While attending Ohio State football games as a Boy Scout usher almost seven decades ago, George Hiles found souvenirs lying underneath the bleachers.
They were ticket stubs, discarded by the thousands of spectators. Once fans filed for the exits, the leftovers were there for the taking.
Hiles snatched up the used tickets and brought them home, where he stashed them in a desk drawer in his bedroom. He reserved one side of the drawer for stubs, the other side for baseball cards.
They long served as cherished keepsakes, physical links to his childhood, before evolving into a larger collection.
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Now a 78-year-old retiree, Hiles estimates he has thousands of ticket stubs stored in three-ring binders in his Westerville home.
But the coronavirus pandemic figures to deal a sizable blow to future additions.
Ohio State has been among a number of schools in recent months to announce that it will implement mobile-only ticketing for the upcoming football season, citing safety precautions in response to COVID-19.
The move allows for contactless entry into Ohio Stadium that is, if fans are permitted to attend games this fall. Rather than tearing a paper ticket, gate attendants will scan a bar code from tickets stored on mobile devices.
Hiles feels for future generations who will lose the opportunities to take home real game tickets as personal mementos.
"They're going to miss out on having something in their hand," Hiles said. "They're going to have their phone in their ear, their hand, and that's it.
"When you keep the ticket stub, you can remember. That's what memorabilia really is."
While the pandemic could sound a death knell for paper ticket stubs, avid collectors had already been bracing for the end. The signs were looming.
Like other colleges across the country and teams in professional leagues, Ohio State increasingly offered digital tickets over the past decade.
Last season, OSU went to mobile-only tickets for students, who fill close to a quarter of the stadium.
"I knew this day was sadly going to come eventually," said Drew Esler, a 28-year-old data scientist who lives in Chicago. "The writing’s been on the wall."
Like Hiles, Esler began saving ticket stubs as a young boy. He treasured a ticket from the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan in 2006 that clinched a spot in the national championship game. It was the game known as the Game of the Century, and he sat in the stands at the Horseshoe with his dad and brother after they shelled out cash to a scalper for the seats.
As a student at Ohio State from 2010-15, Esler amassed more tickets. Never missing a game, he left with dozens and ultimately hung them on a wall in the Grandview Heights apartment he first moved into after graduation.
"There's a lot of nostalgia involved," Esler said. "When you look at a ticket, you think back to that time and place where you were watching the game."
Some are passed down through generations.
Jack Park, a leading historian of Buckeyes football, keeps an envelope in his office desk with old ticket stubs.
One pair is from his parents’ trip to Ann Arbor in 1963 to see Ohio State face Michigan, a game played amid a turbulent time in American history. The contest had been postponed a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Sentimentality motivates most people to save stubs or look for used tickets from other meaningful games. It helps that tickets are small enough to fit inside spectators’ pockets in the first place. They make for easy storage.
Esler finds many fans in search of tickets from the Buckeyes’ 1972 game against North Carolina or 1995 game against Illinois.
Both were victories, but more notably produced feats from future Heisman Trophy-winning running backs. Archie Griffin had a breakout performance as a freshman against the Tar Heels when he ran for 239 yards. Eddie George set the school’s single-game rushing record of 314 yards versus the Fighting Illini.
But among the most dedicated collectors, the appeal stretches beyond emotional attachment.
Esler boasts a collection that well predates his first game.
The oldest of his nearly 1,000 ticket stubs is from Oct. 7, 1922, when the first game was held at Ohio Stadium, featuring the Buckeyes and visiting Ohio Wesleyan.
His collection includes as many stubs from the first half of the 20th century as games he attended. Older tickets offer a connection to another era and feature popular vintage illustrations of mascots, drum majors and players.
"For me and a lot of other people in the hobby, this is our form of art collecting," Esler said. "A lot of these items are rare, and they bring some sort of appeasement of the eye."
To those who also collect old game-day programs, which feature especially elaborate cover designs, ticket stubs make a logical pairing.
Bill Cecil, a 47-year-old stagehand in Columbus, began his collection of Ohio State stubs in order to match an earlier collection of programs.
"The tickets just sort of fall in line," he said.
Unless Ohio State issues commemorative paper tickets in the coming seasons or reverses course by printing tickets when the pandemic ends, most expect the hobby to wane in popularity.
Some might dig further for tickets from older periods, but for future seasons, no one is eager to print copies of digital tickets on 8½-by-11-inch sheets of paper, which lack aesthetic appeal or physical significance.
Esler figures he might print digital tickets for at least a few seasons in order for his collection to span 100 years.
"But obviously it's not going to look as great," he said.
Though a devoted Buckeyes fan, Hiles reasoned he might add other college football ticket stubs to his collection. He thought the paper tickets from the annual Army-Navy games were especially well-designed.
Collectors also think other Ohio State commodities might become more coveted, such as sideline passes and wristbands, though there are far fewer available. A limited number of attendees receives such credentials.
Most likely, the absence of physical tickets will mirror other elements of modern society memories will be stored on phones.