CALDWELL -- No one in town had seen Woody Hayes since he punched that player and lost his job.
Everyone was on the same page, though. No one wanted that uncomfortable conversation.
Gennie Saling knew her husband. She knew of the lack of a filter between his brain and mouth.
So, Gennie warned Ed: 'Don't you say anything to him about that.'
Woody always stopped by the Saling residence on his visits to Caldwell. Upon his arrival, the words flowed from Ed's mouth with reckless abandon.
He approached Woody and asked: "What the hell can make a man do that?"
Ten, twisting miles winding down a wayward path devoid of visibility, with nary a streetlight nor stoplight nor stop sign to impede.
The sights along the route are antiquated and unconventional, rural and unsophisticated.
A collection of rusty, downtrodden cars, the ignitions long untapped, rest among weeds and tall, untamed grass. A tire covers the hood of a navy sedan parked in front of a patch of woods.
A ceramics shop, a bar and an inn sit atop dirt lots at various junctures along the trail.
Farms line both sides of the road, with cows and horses roaming the giant pastures that keep plenty of distance between neighbors.
Ten miles of this, before ultimately reaching the hidden gem of Caldwell.
Ten miles to Woody Hayes' old cabin.
The pathway is easy to miss. It peeks out just before a sharp left turn on the main road.
The rusty gate, innocent, yet inviting, hangs ajar, but blends in with the backdrop of leaves, trees and earth.
Up the steep hill lies the log fixture, sold multiple times since Woody died in 1987. The cabin, and the quirky town surrounding it, is where Woody rushed to escape from football, from work and from life, where he reconnected with his extended family, where he chatted about school and jobs with the 12 children of Mary Hill, a widowed neighbor.
This, in essence, was home.
"He never forgot to come back," said Mabel Schott, Woody's second-cousin.
On Saturday afternoons during the summer, Woody walked up the street to the bar owned by his cousin and bought everyone drinks.
Woody knew every patron at the three bars in town. Everyone in Caldwell knew Woody.
Of course, unfamiliarity didn't exist in the small community.
"Everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody's business," said Schott, whose white front door bears an Ohio State adornment.
In Columbus, where he coached for 28 years, Woody was a daunting, directive dictator.
"He never rode with anybody most places," said former Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, "but if he rode with you, it was his car and he took over the radio, took over the windows, took over the heat, he took over everything.
"He was always in control."
In reality, though, Woody was a recluse.
"He used to go mountain hiking all the time by himself," Bruce said. "He was always kind of a loner in that respect."
In Caldwell, Woody was a hallowed figure, revered for his five national championships, but respected and beloved for his generosity.
"It was the complete opposite," said Melinda Antill, one of eight Saling children. "Nobody was intimidated by Woody Hayes around here."
Woody visited on weekends during the summer. In the winter, snow and ice blanketed the steep gravel path to his cabin, creating a nearly impossible trail to traverse.
When he returned to Caldwell, he steered the conversation away from his own legacy.
"Never once did that man ever talk football," said Gennie Saling, who has spent all 88 years of her life in the area. "All he ever talked about was learning and working."
Once a year, Woody provided a glut of tickets to the denizens of Caldwell. They filled a car or two and made the two-hour trek west to Columbus and sat in the front row to watch their hero lead the Buckeyes.
"My kids, they used to go to school and tell people they met Woody Hayes," Saling said. "Kids didn't want to believe them."
Here was this man, this imposing figure, the stirring face of one of college football's premier programs, a seemingly callous coach who was dismissed for striking an opposing player. Yet, in Caldwell, where he spent his childhood summers on his grandparents' farm and his offseason weekends in his secluded log cabin, Woody conformed to a simple, innocent manner of life.
"I liked to talk to him," Schott said. "He was really understanding. He liked everybody."
It was the complete opposite. Nobody was intimidated by Woody Hayes around here.
No one appreciated Gennie Saling's work ethic more than Woody did.
She plucked worms off the tobacco on her family's farm and threw the burrowing bodies into a can. She milked cows, tended to horses, did housework for neighbors, served at all three bars in town and worked at a steel plant. She could operate every machine in that factory.
Woody admired that.
He stopped in at the Saling residence on Sundays -- he brought a case of beer for the adults and a watermelon for everyone else -- and he sat in a chair in the living room and talked about education to the family's children, grandchildren and the rest of the kids in the neighborhood.
They had all heard tales about Woody making his players stay at his house under his watchful eye until they improved their grades.
