What it’s like to be an Ohio State football parent, with a son who’s been seething since last year’s loss to Michigan

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A group of Ohio State football parents, proudly clad in Scarlet and Gray, marched into enemy territory last Nov. 27.

On that chilly morning, before snow flakes began to fall, those Buckeye families were fired up by the seething stares in and around Michigan Stadium. Most had felt this before. Of all of their sons’ athletic exploits, few had left these parents prouder than walking out of either stadium after The Game as winners in the sport’s greatest rivalry.

“They let us know there was no love for us there,” said Ronnie Hickman Sr., the father of OSU’s starting safety. “I thought, this is good. This is what the rivalry should be.”

A different reality later literally descended upon the OSU parents. Michigan fans — primed to celebrate a 42-27 victory over Ohio State that snapped a decade-long losing streak — flooded down the aisles of Michigan Stadium and headed towards the field.

This was an outcome OSU parents likely did not allow themselves to consider when they arrived at Michigan Stadium. Some people wearing OSU colors were bumped aside by the Wolverines fans who were hurtling towards the field. The parents had previously only felt the intensity of their side of the rivalry — steadfastly referring to the rivals only as “That Team Up North,” never wearing blue, crossing out Ms with red Xs as the game drew near.

In the final seconds and immediate aftermath of Michigan’s win, they were in the path of a wave of emotion from the other side of The Game.

“I’ve never seen so many elderly people in the stands crying,” Zafiro Burke, the father of cornerback Denzel Burke, said. “It was a lot of old folks in there that when we lost, I was mad, but I saw those faces of people who might never see a game again.

“But they ain’t winning this year, though.”

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After their own distressing experience in Ann Arbor, the Buckeye parents next had to help their sons process that loss and move forward. Through the eyes of several of those parents, this is what it was like to experience their first loss in The Game, and how it shaped the past year of their lives.

A devastating day

Michigan fans attending The Game on Saturday should not expect a warm welcome. Same went for OSU fans in Ann Arbor last year. Parents of players for the visiting team are not immune.

SHANTAY BROWN, mother of cornerback Cameron Brown: There was an incident after the game in 2019. We called an Uber to get to our car. One driver pulled up and rolled down his window and said, ‘You gotta be kidding me’ and pulled off. We ended up having to walk.

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) recovers his own fumble in the fourth quarter of last season’s loss at Michigan.AP

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: We were turned away from a couple of the (parking) lots. “You’re Ohio State? No no no.”

DEANNA JONES, mother of offensive lineman Dawand Jones: It’s not called the Big House for no reason. By far it’s one of the best experiences ever. It really is this many people here to watch a football game.

ERIC CHAMBERS, father of linebacker Steele Chambers: When you look around and see the Big House, you understand what it means. You almost hear the ghosts of teams that have been successful in the past talking to you.

Quite honestly, the Michigan game day experience is significantly higher than the Oho State game day experience in terms of the way noise amplifies off of it, the built-in DJ that plays to the energy going on, the way they play music going into the snap. Everything about that is so much more energetic than the highest energy game in The Shoe. It’s the first time I’ve been somewhere and thought there’s a home field advantage here like I’ve not seen anywhere else.

Rumors of an illness spreading through OSU’s team circulated in the days before the game. Zafiro Burke said his son was among the players on an IV drip at one point. The parents saw the effects up close, either from talking to their sons that week or seeing the team at its hotel the night before the game.

ERIC CHAMBERS: “That night it was like a freaking graveyard. We don’t talk about it, but those guys were so sick. It was a little stressful going into that game, knowing some of those guys could barely stand up.”

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

Ohio State parents were caught up when Michigan fans rushed the field celebrating a 42-27 victory over the Buckeyes at Michigan Stadium last season.Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ZAFIRO BURKE: I remember when the game started my son got burned on one play, and I knew already it was not going to be a good day. It was just a bad vibe that day, and we have to live with that.

Zafiro Burke said his son, from Arizona, had not previously played in weather colder than 60 degrees. Now he was playing in the snow.

ZAFIRO BURKE: He had no chance. That was tough, but he’s getting used to it. I’m not, though.

Michigan took a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter. Twice in the final 15 minutes the Buckeyes scored touchdowns. Both times, Michigan responded with touchdowns of its own. The last one came with 2:17 to play.

SHANTAY BROWN: I never thought we were going to lose. I thought we were going to come back. I’m so used to Ohio State, like (Dwayne) Haskins and Penn State (in 2018) — they came back at the last minute and won it. Even towards the end I was like, ‘We’re going to pull this off.

“I was devastated. I felt bad for the kids.”

DEANNA JONES: “It felt funny, like, oh my God, it’s not turning around like it normally does. It’s always one of those situations like Ohio State has been at the bottom, but then you know in the third and fourth quarter, that’s the team I know. They’re coming back. Then like, oh my goodness, it isn’t going to turn around. Dang, they got the best of us and we lost at the Big House.”

SHANTAY JONES: It was just a very aggressive environment. A lot of screaming, a lot of yelling. Not fun.

