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Leaving it all on The Field in 1978: The Impact of a Single College Football Game Can Last Decades

Anyone who has played organized team sports, especially football, has heard of and understands the meaning of “Leaving it all on the field.”  The effort of expending every ounce of emotional and physical energy in pursuit of victory.  Win, lose, or draw, “Leaving it on the field”  is imbedded in the DNA of every serious athlete.  This all-out effort by individual players serves to make the team stronger and binds them closer together in their pursuit of excellence.   

While we realize the impact “Leaving it all on the field” can have on a player, the team, and coaches have you ever considered its impact  on someone other than the coaches or players?  Someone who just happened to attend a game and appreciated the on-field effort from the stands?   I never thought much about the impact a single game could have on the life of a fan, for example.  I was to find out the answer to this question one sunny Friday afternoon eating lunch at a local Rocky River, Ohio pub.  Come with me as I share with you why I now have an increased appreciation for the broader impact “Leaving it all on the field” can have.

“ I saw the best football game in my life back in the late 1970’s at Baldwin-Wallace College.  It’s  been over forty years, but I still remember  what it felt like watching those two teams battle each other on that Saturday afternoon,” said the bartender speaking in my direction. 

When I heard the comment from the bartender I assumed he was talking to me as I was the only patron sitting at this end of the bar.  Looking up from my lunch, I asked “excuse me Sir, were you talking to me?”  He replied, “I noticed your B-W hat and it reminded me of a  game I watched in the late 1970’s at Finnie Stadium.

I asked him if he remembered anything else about the game because I played football at Baldwin-Wallace in the late 1970’s.  He said, “I remember the lead changed hands back and forth all afternoon.  One team would score seeming to take control of the game only to be met by an offensive outburst by the other team.  The day was filled with goal line stands and critical stops by each team’s defense, also.  Every touchdown, field goal, and extra point was matched.  The game ended in a 17 to 17 tie.”

The bartender continued to share with me how the efforts of both teams made such an impact on him.  How he never saw two teams fight so hard, never give up, and keep coming back for more.  He even recalled individual plays that left a lasting impression in his mind. 

As I sat listening to my new friend, I realized he was describing a game I was intimately aware of:  The 1978 OAC Championship game between Baldwin-Wallace and Wittenberg. 

The OAC Championship in 1978 was a pivotal game in our quest for the Division 3 National Championship. As he ended his recollections, I was amazed at how much  influence a single football game could have on a fan’s life.  I was also proud to have been a Yellow Jacket that day in 1978.  I was suddenly overwhelmed with vivid memories of the game and its aftermath.  More importantly, I was reminded of the impact that single game has had on my life.

I have never forgotten the OAC Championship game that day in 1978 against Wittenberg. It was an  emotional rollercoaster ride for me.  There were the “highs” when we would score and take the lead or when the “D” would force a Wittenberg punt.  The “lows” were also there at every turn.  Wittenberg seemed to come up with the right play at the right time both on offense and defense.   As the scoreboard clock ran down and struck 0:00 the score was BW 17 Wittenberg 17.

As the kicker for the Yellow Jackets in 1978, I had a unique observation post from the sidelines.  Since I was only brought into the game to kick off or attempt a field goal and extra point I could watch every offensive  and defensive play.  Due to this unique vantage point, I can honestly say I was both a team member and fan of the Yellow Jackets.

After “Leaving it all on the field,”  I entered a strangely quiet locker room.  The postgame silence was unique for the Yellow Jackets in 1978.  Until this game our team had only celebrated victories postgame.  It was to be, however,  the first and last time there would be silence after a game in a  Yellow Jacket locker room this year.  We were only to taste victory over the remainder of the season.

As I gazed around the locker room I was suddenly overwhelmed with an emotion of guilt.  I felt I had let the team down. You see, while I had made a field goal and kicked two extra points to secure the tie I had missed a field goal early in the game.  I thought, this tie score might eliminate us from the D3 playoffs.  These guys in the locker room were my buddies, my teammates, wearers of the sacred “Brown and Gold,” Yellow Jackets.  We had grown close over the season having been together since the summer, practicing so hard during two-a-days and every afternoon since school began.  One goal: win the D3 National Championship.  One heart:  “Team first…Team last…Team always.” 

My eyes started to well up with tears, but before anything came running down my face, I felt a slap on my shoulder and turned around to see the smiling face of Bill Rickert, our starting outside linebacker, and my Big Brother in the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity.  He was looking straight at me and said,  “Robby, it’s all good, we win or lose as a team.”  It was just what I needed to hear at the moment.  (Bill may not remember these few seconds encouraging me, but his reassurance has been etched in my psyche for the past 46 years.) 

Soon, other teammates noticing my downtrodden visage, came over to offer words of encouragement. Pats on the back and sincere words were being shared with every teammate.  I now became an encourager to others where a few minutes earlier I was the one needing to be uplifted.   The sincere acts of encouragement bestowed on me and others by my fellow teammates still resonates in my heart today.  As a member of the 1978 Yellow Jackets, I witnessed the best example of team spirit and loyalty I ever experienced in my life.  Their encouragement that day continues to be a source of strength I call on to overcome life’s trials and tribulations.  Thanks fellas.

After the experience of  “Leaving it all on the field” that Saturday afternoon, the Yellow  Jackets were invited to compete in the D3 playoffs.  The tie game did not eliminate Wittenberg either as the NCAA included  them in the playoff race.  You know, looking back on the 1978 season I believe Hollywood screenwriters could not craft a better movie ending than what occurred at the close of our 1978 season. 

The top Division 3 teams were divided into two brackets.  While we were victorious in our group, earning a trip to the Championship game,  Wittenberg continued their march for the Championship Title by defeating their playoff opponents.  Believe it or not, the stage was set for another  Baldwin-Wallace vs. Wittenberg showdown.  This time in Phenix City, Alabama for the Division 3 National Championship Title known as the Stagg Bowl.

Could we rise to the occasion as a team to defeat Wittenberg and redeem ourselves from the only blemish on our otherwise undefeated season? Would Wittenberg, on the other hand, be the "thorn in our side" and steal the championship from us? Another epic match ensued.  The Brown and Gold from Berea were not to be denied this time.  The final score Baldwin-Wallace 24 Wittenberg 10. 

After our victory in the Stagg Bowl I walked toward our locker room under the stadium. I could hear a cacophony of laughter and shouts of joy.  Rising above all the celebration, I could hear Queen’s song “We are the Champions,”  blasting out of somebody’s Boombox. As I entered the locker room I witnessed something I will remember all my life, the unabashed expression of joy beaming from Coach Tressel’s face.

I believe that our  victories in the playoffs and ultimate success in the Stagg Bowl in 1978 was due in large part to “Leaving it all on the field” and our spirit of unity after the tie game in the OAC Championship.  It is my hope and encouragement to all present and future football players, and especially the Baldwin-Wallace Yellow Jackets to “Leave it all on the field.”  You never know that the  life you impact may just be your own.  The legacy of a football game is not written only by statistics in the record books, but in the hearts and minds of those who “Leave it all on the field,” and the memories of those who are impacted by the  game.

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