It is overtime. Iowa game, 2009. Like Michael Jackson famously said, This is It. Coach Jim Tressel has seemingly called off his dogs. The defense did its job, and now he is running the ball up the middle. He is putting all his eggs in one basket. That basket is Devin Barclay. The 26 year old former Gatorade High School National Soccer Player of the Year and Major League Soccer draftee. He has only been kicking a football for three years. An American football that is. Aaron Pettrey is in his ear. Telling him that this is his moment and that he can do it. I am in his ear. I grabbed his helmet and looked him in the eye and told him he WILL do it. Dev can’t muster any words, but the nod and steely look he gives me back lets me know he feels the same way. Then again, you only have to go back to the fourth quarter to see that he isn’t a sure bet. The 40-yarder from the right hash was missed wide left. That kick could have sealed the game much earlier. But that’s not the way this one was destined to end.
Devin had a tendency of swinging too hard on longer kicks. He developed the tendency halfway through the year. Many of his longer kicks were going left on him. He also struggled a little from the right hash. These were not big struggles, but he is just so automatic from the middle and left hashes that it seemed like a struggle. We only advanced the ball two yards to the 23 yard line. However, we importantly got the ball to the left hash. I am sure special teams coach Chad Rogocheske had something to do with that. He is the one who really noticed Aaron and Devin’s troubles from the right hash. So much attention to detail. It is the little things that make all the difference at a time like this. You don’t want to be thinking about something minor like which hash you are on. You want the thousands of perfect kicks in practice to be replicated. I mean, who knows what you will be thinking about when all the pressure of the world is on you? All the pressure of Buckeye Nation. And that pressure feels heavier than the world. It IS the world to the millions watching. There is no way to prepare for it. That’s why we do it a million times in practice. Let muscle memory take over.
My job is easy. All I have to do is catch the ball and put it down on the spot. Jake McQuaide is the best long snapper in the world. He has worked harder than anyone and put himself in the position to make my job easy. The ball will be there. I just have to put it down on the spot.
The hard part of my job came earlier in the game, and I failed. In fact, some will call this the worst game a punter has ever had in the Jim Tressel era at Ohio State. I started the game with a really good 48 yarder that pinned Iowa back inside their own fifteen, then it quickly went downhill. The lowlight was a 23 yard punt that actually felt really good off my foot. As I looked to see where it went, I realized I kicked it hard, but almost straight up. Next came the groan of 106,000 disappointed fans. But this is no time to be worrying about that.
There are far more pressing things to be worried about. Like this Iowateam. They werent supposed to be able to play with us. Their star Ricky Stanzi is on the sidelines on crutches and in a sweat suit. Who do they think they are? We are THE Ohio State University. And this is our senior night. This is my senior night. They can’t take the Rose Bowl from us. And who is James Vandenberg? This young schoolboy legend from the cornfields of Iowa who suddenly looks like Tom Brady in the way he is calmly making the throws he shouldn’t be making. Leading his team to places they should never be able to reach. Not against our fast and ferocious defense. This team was supposed to throw in the towel last week when they lost their star. This was our night to celebrate! Only no one told them.
All week we had been told that this was a toughIowateam who had the tools to overcome the loss of one player. We know they had a tough defense. Coach Eric Lichter in the weight room had been talking all year about how their defensive line has manhandled its opponents. And usually he said things like this in his way of making us focus and pumping us up. This time it was different. He was talking like he had a legitimate man-crush on these guys. As if we were going up against an NFL team. Now we know he was right to warn us. Adrian Clayborne spent half the game in our backfield. But all week, all we thought about was the way in which we had just dismantled a good Penn State team the week before. We saw our potential close to being reached and focused on that, rather than focusing on getting better. As Tress always reminded us, good is the enemy of great. Once you start to believe you are good, some of the hunger that got you there is gone. I guess we needed to take it a little more to heart. There are a lot of woulda, coulda, shouldas that come to mind when you’re facing adversity.
Our celebration began at the 11:11 point in the fourth quarter. Brandon Saine had just taken a hand-off around the left side and turned on his state record-setting jets all the way to the end zone. That gave us a 24-10 lead. The metaphorical smell of roses permeated our sidelines. There was a smile on everyone’s face as our dream of a fifth straight Big Ten championship was staring us in the face. The defense had played a great game, and was ready to slam the door. We kick the ball off and the unthinkable happens. Fifteen seconds later, it is the Hawkeyes who are celebrating. The kickoff return touchdown by Darrell Johnson-Koulianos gets then right back in the game, with the momentum.
It is hard to describe the sound in Ohio Stadium when the opposing team makes a big play. Over the grumbles of the mass is the almost distant roar of the other teams fan section. It is so loud yet almost a hollow echo compared to the deafening sound of the Buckeye roar. Almost as if in that moment, the soul of the stadium is briefly taken away. We have to get that soul back. But until overtime, that didn’t happen. Iowa owned the last eleven minutes of the fourth quarter. Coach Tressel went ultra conservative, and his defense and special teams let him down. Luckily, it isn’t over. We didn’t completely blow it. We still have a chance. We have overtime.
