I’m well aware of the passion of Ohio State football fans. In no man or woman I have ever met does more Buckeye spirit exist than in a man named Mack, whom I met in Jacksonville, Fla., the night before the Gator Bowl.
The life of a traveling sports writer can be lonely at times, but I found friendship at the bar in the lobby of the hotel I was staying at in downtown Jacksonville. A tall, muscular, dark-skinned man — Mack — sat down with a female acquaintance a few cushioned bar stools down from me. Mack’s companion was a Gators fan, and all three of us were staying at the Florida Gators’ hotel — we were deep in enemy territory.
Then I got to talking with Mack, and soon realized I didn’t know the meaning of the words “enemy territory.”
Mack was a military man, tried and true. You could tell by his build and by the stories he told of his time in Iraq. He also said he was heading back for a tour in Afghanistan in the days to come.
During our conversation, Mack spoke of love for his country, his home state of Ohio and the woman that sat at his side. More than anything, though, Mack loved Buckeyes football.
After Mack learned I was an OSU student that covered his favorite football team, it was on. Mack, who wore a flat-billed OSU hat off to one side of his head, hooted, hollered and laughed as we discussed and debated about the Scarlet and Gray. Members of the Gators team and their families shot us glares as we conversed.
Mack and I covered it all — the coming day’s bowl game at EverBank Field, recruiting, new OSU head coach Urban Meyer, next season’s bowl ban — he was well-versed in all of it. Mack lived and breathed Buckeyes football more than I could ever know, but I didn’t realize why until I departed for my room to get a good night’s sleep.
The conversation with Mack went on for nearly an hour-and-a-half. In that time, I had polished off several plates of hors d’oeuvres while Mack’s lady friend had slowly chipped away at a once-large slice of cheesecake they had ordered and probably intended to share. She was rolling her eyes and checking her watch at that point, so I did Mack a favor and decided to take my leave.
Mack and I stood and shook hands. It had been a lovely conversation.
I backed away from the bar top and asked Mack, “Hey, what do you think will happen in the game tomorrow?”
“Oh, it’s a win baby,” he said. “Got to be. I delayed my departure for overseas to come see this game, so it better be a win!”
“Alright,” I said with laugh. “I hope they win one for you.”
Then I turned to leave the bar, but snapped back around when I realized that I had just parted company with a military man heading back to a war zone.
“Hey, Mack,” I yelled. He looked up, smiled and pointed both index fingers at me.
“Stay safe over there, Mack,” I said, referring to his imminent return to combat.
Mack waved me off.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Worry about this team. I love these guys, man. They get me through when I’m over there.”
Of course I knew where “over there” was.
“Don’t worry about me,” Mack said again. “Go Bucks!”
Now that I’m back in school again and the bowl game has passed, I’m neck-deep in journalism text books that compel me to maintain objectivity. In that moment, it was hard not to engage Mack, and join him in his love for the Buckeyes, if only for an instant.
I made my way to the elevators and pressed the “up” button.
I could hear Mack yelling in the distance: “O-H!”
The elevator doors began to shut.
“I-O!” I shouted back.