Pipe smoke remains aromatic cement to Frank Gursky, reminding him of the bond between father and son that strengthened through decades of spending Ohio State football Saturdays together.
Gursky and his dad, Frank Sr., would hunker in the basement of the family’s West Side home listening to Buckeyes games on the transistor radio.
"The walls were knotty pine. He smoked a cigar to begin with, then switched to pipes. I loved the smell of them," Gursky said. "I was 8 years old, drinking a pop. We bonded really tight."
Gursky is now 72. The smoke drifted off when his father died in 1995, but the Buckeyes still provide relational glue as Gursky attends Ohio State games with his grandson, Jason Matyac.
Except that all changes this fall. Inside Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes won’t enter the field through the southeast tunnel. The Best Damn Band in the Land won’t march down the ramp to the rhythmic clapping of 105,000 fans. Buck-I-Guy won’t mug for the cameras, and quarterback Justin Fields won’t sidestep the pass rush and throw a touchdown pass to Chris Olave.
There will be no Rutgers to crush. No Michigan to boo. No bowl game to attend and no office arguments centered on conservative play-calling or poor tackling angles. No fathers and sons and mothers and daughters sitting down together to watch the Buckeyes on a big-screen TV.
It doesn’t end there. When Big Ten school presidents and chancellors canceled fall sports on Tuesday, they guaranteed a psychological culture shift that will affect millions of people in central Ohio and beyond. For many fans, Ohio State football is a way of life — at least from September through whenever the season ends.
Without it, the question becomes, "What do we do now?"
Gursky and his wife, Glenna, are not sure how to answer, but he plans to get his OSU fix by watching old VCR tapes of games from decades ago.
"I’ve got to watch something," he said. "I’m ready to get all my tapes out, bring down that old 13-inch TV and watch Cris Carter and all the great ones from the past."
"But what am I going to do the week of Thanksgiving and Ohio State-Michigan is supposed to be going on?"
We all know people whose week is ruined after an Ohio State loss. What about losing an entire season? Coming up short against Clemson is a rug burn compared with the searing pain of fall Saturdays spent without their Buckeyes. And what if — gulp — high school football gets canceled and Friday nights go dark, as well? And if the NFL suddenly closes shop?
"Anytime patterns get disrupted and change happens unexpectedly there is concern that people get stressed and strained and that can lead to depression," said Robert Carrothers, associate professor of sociology at Ohio Northern University in Ada. "A lot of people have been looking forward to football, thinking it would be the end of this COVID thing, that we would be back to normal by September. That’s clearly not going to happen."
Carrothers empathizes with families like the Gurskys who rely on sports to build relationships and break down generational barriers.
"Watching the Buckeyes is one of the things you get to do together as a family, and with COVID they’re telling us we’re not even allowed to get together," Carrothers said, adding that not having fall football adds another layer to the stress.
"Now you won’t even be able to talk on the phone while you’re both watching the game," he said.
Friendship interactions also will need new avenues.
Julie Keckstein and her husband, John, are longtime Ohio State season-ticket holders from northwest Columbus whose normal football Saturday routine means leaving the house at 9 a.m. and returning at 9 p.m.
"Definitely a change in our social lives," Julie Keckstein said, adding that Ohio State football knits friends and creates community through tailgate parties and shared experiences.
Keckstein pointed out how the long reach of Scarlet and Gray goes beyond her 30 years of seldom missing games.
"It’s about talking about the game the next day and reading (The Dispatch) out loud to each other to relive what transpired," she said.
The silver lining for Keckstein is she expects her appreciation for game day to grow when football finally returns, whether in the spring or the fall of 2021.
"I have a sense of optimism for the future and how much more special a 95-degree day in the stadium will be against a nonconference patsy," she said. "It will be a treat."
Until then, the treat feels more like a trick. Halloween will be hollower. Thanksgiving turkey and gravy might taste especially bland, and fall foliage may never peak. The last time Columbus experienced autumn without Ohio State football was 1889, a year before the school started the program.
"We’ll all get through it," Keckstein said. "But (Ohio State football) is a huge rallying point for the community."
That’s not blowing smoke; more just remembering the smell of it.