That’s when our defense stepped up. Again. After two stops, Vandenberg finally showed his youth. He failed to get rid of the ball on third down, and senior captain Doug Worthington broke through with a crushing sack. Iowa was out of field goal range and relegated to throwing a Hail Mary. Anderson Russell intercepted the pass and for a few nervous seconds contemplated bringing the ball out of the end zone. After coming to his senses and taking a knee, it was our time.
At halftime, Aaron said he knew this game would come down to the toe of Devin Barclay. He told me, and he told Devin. He just had that feeling. Of course, we made predictions every game that never came close to coming true, but this one felt real. Maybe because it was supposed to be Aaron’s moment. This was his senior night too. A torn meniscus made sure that would not happen. He had always told me of his dream to kick a game winning field goal. We watched on television as kickers celebrated their game-winning kicks and we talked about what we would do if in the same situation. This was the day we talked about. This kick was not just a game-winner. This kick was for an outright Big Ten Championship. This kick would send us to the Rose Bowl. This was the exact moment we had dreamed of, and my best friend and brother on the team was nothing more than a spectator.
Actually, he was much more than a spectator. He was the one that Devin would turn to when he needed something. Devin always kept to himself. He even started warming up by himself at practice when he became a starter. We always gave him a hard time about that. Back-up long snapper Pat Howe and I always joked about how he let the celebrity of being a starter go to his head. In reality, as long as he was making kicks, we let him do whatever he wanted. Aaron was always good to him though. There was always disappointment that he got hurt, especially with the timing of the injury, but he was a great team player and always concentrated on making Devin the kicker we knew he could be. The kicker that we needed him to be.
So here it is. The culmination of our careers in the Shoe. When we realized that Coach Tressel was going to run the ball and take his chances with a field goal, it all became real.Iowawas not going to let us run the ball, and we were not going to gamble by throwing a pass. Knowing it came down to the special teams execution put a lump in my stomach. Not an apprehensive lump, rather that feeling you get when presented with the opportunity to do something great. The chance to do something that is going to change your life. Some like to call it nerves. If that is the case, then I know for a fact that everyone who has ever done something worth everything to them has been nervous. If I never get to feel that again, Im going to really miss it. Knowing something you’re doing can make a difference is a great feeling. It is fun to look back on those moments and realize what went on, because when you are inside of them, there are no such thoughts. There is such a singular focus on the task at hand that often I blacked out in the moment and don’t remember much.
Jogging onto the field, a calm came over me. I reminded myself of all the work that we had done to get to where we were. I had botched only one hold in three years, practice included, and it wasn’t going to happen here. (Side note: The botch came in the jersey scrimmage earlier that fall. Devin was also kicking that field goal. From the left hash, around 40 yards. Going the same way in the stadium. Essentially from the exact same spot in which this kick would be taken. That play ended up with Donnie Evege and Chimdi Chekwa collectively spearing me to the turf (funny to think about now).
As the line got set, I made sure we lined up at the correct depth and looked back to Devin to make sure he was ready. Again, there was something about the look in his eyes that told me he was going to be ok. I saw no fear. Just poise. Almost as if he had no idea what situation he was in. Or at least that he didn’t realize the magnitude of what he was about to do. At this point, I fully expected coach Kirk Ferentz of Iowa to call a time-out to ice the kicker. For what its worth, every kicker I have ever talked to would rather the coach call a time out in that situation. The opportunity to go out there, envision the kick, and gather yourself during a time out helps more than hurts usually. With kickers who have the correct mental make-up anyways. Devin has the right make-up. I yelled the cadence and put the perfect snap down gently on the spot. I look up to see that Devin’s kick wasn’t blocked. Its high enough, its just left of center, its good. A no-doubter. Devin knew it was good the moment the ball left his foot.
I turn to celebrate with Devin, and he is gone. He had immediately ripped off his helmet and streaked down the middle of the field, soccer style. I highly doubt that was a coincidence. By the time I caught up with him around the opposite 30 yard line, so had the mad rush from our sidelines. We started jumping in unison, with a different cleat landing squarely on my kicking foot every jump. Suddenly our huddle tightens. It is getting hard to move. I have felt this before, in 2006, after the Michigan game. The crowd is rushing the field! Our 106,000 best friends were coming down to the field to party with us.
The crowd rush is the most intimate celebration in sports. The players and fans join for a few minutes of euphoria, in celebration of a great accomplishment. In other words, its pretty damn amazing. Thank you Buckeye fans for being the most passionate and undying bunch out there. Knowing the amount that you care about our team really helps us focus. Being able to celebrate with you once in a while is a great blessing and reminder. There is no feeling quite like singing Carmen Ohio with your teammate under one arm, and a beautiful co-ed under the other.
We were going to the Rose Bowl. The Granddaddy of them all! And we earned our trip in walk-off fashion. The hard work paid off, and a better script could not have been written. I want to thank you all for believing in us and taking us there. Buckeye Nation is a dream, inside of a wish, inside of the hardest working, most beautiful people that God placed on this Earth. We would have done nothing without you. Go Bucks.