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

Ohio State cornerback Denzel Burke (29) pursues Michigan running back Blake Corum during the Wolverines’ 42-27 victory last season.Getty Images

The aftermath

Ohio State parents, per custom, waited at the team bus to see the players after the game.

ERIC CHAMBERS: Doing that in the middle of the Michigan crowd still trying to tell us how much we sucked — that was really hard. It was still very raw. A lot of kids almost wanted to fight the fans on the walk out.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: His reaction was shock. But I think the reality was honestly, to a degree, he felt like we could have played harder. … We don’t like putting people under a spotlight. That’s not what we do. That’s not what we taught him. We felt like we could have played harder. We did not have to lose that game. We should not have lost that game.

ERIC CHAMBERS: You kind of hug the kids’ neck and say, ‘We did what we could.’ It’s a tough, raw nerve kind of feeling after that game, because it was not expected. Even though we were not feeling fantastic, it wasn’t as though we couldn’t’ stop them.

Cam Brown had one of the most animated moments of the game, when he appeared ready to take on the entire Wolverines team. His mother said a Michigan player had grabbed onto Brown’s ankles and wouldn’t let go. (He missed most of the 2020 season with a torn Achilles tendon.)

SHANTAY JONES: He came over and he had his head down and he’s like, ‘I’m really sorry if I embarrassed you.’ I said, ‘Well, you were angry, and he said., ‘Yeah, but I’m not supposed to do stuff like that. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.’

Per tradition, OSU players give their first pair of gold pants — charms engraved with their initials, the score and the date they beat Michigan — to their mothers. Brown did that, in 2018, and gave his 2019 pants to his father. He and many other Buckeyes will be motivated this week to win either their first gold pants, or their first to keep for themselves.

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

A staff member hugs Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson in the closing seconds of the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)AP

Losing left a hollow feeling.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: “Remember, football is what you do, not who you are. I’ve got to be that conscience in the midst of all of this. We don’t want to be that family that puts on added pressure. If we’re focused on keeping him mentally fresh, he’s going to handle the football stuff.”

ERIC CHAMBERS: “It almost took a couple of days to realize, oh my God, we’re not going to the Big Ten championship game. Oh my God, we’re not having a whole second season.”

After the loss came the backlash. Why did OSU lose, and what did it say about the state of the program? In the days following the game, then-Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis went on a radio show and said of the Buckeyes: “They’re a finesse team. They’re not a tough team.”

ERIC CHAMBERS: He didn’t handle that well. No.1, I think he agreed with it. I don’t think in his football history anyone had run on them like that. They didn’t think there was anything they could do to stop it.

SHANTAY BROWN: He was sad. We were trying to keep him occupied with family and different things like that. He always feels he can do more — if I would have done this or I would have done that.’ We let him have his time and he came out of it.

ERIC CHAMBERS: He never, ever, ever posts anything on social media. I don’t even know if he knows how to get into an account. But he found an old Woody Hayes quote — ‘There’s nothing that cleanses the soul like getting the heck kicked out of you’ — and he posted it. I was like, wow, he’s really feeling it. He was able to find his voice through that meme and putting it out there.”

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

Michigan running back Blake Corum (2) is chased by Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman (14) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)AP

How it started

Every out-of-state OSU player has a story about the first time the gravity of the Michigan rivalry hit them in the face. Most of their parents have the same story. Eric Chambers said he received a warning the first time he said Michigan while out to dinner with Urban Meyer and Greg Schiano on his son’s official visit. The second time, he had to get down and do push-ups in the restaurant.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: “When we came on the visit to Ohio State, the very first time, they let you know. The very first time I came to the facility I had on blue. I thought I was looking OK. Nice sneakers, blue sweats – I’m not thinking Team Up North. I’m thinking I’m looking presentable for my son’s visit to college.“I get into the facility in the Woody and they’re saying, ‘Hey, he must not know.’ We met with coach (Greg) Schiano and he says ‘Rocket, did you not tell your dad?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I told him.’ When I came out of the hotel he saw me dressed and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got all that blue!’ Coach (Urban) Meyer said, ‘We love everything about you except that color you got on.’ “

SHANTAY BROWN: My brother happened to have on blue, and I thought they weren’t going to let him in the Woody. He took off his jacket and left it in the car.

ERIC CHAMBERS: “My brothers up here don’t like this team, therefore I don’t like this team. That’s what carries you through to your first contact. Once you get to the first contact, you get to trash talking and it starts to fester and it becomes its own animal at that point.

“It doesn’t take long. It’s not something you come in with. “

SHANTAY BROWN: Around Thanksgiving at my job a couple of years ago, they put up a board for people to write what they were thankful about. I went through with a red marker and crossed out all the Ms on everybody’s things they were thankful for. My supervisor was like, ‘What are you doing?’

With the rivalry’s great intensity comes great pressure. Hickman Sr. recalled an experience one night after last year’s loss.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: We were at his apartment and I said let’s go get something to eat and not think about football. I remember having my (OSU) jersey on and him saying, ‘Nah, Dad, it might not be a good time to wear that. This is not (New) Jersey, it’s Columbus. Football is different here. Us losing that game, now’s not a good time.’