"I was told that if they weren't making their grades, you did not want a teacher giving him a phone call," Antill said. "If he got a phone call, you were dead meat."
So Woody spoke to the roomful of children each week and preached about homework and studying.
"He always told them: 'Get an education first,'" Antill said. "'It's not all about football. You have to have the education or the football ain't gonna get you nowhere.'"
When she was 17, Gennie married Ed, who worked for a local coal company that tore down old houses, which were really just log structures with siding. Ed had taken the logs and built two cabins on his farm.
They caught Woody's eye.
Woody secured an acre of land atop a majestic hill and he hired Ed and Joe Schott, Mabel's husband, to build him a new abode.
Woodys_Cabin_18.JPGWoody Hayes' old cabin in Caldwell, Ohio.Courtesy of Andrew Gottesman
Little has been written or shared about Woody's cabin. The exterior of the complex looks like a faded American flag or a dual-flavored birthday cake. Layers of white- and brown-stained wood compose the framework. A cluster of barren wasp nests hang from the track of the front door.
Two wooden benches rest on the porch, one of them with a busted leg that now prohibits any sitting. Woody often settled onto one of the seats and wrote. He penned a book about football, which Antill has in her home.
The stone chimney appears to be reluctantly separating from the foundation of the cabin, as the old mortar in between hangs on for dear life. In the spring, easter lilies blossomed all through the woods encompassing the yard.
"They were everywhere you looked," Antill said.
Woody installed a red sink and a gray bathtub to give the place an Ohio State flair. He had an Ohio State rug near the front door.
Now, a grill and a jacuzzi sit outside of the cabin. Cans of Natty Light are sprinkled throughout the grass.
A large yellow candle, two smaller, exhausted candles, a book, a white porcelain bowl and a picture frame rest on a wooden table in the center of the cabin. A blanket is draped over the back of one of four chairs positioned around the table. A tall, rustic lamp hovers over a leather chair. White curtains, decorated with a blue flower design, shield the inside from too much sunlight.
The lodge boasts a fireplace, a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom loft.
The Salings tended to the cabin when Woody was away. Gennie mowed the lawn and even did Woody's laundry. He called her to say he was coming to town and he would stop by to exchange his dirty clothes for his clean garb.
When he died, Gennie still had his clothes hanging upstairs. Now, her grandson has Woody's patented button-up short-sleeve shirt framed in glass hanging on a wall in his house.
Caldwell is home to several branches of the Hayes family tree, but even to those in the area not related by blood, Woody was like family.
"He was in this house and this kitchen more times than I can count," Antill said.
Woodys_Cabin_13.JPGWoody Hayes' old cabin in Caldwell, Ohio.Courtesy of Andrew Gottesman
Gennie was nervous. Woody was bringing his wife to town for the first time.
Caldwell didn't attract many visitors. It still doesn't.
Butch and Patti Damewood relocated to the area from Akron just for that purpose. They built a home on the main road and purchased the vacant property next door -- the land adjacent to Woody's old estate -- so they could maintain solitude and privacy.
They sit at their kitchen table, catch up on news and let their robotic vacuum cleaner tidy up the house.
Despite his ability to fit in with the rest of the town, Woody was still a superstar in Caldwell. Gennie envisioned his wife as a high-class, hoity-toity, elegant, posh woman to whom she wouldn't be able to relate.
Then, Anne stepped out of the car.
"Here she comes, this little old heavyset lady who had her hair back in a bunch like a farm lady," Saling said. "She was just like a farm lady, too. She was the nicest person that you could meet."
They hit it off.
Once Woody died, Anne mailed Gennie $100 each Christmas.
The Salings shared a special bond with Woody. He wasn't the same person in Caldwell -- alone and at peace in his cabin or at the bar or in a neighbor's living room before a cluster of kids -- as he was in Columbus. There, he was work-obsessed and narrow-minded.
"He was a very good-hearted person," Antill said. "It was amazing how good he could be to people. If anyone needed something, he would definitely help you."
Because of that, Ed Saling couldn't believe what Woody did during the waning moments of the 1978 Gator Bowl against Clemson. He and Woody never shied away from speaking their minds to each other.
So, Ed asked: "What the hell can make a man do that?"
Woody replied: "They ticked me off!"
That was the end of the conversation.
"You'd just have to know Woody," Antill said. "He had a temper. There's no doubt about that."
They knew Woody, and maybe a little better than most.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was reprinted with permission of the author and the Northeast Ohio Media Group.)