Posted Apr 13, 2013

Ohio State's 1 p.m. spring game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium is a football thing. Like a cheese coney, Anthony Muñoz, business day special baseball starts, and Mount Adams at dusk, it is also a uniquely Cincinnati thing.

This is not a Bearcats thing or a Buckeyes thing or even a Bengals thing.

Ohio State's 1 p.m. spring game Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium is a football thing. Like a cheese coney, Anthony Muñoz, business day special baseball starts, and Mount Adams at dusk, it is also a uniquely Cincinnati thing.

Just ask Cincinnati football guys like Kerry Coombs, Andrew Norwell, and even the one and only double Heisman Trophy winner, Archie Mason Griffin.

Bearcat or Buckeye or Bengal, it's just one of those days a curled-up ticket stub becomes a cherished heirloom.

For Griffin, Mr. Buckeye as the chief of the OSU Alumni Association, football on the banks of the Ohio means the birth of The Jungle and Bengals Nation as we know it.

"I'll never forget the 1981 season when we really turned things around from 6-10 and good things started happening," Griffin says of those days he roamed long-gone Riverfront Stadium at running back for eight seasons. "The stadium transitioned where people started to chant 'Who Dey.' That was really, really special. That's when I remember 'Who Dey' coming along. A lot of it probably had to do with the change in the uniforms. Some of those teams were probably laughing at us a little bit. But those uniforms became a staple and we wore them proud that year.

"I always loved playing here. The fans were great. This will be a great experience for our guys."

For Norwell, an Ohio State offensive lineman who is opening up holes for Griffin's scarlet and gray descendants, Saturday is what he calls "bittersweet."

"It's my last spring game, but my whole family is going to be there to see it," says Norwell, who grew up on the East side of PBS and played at Anderson High School, a veteran of the Friday night mania that has made Cincinnati one of the nation's high school hotbeds.

"Playing in the Shoe is a great experience," Norwell says of the Columbus Shangri-La. "But playing in Paul Brown is just as good, being home in Cincinnati. All my friends are going to be out there supporting me and it has a great atmosphere with the big stadium down on the river."

The Shoe is under repair, so this very well may be a once in a lifetime event and there may be no one better to document it than Coombs, Ohio State's tireless special teams coordinator/cornerbacks coach. His relentless coach-scratchy voice always sounds lathered in Friday night lights off I-71 even though he's been in the college game for nearly a decade now.

"It's an unbelievable thrill for me," Coombs says. "Cincinnati is football. It's a great fan base. It's a very knowledgeable fan base. It’s a beautiful environment. You've got the river, you've got the big scoreboards. It's exciting to bring our guys down there. We've got a great building, obviously, but if we have to take it on the road I can't think of a better place in the world than Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati."

Coombs is one of the godfathers of Cincinnati football. He says he's been following the Bengals since they were first born and was eight years old sitting in the end-zone blue seats when they won the first regular-season game at Riverfront. That was before even the nets were put up behind the goal posts and his dad got his fingertips on one of the extra points in the 31-21 stunner over the heavily-favored Raiders.

By the time PBS sprung up to replace Riverfront at the turn of the century, Coombs had turned his alma mater of Colerain High School into an Ohio institution and never were the Cardinals' power and the influence of Cincy schoolboys on better display than when he brought his kids down to the river. In '01 the Cards were part of the largest high school doubleheader anywhere when nearly 50,000 showed up at PBS.

When he moved on five years later to the University of Cincinnati and became a defensive guru and special teams assistant as well as the assistant head coach, Coombs saw the Bearcats involved in some Big East classics on a field Marvin Lewis had turned into an AFC North battleground for the Bengals.

If Coombs was here when the Bengals were first born, then he gave his first-born to them. Brayden is heading into his second full season as an offensive assistant and advance scout under Lewis and he'll be on the sidelines Saturday. Also hanging around will be other son, Dylan, a cornerback/long snapper at the University of Cincinnati.

Football and ticket stubs and memories.

