Ever-Humble Laurinaitis Takes Rightful Place Among OSU Greats
Ohio State’s second game of the 2018 football season looked much like the first as the Buckeyes dominated early and throughout a 52-3 win over Rutgers in follow-up of a 77-31 decimation of Oregon State.
But OSU’s second showing in front of the home folks was clearly unique for a couple reasons. For starters, the game with Rutgers marked the opener of the Big Ten season.
Secondly, the university was able to honor 10 new members into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame: Richard Bruggeman (men’s track), Cassie Dickerson (women’s soccer), Greg Drown (rifle), Linda Haussner (field hockey), Ray Hupp (men’s track), Bryan Koniecko (men’s tennis), James Laurinaitis (football) Mike Pucillo (wrestling), Jerry Welsh (men’s hockey coach and student-athlete) and Brandon Wynn (men’s gymnastics).
The headliner of the group clearly was Laurinaitis, who was as likable and popular in his time on campus as he was dependable and consistent.
Known as “Little Animal” because he is the son of a former professional wrestler, Laurinaitis arrived to OSU in 2005 from Minnesota as merely a three-star recruit – a fact that apparently was a driving force throughout his career.
Despite seeing the field as a true freshman, being an anchor to the defense when the Buckeyes marched to the NCAA championship game in both 2006 and ’07, and becoming one of the most decorated OSU linebackers of all-time following his senior season of 2008, Laurinaitis never felt completely secure in his starring role.
“There was no hype,” he said. I’m OK with it. I didn’t expect it.”
In his time on campus, Laurinaitis knew there was always a hotshot newcomer that could garner more attention. Sometimes the fans would rush to another LB instead of him and ask for his autograph, probably assuming the more highly touted youngster had a better chance of going on to stardom.
“It helps motivate you; it helps drive you,” he said. “The competition of guys who were recruited behind you will always feel better. I know if I slip …
“I didn’t trust my ability enough to think I can go through practice and just cakewalk. I knew we had Larry Grant there sitting, we had Ross Homan sitting, Brian Rolle. You’re like, ‘If I stink for a couple practices in a row and those guys look good, you never know.’ Coaches are crazy.”
And even when it became clear the Laurinatitis was entrenched in the plans, he still felt unsure. In his mind, there was always more that could be done.
“I’m a perfectionist, so I also think a lot about what we could have done better, so the things that sting the most are ’06 and ’07, not being able to represent the Big Ten well and represent our university well on the biggest stage in those national championship games.
“When you play you can think of all the negatives first. I can remember every missed tackle I made.”
Maybe because there were so few.
Laurinaitis was the Buckeyes’ leading tackler in 2006, ’07 and ’08 and was named a consensus All-American after each of those seasons, making him one of only eight three-time A-As in school history. He had 18 tackles in the 2008 BCS championship game vs. LSU, setting the tone for an amazing senior season that culminated with him leading OSU to a fourth straight Big Ten title.
He is one of only three players in the history of the Big Ten Conference to be named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year twice, and he is the only Buckeye to be so named. He won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s most outstanding defensive player as a sophomore, took home the Butkus Award as America’s top linebacker as a junior and became Ohio State’s first winner of both the Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award as a senior.
He’s actually more proud of the team’s 4-0 record vs. Michigan while he was there.
“My favorite memories are when you celebrate beating The Team Up North,” he said. “Those are some of my favorite memories. When it’s your senior year, you’re in the locker room and you’ve got a couple cigars and you’re holding the Big Ten trophy, those are fun memories. Totality, career-wise, this (being named to the OSU Hall of Fame) is definitely one of them.
“And whenever you won the awards was always fun, but, again, it’s the team stuff. When you’re on those award shows, you’re on the road, a lot of times you’re by yourself or with a coach. Just one coach comes with you and you don’t get to celebrate it with your guys. So those team memories stick out.”
Laurinaitis said the best part about being named to the Hall was receiving congratulatory phone calls from former teammates such as Malcolm Jenkins as well as Luke Fickell, his former position coach, and Jim Tressel, OSU’s head coach from 2001-10.
“It’s fun, man, because those are the guys who deserve a lot of credit for any of my success,” he said. “Teammates pushing me, teammates supporting me. Luke Fickell was probably the most instrumental in my success as a linebacker and as a person – between him and Tress.
