Homegoing, or why we need this to matter.

Ohio State-Michigan, and the things that feel like home.

There are coincidences in the sports world. College football’s Rivalry Week coinciding with Thanksgiving isn’t one. As people all across the country head back to somewhere they once called home, a lot will feel different. We need something to be the same.

I went back to my parents’ house near Columbus two weeks ago, an early Thanksgiving celebration on account of my longer-distance brother’s work schedule. There was a time when it wasn’t “home” — it was a new and unfamiliar place. We moved there when I was a freshman in high school, breaking me out of a small class group I’d been with since the first grade. I was lonely, I was awkward, and I wasn’t the least bit happy about moving. 

I needed to embrace something to make the new town feel like home, and the whole city was mad for Ohio State football. We toured my new high school the week before that year’s Michigan game. Every single person in the school was wearing scarlet and gray, a level of unanimity rarely seen outside of North Korea. (We were told one student wore maize and blue and was mock-arrested during band practice by the school resource officer. This was considered normal.)

The Buckeyes that year were an absolute machine — outscoring opponents nearly 3-1, ranked #2 in the polls for most of the season, poised for a national title run. Michigan derailed those hopes with a 13-9 win at Ohio Stadium, one in a long line of thumbs to the Bucks’ eyes in the John Cooper era. I’d learn that this happened basically every year. I’d learn about the names said in anger — Griese. Woodson. Biakabutuka. The guys who ruined things every year. John Cooper was a fine football coach, fully worthy of his eventual induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Ask anyone who lived through the Nineties in Columbus what his record was against Michigan, and they’ll know it by heart. 

Two, ten and one. 

I came to understand this was different than the pro sports I’d known so far. This was blood. This was Red vs. Blue, one chance a year to go against the mortal enemy, one long, dark year to brood over a bitter loss. I’d never realized how much an entire city could obsess over a single sports team until then. I often joked that that president could be assassinated, and it wouldn’t be the lead story on the local news if the Buckeyes had an open practice.

I didn’t become a full-fledged Buckeye fan myself — I’m a Cincinnati Bearcat, and I can curse Ohio State for my team’s sole loss so far this season. I began to understand Ohio State football as the background scenery of a new place called home, though. Go out to eat? Half the people in the restaurant will be wearing Buckeyes gear. Go to a funeral? Maybe it’s down to a third. Have a big enough party? Some portion of the Best Damn Band In The Land might show up. Wear a Michigan hat? You’re bound to get the sourest looks Midwesterners will be able to muster. We’re a polite people, but we follow the rules, and the line is clearly drawn between red and blue.

A lot has changed in college football. There’s a conference championship game next week, and a #4 ranking — where the Buckeyes dropped to after that heartbreaker in 1996 — is enough to keep you in the running for a title now. Every game can be streamed to any device, even the conference games between Nebraska and Rutgers that shouldn’t have ever been made possible. The Big Ten’s not just “three yards and a cloud of dust” anymore (unless you’re Northwestern, in which case it’s one yard and a puddle of tears). The offenses now would be unrecognizable to viewers twenty years ago. Ohio State recruits, coaches, and plays like an SEC team or a pro team. It’s not the ‘90s anymore, and Tim Biakabutuka isn’t walking through that door. (Thank god.) The Buckeyes’ 21st-century inversion of the rivalry has scarred a generation of Michigan fans the same way Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr’s teams did to Ohioans in the 1990s.

Things change.

I’ve had seventeen addresses since I moved out of my parents’ house nineteen years ago. I went to college. I moved to the big city. I got married. I moved to a small city, had two kids, finally gave up the avocado toast and bought a house of my own. There’s a lot of change to adjust to, and it’s never more clear than when I’m back home. It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since I left, but the saplings my parents planted several years afterwards are full-grown trees shading the sidewalks now. During my recent visit, I shared in a longtime next-door neighbor’s marvel that his youngest son — the little one, remember him? — was now in high school, not admitting that I hadn’t realized they’d even had another kid after I moved out. 

The hardest part is accepting the trade in generations. I’m not the kid in my parents’ house anymore, and they’re not the parents. They’re the grandparents, the genial, benevolent ones who make better pancakes than Daddy does and can delight the children by pulling out low-tech toys that used to be mine. I’m not Scott, I’m Dad. Mom’s Grandma now, and my Grandma? I wish you remembered her. She was wonderful. She learned to love the Buckeyes, too, after moving here late in life. Everything moves on, too fast, with no turning back. This isn’t exactly home anymore.

Maybe something’s still the same, though. Saturday, teams wearing red and blue are going to line up across from each other under a stone-gray sky and resume a battle that’s been going on since before the first World War.

Maybe Michigan will pull the upset and knock the unbeatable Buckeyes off a championship course, or maybe they won’t, and the pit of resentment in Ann Arbor will grow deeper. A young fan somewhere is going to experience this as their first installment of The Game, and they’ll remember it like I remember 1996.

As for me? I’m going to watch it from my couch in a new city with two small people who don’t know yet that they’re going to replace me too, in a place they’ll someday come back to looking for something that feels familiar. 

Maybe it’ll feel like home. 

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Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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Even with the holiday, I’ll be back with another food/drink/music/book/etc recommendation-packed edition of the Friday newsletter this week, so look out for that, and if you haven’t checked out last week’s Thanksgiving prep edition, it’s the most popular thing I’ve put out yet by far.

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.