Football Memories of Woody: The Inspiration
By Tony Gerdeman
Woody Hayes meant an awful lot to a great many people, even those who never came into contact with him. Stories, memories, lessons, all of them unforgettable for those involved.
Woody's greatest contribution, however, has gone on to impact those who have never even heard of him, and that is the idea of 'paying forward'.
Every story shared this week is an example of Woody paying forward, taking a moment out of his own busy life to be a part of someone else's. Always teaching and listening, or simply allowing a memory to take root. In turn, others have done the same, impacting those in their own lives and beyond for many years to come.
Woody Hayes was an inspiration for many, including those who have shared their stories this week. A sincere thanks to all of you for paying forward with personal memories that can now belong to everyone.
Since this is Woody's 100th birthday, I thought I'd tell a story that many of us "middle-aged" Ohio State fans will consider old hat because we all either have heard or know of similar stories. But I think it's important that younger Buckeye fans know that Woody was much, much more than the caricature often portrayed by the national media of an out-of-control coach punching an opposing player or tearing up a sideline marker.
I was 16 years old in 1975 when I learned that my best friend had leukemia. We were huge Buckeye fans, and I wanted to do something to lift his spirits. I was working at Donatos on the south side one night, and a friend there said I should call Coach Hayes and ask him to visit my friend in the hospital. I thought that was a great idea, but I didn't think there was any way I'd be able to find his phone number. Someone said, "Just look in the phone book." I thought, no way, but I was wrong. His number was listed in the book.
I called, and Mrs. Hayes answered. I told her about my friend and she said, "I can't make any promises, but I'll give Coach Hayes the message."
That Friday, before OSU left for Los Angeles to play UCLA, Woody showed up at the hospital with two footballs (one for my friend and one for his twin brother) autographed by the team. Not only that, on the following Monday, Archie Griffin came with a dozen roses from the team.
I guess the national media, whenever it remembers Woody, will include clips of him punching a player or tearing up a down marker (the latter totally justified, by the way, after an atrocious no-call). But we who knew a different man must always be ready to remind people that he was so much more.
I passed Woody on the Oval several times while I was an Ohio State student. I'd always say, "Hello Coach Hayes", and he would always smile back and say, "How are you, young man?" That's really the extent of my contact with him but I'll say this excerpt from his commencement speech in 1986 has had a profound impact on me:
"I would like to start with something I have used in almost every speech, and this is, 'paying forward.' And that is the thing that you folks can do with your great education for the rest of your life.
"Try to take that attitude toward life, that you're going to pay forward. So seldom can we pay back because those who helped most--your parents and other people--will be gone, but you'll find that you do want to pay. Emerson had something to say about that: 'You can pay back only seldom.' But he said, 'You can always pay forward, and you must pay line for line, deed for deed, and cent for cent.' He said, 'Beware of too much good accumulating in your palm or it will fast corrupt.' That was Emerson's attitude, and no one put it better than he did."
In 2005, at the age of 46, I was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. This came as quite a shock but through the support of many, many people I'm still here eight years later and I've made aiding the fight against blood related cancers a personal crusade.
I'm now president of our local Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) chapter and I'm asked from time to time to speak on behalf of the society at various events and fundraisers as part of their 'Hero' program. I really don't consider myself to be a 'Hero' but one of the speeches I use is to talk about my own heroes and that speech begins with Woody Hayes and his 'paying it forward' commencement speech.
I'm keenly aware of the fact that I'm here today because of the work and sacrifices of close to 50 years of volunteer efforts for the LLS. Many people weren't as fortunate as I have been. Back when the LLS was founded a blood cancer diagnosis was basically a death sentence - today that is not the case, today being told you have leukemia or lymphoma doesn't mean you're going to die - you can beat it.
That's why Woody's words are so important...people who I never met sacrificed so that I could live. It's very humbling and it's the reason I'll continue to do all I can to help the LLS strive toward achieving a mission that 50 years ago may have seemed impossible - to cure all blood related cancers. I can't tell you how many times I've heard it said, "Someday we're going to cure cancer." To the LLS, someday is today.
So Woody has always been one of my heroes and I'm proud to pass his message along whenever I get a chance; Pay it forward and great things will happen.
As I read the stories of Woody from other readers I felt compelled to write to you and share our family's story of Woody.
My father Daniel Porretta played for Woody from 1961-64 as a starting guard and defensive tackle. Ironically, Bo Schembechler was his line coach before he took the head coaching job at Miami of Ohio before his senior season.
My three brothers and I grew up die-hard Buckeyes, and again ironically, we lived and still live in Michigan. Growing up hearing my father’s stories of Woody were dinner time favorites and are still shared today with my children.
Back in 1985 my older brother Danny was terminally ill with cancer. He wanted to meet his hero Woody Hayes. He was 16-years old. The spring of 1985 was approaching and my father received a call from Woody about coming down to Columbus and spending the day together.
My brother perked up, and my father, Danny, and myself made the trip. Needless to say Danny was on cloud nine. We had lunch with Woody and watched the spring game in the press box with him. An experience I will never forget.
I have the video recording on YouTube. It is worth watching. It’s not very long and the sound isn’t the greatest. My father has a red polo on and I am the young kid.
From the video's description:
My brother was diagnosed with cancer and had his leg amputated in the early eighties. He loved the game of football so much he still played with one leg. After a lengthy battle with cancer, Woody Hayes was called in to help bring my brother's spirits up and meet his hero. As you can see in the video it was one of his best days.
Living in Michigan, people don’t understand the real man Woody was and all of the good he did for those in need. Woody was a huge influence on my father. Woody would invite players to his home to help in their studies and helped my father in many ways outside of football.
The video speaks for itself. The smile on my older brother Danny’s face is priceless. It was his greatest day to meet his hero. My father is the man in the red polo with the mustache. He passed away from colon cancer in 2009, my brother Danny died in 1986. That was the last trip he made to see his hero.
This video has all three of my heroes on it: first my father; second my brother; and third Woody. Thank you again for taking time to view this, and my two younger brothers and I would be very proud to share this with all.