“Tress called me the other day and congratulated me. It’s really cool to hear from him. There are so many people I could go through and thank.”
When former Buckeye Ron Maciejowski from the Varsity ‘O’ called Laurinaitis in the summer to inform him he had made the Hall of Fame, Laurinaitis only told a few family members.
“I actually waited a while to tell my dad, until like a week before, because my dad is one of the worst people at keeping secrets,” he said on Sept. 7, the day before the Rutgers game. “He’d be a guy who’s like, ‘Oh, I only told like four people and I tweeted it. What’s the big deal?’ But it’s a really cool thing to be able to share it with everybody this weekend.”
Laurinaitis finished his OSU career with 375 total tackles, seventh-best in Buckeye history. He was a two-time team captain for a defensive unit that led the nation in total defense in 2007 and was among the top 15 defenses nationally every year he played.
The St. Louis Rams selected him in the second round of the 2009 draft and never regretted it. In fact, after playing for seven seasons for St. Louis and one with New Orleans, he left the game as the all-time leading tackler in Rams franchise history.
“I don’t miss, necessarily, playing the game anymore,” said Laurinaitis, now a local radio personality for 1460 (FM) The Fan and a college football analyst for FOX Sports. “I feel like I emptied that tank best I could. I miss the locker room, you know, the camaraderie, the trash talk, the banter back and forth. You’ve got to have thick skin in the locker room.
“You still get it from time to time. Chris Long sent me a video message the other day. It’s all about making fun of me and the color (analysis) stuff I did for Arizona State. And, of course, at the end, it’s a compliment.
“You can’t talk to any football teammate and get to the compliment until you get through all the banter.
“When you go to the facility, no matter how well your season is going, meetings could be done at 5:30 and you may hang out until 7, I was like, ‘These are my boys. This is fun.’
“That’s the stuff you miss. I don’t miss hitting guards. I don’t miss making tackles. I don’t miss missing tackles. I don’t miss any of that. Maybe one more run out the tunnel would be fun – especially now, because they make it all fancy and everything.”
Laurinaitis took football and his school work seriously during his time at Ohio State. In fact, on the way to earning his degree in communications he was named an Academic All-American.
But, again, he cherishes most the simple times and being around the guys.
“It’s really the memories with the teammates, and it’s not even that specific,” he said. “The amount of fun you have in the locker room, the brotherhood that is Ohio State football – Ohio State athletics in general, but especially football – no matter what era you played in.
“Whenever I run into (Tom) Cousineau, you could sit and talk to him and reminisce about playing days just the same I could as when I used to talk to (Ryan) Shazier a bunch. It’s literally through the years. There’s a respect and a brotherhood about it that we just support each other. It’s awesome.”
As for the on-field highlights, he added, “Obviously, (it’s also) the victories, the big games. Winning in Austin, Texas. My first action against Miami of Ohio in mop-up duty, and how we got from that playing in Week to against Michigan when Bob (Carpenter) got hurt and starting against Notre Dame. It’s kind of crazy as you go through the games and reminisce on it all.”
He still remembers his first moments on the field in scarlet and gray – vividly.
“The first play of the (2005 Michigan) game, and then you’re in there,” he said with a shrug. “How does that happen? I have no idea. I’m just thankful for Fick, for having me prepared. I think once he realized he was going to have a true frosh back up Bobby and one play away, he really started harping on me a lot.
“And I was scared to death to answer any question wrong on any test. I was going to get every answer right, because I was afraid of the wrath of Luke Fickell.”
Speaking of Fickell, when the longtime OSU player and assistant coach took the job to run the University of Cincinnati program, he called Laurinaitis and tried to lure him onto his coaching staff.
“I just told him, ‘I can’t. I’m not all-in on it, and I can’t do that to you. It’s your first head coaching gig. I’m not going to show up and have second thoughts.’ But it’s always in the back of my mind, just because I love football and I love to mold young men,” Laurinaitis said.
And what if Urban Meyer ever called in need of an LBs coach?
“It’d be a long, long thought process on that for sure – but it’d be hard to say no,” Laurinaitis said.