To be in the upper reaches of Ohio Stadium on game day is to stand in two worlds at once—close enough to the clouds to touch the blue of September sky, close enough to the turf to feel the fans shake the ground. The Horseshoe is Pentecostal on Saturdays, and since its opening in 1922 more than 36 million have come through the gates to worship at the altar of Ohio State football.
Waiting, every autumn, are more than 1,000 equally dedicated congregants—a legion of ushers and Redcoats. They work the passageways and portals, helping more than 100,000 crazed fans find sections and seats and anything else they might need to drown opponents in a sea of scarlet fervor.
The people who comprise Ohio Stadium’s living support system are amongst the most passionate anywhere, dedicating years and even decades to their team. The ushers form little families and long-lasting friendships, telling each other stories of Buckeye football life. The stories rarely have to do with the sport; they are accounts of fans, of service, of loss, of tradition.
Inspired by the passing of a beloved head usher, one man collected some of their best tales. He called it a confession, but really it’s a celebration.
The phone rang late one night in Trevor Zahara’s house. It was his good friend and coworker Ron Friday asking him if he could fill in as an usher at Friday’s portal at Ohio Stadium. Friday had been a frequent visitor to The Shoe since he was a kid. His father started ushering in 1939, and as a young boy Friday accompanied him to games. After he left Air Force active duty in 1962, he took his place as an usher next to his dad.
Zahara was no stranger to Ohio Stadium either. He grew up in Bucyrus, and his whole family loved the Buckeyes. He went to his first game with his cousin when he was about 12, and the two snuck onto the field and watched the game from behind the bench near Woody Hayes. “I could reach out and touch him, we were that close,” Zahara said.
His older brother matriculated at Ohio State and Zahara followed in his footsteps, as did his wife Patti. He graduated in 1971, and three of his four children attended OSU as well. So when Friday called and asked him to be an usher, the answer seemed preordained.
That was 17 years ago.
He became one unit of the small army that brings the stadium to life on game days. According to Zahara, there are more than 500 volunteer ushers and over 400 Redcoats—paid, part-time ticket-takers—as well as about 185 supervising ushers. The ushers stand at every portal in Ohio Stadium to make sure everyone is obeying the rules and fans are enjoying the game.
When Friday stepped down as the portal chief after knee surgery, Zahara took his place and has remained there ever since, out of loyalty to his crew. He oversees four other ushers at portal B-Eight, some of whom have worked with him the entire time. The ushers often form tight-knit units, due in part to their longevity; Zahara’s 17 seasons are a blink in time compared to nearly a century racked up cumulatively by Friday and his father. In 2007, 12 ushers were honored during halftime of the Wisconsin game for 50-plus years of service.
“Can you imagine volunteering for anything for 50 years?” Zahara asked in awe.
The ushers get together for meetings about their roles, but they also spend plenty of time telling each other stories from their vast experiences at The Horseshoe. They arrive at the stadium several hours before kickoff, so they have exceptional access to the wealth of lore surrounding Buckeyes football, and their interactions with fans over the years provide plenty of time for gathering amusing, ridiculous, and touching stories from the faithful.
Jim Norris had about as many stories as any of them. He was Zahara’s friend and the head usher, and he kept his peers engrossed for hours on end during lunches in the offseason. He told them about his friend from Florida who drove up for every home game, turning the fall into a string of four-day weekends. There was the story about the sergeant in the Marines who lured his girlfriend to the field on game day for a photo op, but instead he got down on his knee and proposed (she said yes).
Not all the stories are so joyous—like the one about Norris tearfully spreading a vial of his good friend’s ashes at Ohio Stadium.
When Norris also died in 2011, Zahara realized that they were in danger of losing their oral tradition, and he approached assistant athletic director Mike Penner. “Gosh, Jim had all these wonderful stories,” Zahara said. “We really need to start documenting ’em.”
Penner looked at him and replied, “Well, why don’t you start?”
And so he did, requesting stories from his fellow ushers and Redcoats. At first he thought of it as compiling a brochure for his colleagues, but the stories kept coming in and the cost of producing a brochure for more than 1,000 people was substantial. After talking with publishing companies, he decided a self-published book would be a better keepsake.
Over the course of three years, Zahara interviewed band members, fans, and former coaches Earle Bruce, John Cooper, and Jim Tressel. He also tracked down Urban Meyer to get his contribution during his daily walk. After 14 drafts and a successful Kickstarter campaign, he finally finished Confessions of an OSU Usher last fall—332 pages and 140 color photos that document about 75 of the best stories, mostly told by ushers in their own words.
Some of the stories are strange—like the one of the woman who dropped the contents of her purse into a portable toilet and asked an usher to fish it out. He grabbed a pair of rubber gloves and obliged her before finding out she was a Michigan fan. Others are impressive, like that of John Crawford, the fan who attended every game since 1943, including one in which a TV station flew him in a helicopter from the stadium to the airport so he could make it to the game and to his nephew’s wedding in New Jersey that same day.
Zahara also reserved space for his own stories. He recounted the time he threw a snake-feeding party for his pet boa constrictor—Rainboa—the night before the Michigan game his senior year. He took her out among 100 people and she became frightened. She reared up and bit him near his cheekbone, breaking off some of her fangs in the area by his jaw, and he had to spend the night in the emergency room. The doctor chastised him for his decision-making, but as Zahara left, the doc called out, “Go Bucks! Beat the Blue!”
That story—like many of them—has nothing to do with the team, The Game, or even The Horseshoe. But it still serves as connective tissue in the fabric of Buckeyes legend. “The whole impetus was for me to tell the ushers’ stories,” Zahara said, “as well as my story.”
His own tale is not complete, though. He’ll be in Ohio Stadium again this year for his 18th season, waiting outside portal B-Eight, smiling as he stands amidst a scarlet crowd partway between the sky and the field.