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Breaching the Border: Michigan football’s history with the state of Ohio, and Hoke's resurgence

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 6, 2012

CINCINNATI — It’s just past dawn on a day in early August here, though this scene could be found anywhere in this state: other big cities such as Columbus or Cleveland, smaller suburbs such as Pickerington or Lakewood, quainter towns like Findlay.

A group of 16- and 17-year-olds find themselves trudging across a vast grass field. The sun is beginning to peek through the clouds, and it is at the same time glorious and foreboding. Glorious, because the rays soften the gloominess of the long, arduous day set before these teenagers; foreboding, because the rays also promise misery once morning recedes into afternoon and the August heat begins to stifle them once again.

For young men to be awake this early on a late summer morning — the last days of freedom before the school year seizes their lives for nine more months again — they have to be either insane or they have to be football players.

These are the latter.

The same routine unfolds in every state across this country, which values its football as dearly as it does its freedoms. But there’s something different about football in Ohio.

It might not be a way of life here, but it’s a big part of life. Communities are centered around high school football teams; coaches are scrutinized as if they were coaching professionals; players engulf themselves in the sport. The state of Ohio is a football hotbed, and the talent that grows here and the intensity that envelops communities speak to that. It is, without a doubt, the locus of Midwestern football.

Brady Hoke knows all about Ohio high school football. He’s recruited the state almost his whole coaching career, which has most recently brought him to the head coaching position at Michigan.

But Hoke also grew up here. He saw the fervor firsthand as a linebacker and center (and senior captain) for Fairmont East High School in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton.

The passion permeates the state.

“Friday nights in Ohio are kind of important,” Hoke said.

Horace G. Prettyman arrived at the University of Michigan in 1882. He came from Bryan, Ohio, a town in the northwest part of the state that’s closer to the Indiana border than it is to Toledo, the nearest major Ohio city.

A “forward” for each of the next four years, Prettyman was the first Ohioan to play on the Michigan football team, three years after the first-ever group of Wolverines played their inagural game. He was joined by other Buckeye State natives beginning in 1886, and soon the quality of these Ohioans skyrocketed.

Pontius Miller, from Circleville, was the first Ohio-bred football player to become an All-American at Michigan as a tackle in 1913. The next decade saw four of his peers accomplish the same, including Benny Friedman, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history.

Men like Prettyman and Miller couldn’t have known it at the time, but they established a legacy that has been central to the storied tradition of Michigan football: dependence on players who hail from Ohio.

“It’s always been part of Michigan’s recruiting,” Hoke said. “We have two Heisman winners from the state of Ohio.”

They are Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. Hoke went on to name other luminaries hailing from the state, including Bo Schembechler, Jerry Hanlon and Gary Moeller.

“It’s a big part of it. You’ve got a state that’s got great coaching, very passionate about the game of football,” Hoke said.

To put it bluntly, Michigan’s all-time success could not have happened without Ohio-born players. The state of Michigan produces some high-quality players, but not enough to fully support a dominant program.

Ohio, on the other hand, produces enough players to supply multiple programs, and it has.

Recent Ohio-born Wolverines include players such as Mario Manningham and Shawn Crable. Redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint and fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs are two of the more prominent names on Team ‘133’ who hail from the state.

All told, Michigan has had 126 separate players earn All-America distinction. Twenty-one of them, or about 17 percent, have been from Ohio.

Twelve of those 21 All-Americans have come in the last 43 years, dating from when Ohio native Schembechler assumed control of the Wolverines. The Ohio flavor has been more pronounced ever since.