Back to normal? Ohio Stadium vibe has pre-COVID feel as fans celebrate game

Mark Williams
The Columbus Dispatch

The party atmosphere outside of Ohio Stadium before Saturday's Buckeyes-Ducks game certainly had the feel of what games were like before the coronavirus.

Fans tailgated, "Hang on Sloopy" blared from speakers at one party and the Ohio State band was doing its usual Skull Session before one of the biggest college football games on Saturday with Oregon ranked No. 12 and Ohio State No. 3.

Fans took selfies in front of the stadium and vendors hawked Buckeye necklaces. Even the street preachers were out.

"It 100% feels normal outside of the stadium," said Steve Weller, a Hilliard resident who organized a tailgate in the parking lot just west of the Horseshoe. He set up a television on the back of his pickup truck along with food and drinks for a work gathering.

"The vibe is right there. Everyone is a little happier, I've noticed. Everyone is so excited to get outside doing something. It's amazing."

It was the first time the stadium has been open to all fans in nearly two seasons, and that showed Ohio State struggled with problems with ticket scanner technology and wi-fi connection problems that ultimately made it difficult for thousands of fans to get inside the stadium before the start of the game.

Digital ticket scanners, tested two years ago with students but new in its use for most fans this year, led to a crush of fans trying to enter at gates 36 and 38 on the south side of the stadium. It was so bad that police had to intervene.

Before police arrived, Redcoat Jack Fry tries to keep the crowd back at Ohio Stadium gates 36-38 as the crowd rushed the Redcoats using new ticket scanners.

The crush got worse on a false report that the Buckeyes scored a touchdown, causing fans to push harder and harder to get inside.

The scanners are supposed to read tickets loaded onto a fan's cell phone, but video shows some fans holding their phones up to ushers, who nodded and let them in without scanning their tickets.

Ohio State did a test of the scanners two years ago with students.

Internet at Ohio Stadium a major issue

The scanners were a sign of a broader problem with internet connectivity around the stadium. Two Oregon fans standing just outside the stadium said they had trouble loading their tickets onto their phone.

Ohio State issued a statement late in the game apologizing for the problem along with other internet issues.

"The Ohio State Department of Athletics thanks the 100,482 fans who attended the season opener today against Oregon," the statement read. "Today was a landmark day, with digital tickets and mobile parking passes. We want to apologize to those who experienced delays entering the stadium that were caused by a number of reasons, including a technical issue with wi-fi and learning curves with new technologies and new systems. We did reach a point where we allowed fans in line to bypass the scanner and show their tickets to gain entry.  

"We will learn from today, make improvements and we anticipate next week will be better."

9/11 remembered at Ohio State game

Saturday also was a day of remembrance outside the stadium to honor those killed in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ohio State senior Riley Reese, 21, led a group of students and alumni putting 2,977 small U.S. flags into a grassy area not far from the stadium. Each flag represented someone who was killed in the attack.

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"We thought it was really important to do this for the 20th anniversary," said Reese, who is part of a group called Young Americans for Freedom. 

The group planned a candlelight vigil at the site for later Saturday, another sign of a more typical atmosphere for a group that, like others, couldn't meet in person for much of the pandemic.

"This is the most normal thing we've done," she said.

Ohio State alumnus Peyton Sawyer places a flag in a display honoring September 11th 2001, outside of St. John Arena before Saturday's NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks on September 11, 2021. The display was part of the Never Forget Project.

The COVID pandemic still exists, even at Ohio Stadium

Though few fans wore masks outside, there were signs that Ohio remains in the middle of a pandemic and that cases, spurred by the delta variant, have been climbing in recent weeks.

Fans at the Skull Session at St. John Arena were required to wear masks and members of the band had covers over their instruments. 

While fans could sit in the stadium without a mask on, they were supposed to put one on if they went inside to the bathroom.

"I just want to have fun," said Steve Lenox, an Oregon fan who stood with a crowd of Ducks fans waiting for buses carrying the team and coach to arrive at the stadium.

Students in the Block O section cheer prior to the NCAA football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

"Seeing the people, the field, the energy, the excitement" was what Alicia Miller of Baltimore said she liked best after the conclusion of the Skull Session. Her son, Nic, is in the band.

"It feels normal," she said, a statement echoed by her husband, Marc.

 "It's great to see them on the field," he said. 

Don Russell, a Dublin resident who organized a party on the east side of the stadium, said he also was glad to see things resemble what life was like before COVID-19.

"We're looking for some normalcy in our life," he said.

mawilliams@dispatch.com

@BizMarkWilliams