"It's going to be a great day for my family, first of all," Coombs says. "To be able to see Brayden in that situation is going to be something. And it's going to be great for our team. We're going to visit the Reds Hall of Fame before the game, Marvin is going to speak to the team on the field, and then we're going to have to some great ribs at Montgomery Inn.

"This (scrimmage) doesn't take anything away from the Bengals or the Bearcats or high school football. I just think it's a great thing for football and the city. I'm still a fan of UC. It's football."

Coombs happened to be sitting in a back row when UC very nearly pulled off the unthinkable and almost knocked off the Buckeyes before more than 66,000 on that surreal day in September 2002. The Bucks would go on to win the national title, but in order to do it they would have to stare down an in-state rival in the house named after the coach that brought Columbus its first national championship.

UC quarterback Gino Guidugli blanketed the Bucks with 52 passes as the Bearcats put up more than 400 yards and Ohio State needed an interception from safety Will Allen in the end zone with 32 seconds left to secure it, 23-19.

The most relieved man in the building was Griffin, then OSU's associate athletic director. If the Bucks could win, Griffin couldn't. No, they shouldn't play a fledgling program trying to find its way. Yes, they should play an in-state Division I rival. One thing he did know is that then athletic director Andy Geiger couldn't be happy watching it unfold.

"That's when I was scheduling games for the Buckeyes and we almost didn't get out of there," Griffin says. "As that game was going on and things weren’t going our way, I said, 'Oh no, Andy Geiger will (rake) me across the coals.'

"I will say that was good for football and for Ohio State to come to the Cincinnati area. And that was at a time when Cincinnati was starting to come along, so I think that helped their program as well."

He'll probably think back to that '02 game Saturday, but Griffin will also be thinking back to a stadium that's not even there and his top Riverfront memory of that '81 AFC championship season. Quarterback Turk Schonert came off the bench to relieve Kenny Anderson and beat Seattle in the opener. The footnote there is Griffin and fellow Buckeye Pete Johnson combined to rush for 128 yards.

"Then we won in New York the next week beating a good Jets team and Kenny went on to lead us to the Super Bowl," Griffin says.

Football and ticket stubs and memories.

Saturday's thread is as clear as the name on the stadium. Paul Brown called Ohio State "the only job I ever wanted," and when Griffin got to Cincinnati, he could tell even then how much the place meant to him. And by then, that '42 national title was already 35 years old and a member of that team, Bill Willis, the former Buckeye who broke pro football's color line playing for Brown in Cleveland, was about to go into the Hall of Fame.

"At training camp or maybe before practice, we'd talk about Ohio State," Griffin says of Brown. "He'd ask me about guys and I'd tell him. We talked about Woody (Hayes), they had a good relationship. When Bill Willis was still living, Bill used to come down to Cincinnati and go into his suite and watch games. I was always real happy to see that.

"You could tell Ohio State still meant a lot to Paul and he still means a lot up here."

Last week, Coombs found himself doing an interview in the Buckeyes practice facility and he didn't have to look very hard 70 years after it first went down.

"I'm standing in front of a 20-foot picture of Paul Brown," Coombs says. "You look at it and he's Ohio's coach. He coached at every level. It's Ohio football history."

Football and ticket stubs and memories.

Norwell has pro size and pedigree. His older brother Chris played defensive tackle at Illinois before he came down to a PBS workout for the Bengals and he ended up getting some feelers from other NFL teams. But Andrew won't let himself think about The Trifecta.

He played twice for Anderson in PBS before he gets here Saturday. Maybe he ends up playing an NFL game in his home stadium.

"I'm not letting myself think about stuff like that," he says. "I'm just trying to be a leader for this team and help us get off to a great start in 2013."

That all starts Saturday and Griffin has to laugh. No, he says, he won't get sick to his stomach when he walks in there for the scrimmage and starts thinking about that last minute in '02.

"All's well that ends well," Griffin says.

Just ask Norwell. One minute he's playing at PBS against Harrison for Anderson and the next minute he's here playing his last college spring game.

"Time flies," he says.

Keep the ticket stub and bottle the memory.


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