. “Next to religion, the biggest social event is sports. It gives you a timeout. It gives you a chance to put reality to rest.”