From that, I understood it. It’s not like he was embarrassed by the jersey, but he understood what the rivalry means to Columbus and means to Ohio State, and they didn’t deliver that.

Ohio State vs. Michigan 2021

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins (25) leaps over Ohio State defenders for a touchdown in the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)AP

ERIC CHAMBERS: I don’t know if the fans enjoy the journey that is the college football season. I don’t know if anyone has enjoyed more than one or two wins this year. The pursuit of perfection that’s necessary is not just to beat Michigan but beat them by 100 points. From the players’ perspective and the parents too, it’s a little sour, because no one enjoys it. No matter what, no one enjoys it.

An offseason fire

That loss provided context for everything that happened between the end of last season and the beginning of this one. That included the near-complete overhaul of the defensive staff and a team-wide focus on proving their toughness in 2022.

ERIC CHAMBERS: I know in interviews he comes off pretty raw, but he’s even more competitive than that. I think he beat himself up and his teammates up and everybody else about it for — well, I think he’s still doing it.

Him finally being in position to contribute and not being on the winning side was really hard for him.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: It lingered and lingered and the conversation began: ‘I’ve got to work hard for next year. That can’t happen.’ The conversation kept coming bac to the Team Up North game. ‘We’ve got to be better.’

ERIC CHAMBERS: He just didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted to kind of get back to practice and figure out how he was going to fix it for the next game. We did not get a whole lot out of him of, ‘Well, this needed to be done better.’ (It was) ‘We sucked. We were weak. We didn’t have what it took and we’ve got to do better.’ There was not any detail or thing we needed to do better than other. It was a mentality breakdown.

Parents of OSU football players

Melanie and Todd Jackson, parents of OSU player Donovan Jackson.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

ZAFIRO BURKE: He had a lot of different things affecting him to the point that I had to move to Columbus permanently to be supportive of him and stay on top of him and it’s helped a lot.

He had a really good (freshman) year except for one game and that was Michigan. But when now you’re playing hurt and you’re dealing with that, you’ve got too many things in your head.

TREVOR STOVER, father of tight end Cade Stover: He never wanted to be in a situation again where he thinks you beat him mentally or physically. Sometimes you had to pull him back a little bit to make sure there’s something left for the next day. That was his mentality. You’re not gonna break him no matter what happens, and he wanted his teammates to approach it the same way.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: He’s actually said, ‘We’re not going to do what we did last year.’ That’s him talking and holding himself accountable. He’s the first to say, ‘I’ve got to be better.’

ERIC CHAMBERS: One thing they didn’t have last year was any (defensive) answers to anything. I think that frustrated a lot of them. ‘They’re doing this, but we’re still doing the same thing.’ I know that frustrated him a lot.

One year later

The game that held OSU’s ultimate chance at redemption sat at the end of the regular season schedule. That meant suppressing thoughts of The Game to focus on the next game.

Parents of OSU football players

Samuel and Evey Friday,, parents of OSU player Tyler Friday.

ERIC CHAMBERS: While we know it’s out there, at least in my presence, I have yet to hear any of these guys mention Michigan. Every team’s got big boys. If you’re not looking at that — if you’re looking at a Michigan guy and his tape instead of the guys coming up this week — you’ll get beat this week.

SHANTAY BROWN: He seems more focused this year, period, than I’ve ever seen him be focused.

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: He’s playing every team like it’s the Team Up North because he wants to get there so bad.

Ohio State has not lost back-to-back games to Michigan since 1999-2000. Beyond that, the winner of Saturday’s game wins the Big Ten East and continues to control its own destiny in the College Football Playoff. To ensure a chance at a national championship, the Buckeyes must first win this border war.

SHANTAY BROWN: They all want it so bad. Cameron is really, really focused this year. He wants to do the best he can. That’s why he was upset he missed a couple of games because of injuries. He’s so determined and so focused on wining. ‘This my last year.’ He wants to go out so people remember good thoughts about me and that I played my best. He wants to leave a good legacy.

Parents of OSU football players

Shantay Brown (left), mother of OSU player Cam Brown., and his aunt Tamara Bradley, and cousins Jada and Kyle Holloway.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

RONNIE HICKMAN SR.: “He has a feeling like, ‘I didn’t earn my pants yet.’ He’s driven not just to get a pair of pants, but he wants to be on the team that earns those pants.”

ERIC CHAMBERS: “Clearly the entire 364 days leading up to this thing, it’s everything in terms of the prep for that. It’s all eggs in one basket in terms of buildup.

“If you looked at it in terms of the enormity of if, you’d probably crumble, probably curl up and die. You try to insulate yourself from it so you can focus on the things you need to do to be there for your kid.”

ZAFIRO BURKE: I believe that Michigan this year is gonna understand who Ohio State is. If they score two touchdowns, they’re lucky.

Parents of OSU football players

Jimmy and Tracey Harrison, parents of OSU player Zach Harrison.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

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