What is a buckeye? Explaining Ohio State’s nickname, helmet stickers & mascot

No. 3 Ohio State will conclude its season on Monday with a matchup against top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game: the biggest stage available to the sport in 2020.

For those who don’t follow college football — or who do follow college football but otherwise live under a rock — Ohio State might raise a curious question:

What are the stickers on the back of their helmets? And, to further that question: What exactly is a buckeye?

Those questions have apparently been asked enough for Ohio State University to dedicate an entire page to the query. Sporting News is here to help anyone with a curiosity in the Buckeyes’ arboreal nickname, too:

What is a buckeye?

A buckeye has two meanings, one of which derives from the other: A buckeye, per Ohio State, is described as a “small, shiny, dark brown nut with a light tan patch.” Said nut comes from the official state tree of Ohio: the buckeye tree. Per tradition, buckeyes are supposed to bring good luck when carried.

According to the USDA, however, every part of the buckeye tree — its leaves, bark and fruit — are “highly toxic” if ingested, resulting in symptoms of “muscle weakness and paralysis, dilated pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, paralysis, and stupor.”

So: Don’t eat them.

The second meaning for buckeye is a resident of the state of Ohio. According to Ohio State, the first person to be called a Buckeye was 6-4 Col. Ebenezer Sproat, in 1788 — 15 years before Ohio legally became the 17th of state in the United States:

“Col. Ebenezer Sproat, a 6-4 man of large girth and swashbuckling mannerisms, led the legal delegation at the first court session of the Northwest Territory in Marietta. The Indians in attendance greeted him with shouts of ‘Hetuck, Hetuck’ (the Indian word for buckeye), it is said because they were impressed by his stature and manner. He proudly carried the Buckeye nickname for the rest of his life and it gradually spread to his companions and to other local settlers. By the 1830s, writers were commonly referring to locals as ‘Buckeyes.'”

When did Ohio State adopt the Buckeye nickname?

According to the 2001 book “The Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia,” authored by Ohio State football historian Jack Park, newspapers have referred to the team as the Buckeyes since at least 1919. The team did not officially adopt the nickname, however, until 1950 — 60 years after the team’s first season in 1890.

What are the stickers on the back of Ohio State’s helmets?

Sharp-eyed viewers may see stickers on the back of Ohio State’s helmets when they play. Those stickers depict buckeye leaves and are awarded to players for exceptional play:

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Per a 2008 article from ESPN, the practice of placing stickers on the back of helmets began in 1968 under Hall of Fame coach Woody Hayes, at the suggestion of trainer Ernie Biggs. The exact reason for why the practice began has been lost to time, but the prevailing theory is that Hayes and Biggs thought that if players were rewarded for big plays, it would encourage them to play harder.

And so, the tradition stuck, inspiring similar practices by Georgia (dog bones), Clemson (paw prints) and Florida State (spears).

What is Ohio State’s mascot?

Ohio State’s mascot — the aptly named Brutus Buckeye — actually predates the buckeye sticker tradition. Per Ohio State, he debuted three years prior on Oct. 30, 1965, as part of the team’s homecoming game against Minnesota (the Buckeyes won 11-10).

At the time, the mascot was constructed entirely of papier-mâché and resembled a giant nut with a pair of legs. Later that season, Ohio State ordered a fiberglass version of the costume, as the prior build was not durable. Following the season, he was turned over to the Block “O” student organization, which was dedicated to school spirit. The organization managed him until 1974, when he came under the jurisdiction of the university’s athletic spirit squad.

As for Brutus Buckeye’s origins, he apparently was the result of Ray Bourhis and other members of the student organization “Ohio Staters Inc.” According to the university, Bourhis and his fellow students persuaded the athletic council to adopt the buckeye as Ohio State’s mascot, though a buck deer was also considered (live mascots were common at the time).

Ohio State settled on the name “Brutus Buckeye” on Nov. 21, 1965, after Kerry Reed submitted the winning fan submission for names.

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