O Captain, My Captain

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 08/22/2012 6:01 PM
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Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: O Captain, My Captain

By Jeff Rapp

(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.)

During a typical morning segment on 610 WTVN radio, host Joel Riley asked me this morning if it was important for the Ohio State football team to receive proper leadership from its newly appointed captains.

It was a set-up question, of course; a trick of the airwaves, if you will. Joel already had a good idea what my answer would be.

But it’s still a key discussion point as we now sit 10 days from the season-opening kickoff vs. Miami (Ohio).

So allow me to repeat the query: Is it important for John Simon, Zach Boren, Etienne Sabino, Garrett Goebel and Jordan Hall to take ownership of this team? You bet your sweet bippy it is.

The Buckeyes are coming off a 6-7 campaign and haven’t won since Nov. 5 – a span of 42 weeks. What happened last year and in the ensuing offseason doesn’t need to be documented again, but the onset of the Urban Meyer era still signals a huge transition for the players.

New head coach. New position coach for most. New expectations and new approaches.

Younger players need to look up to somebody, especially in times of uncertainty. And the veterans who are perhaps edgy about the changeover also will need a steady hand, someone to assure them this will all work out as long as they keep their noses clean and do what the coaches ask.

Simon and Boren undoubtedly will do that. In fact, they already were doing that. Their leadership qualities are so strong, so innate, that Meyer picked up on their dedication and rub-off effect almost immediately.

John Simon
Photo by Dan Harker
John Simon

A high-motor defensive lineman, Simon was officially named captain after last season (more on that a little later), so his appointment this weekend puts him in very rare company as a two-timer. The last to turn the trick was James Laurinaitis. Only five others pulled double duty since 1900: Archie Griffin (1974, ’75), Glen Cobb (1981, ’82), Pepper Johnson (1984, ’85), and Steve Bellisari and Joe Cooper (2000, ’01).

Richard T. Ellis was named captain in both 1891 and ’92 when the program was in its fledgling stage.

Simon being named captain this season is the worst-kept secret since the onset of the Brangelina rumors. Still, he doesn’t discount the significance.

“To even be a onetime captain is an amazing opportunity,” he said. “It’s our job now to just go make the most of it.”

Zach Boren
Photo by Jim Davidson
Zach Boren

Boren is perhaps equally deserving, though. While Simon is an insanely hardworking senior who has the respect of everyone around the team, Boren is the offensive version.

It’s amazing to think this likable fullback grew up with Michigan paraphernalia hanging all over his house and now he’s an Ohio State captain. But his newfound responsibility as a team leader makes perfect sense given his personality, knowledge of the game and ability to urge on teammates without doing so too harshly.

Tight end/wide receiver Jake Stoneburner said in the late spring the two players on the team who are most willing to challenge others are Simon and Boren.

“They know how to get in your face without really getting in your face,” he said. “They’re just great guys and great leaders.”

While Simon is comfortable being at the forefront and the others spoke yesterday of the great honor of being named captain, Boren took it a step further – he flat wanted this.

“I was excited,” he said. “Ever since I came here as a freshman and filled out those little forms that Coach Tress (Jim Tressel) gave us, one of my first goals was being a captain here.”

Etienne Sabino
Photo by Dan Harker
Etienne Sabino

Sabino, who joined Simon and Boren as team representatives as the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, also stuck out right away. It was clear he had a calming effect on his teammates and was willing to mentor youngsters such as fellow linebacker Curtis Grant, whose production will be a big factor in the success of the defense.

Sabino is someone who was highly touted coming out of high school but also has been overlooked at times. And he’s experienced more than his share of ups and downs.

He’s dealt with coaching changes, nagging injuries, the pressure that comes with playing right away and the anxiety that accompanies sitting out as a redshirt. He’s been at different positions and in different systems. He struggled to grasp the playbook early in his career. He’s had to prove himself as an up-and-coming player and as a leader.

In other words, he has a connection to everyone on the roster.

“I feel like I can relate to anybody and I think I’m easy to talk to,” said the senior linebacker. “I think anybody can come up to me and talk to me about anything, whether it be football, life, family or whatnot.

“I’ve always wanted to be somebody that people look up to, somebody people can lean on in hard time. I want to be a leader and I want to help this team win as many games as possible.

Jordan Hall
Photo by Jim Davidson
Jordan Hall

Hall has been popular with his teammates throughout his time on campus but the senior wasn’t endearing himself to the new coaches at first glance. He admitted in the spring that Meyer was stern with him and questioned his approach to the game. Since then Hall not only has been on board, he and backup quarterback Kenny Guiton have developed into the poster children of refurbished commitment via Urban Meyer.

Hall had a terrific spring, which led to Meyer declaring him to be a very valuable offensive weapon as a running back who can also split out and threaten defenses on the perimeter. The problem is he cut his foot in the summer and the damaged tendon required reparative surgery.

He said yesterday being named a captain gave him a jolt. He’s also excited that the protective boot is supposed to be removed today.

“I just want to be out there with those guys so bad,” he said.

A playmaker with newfound hunger – not a bad guy to lead by example.

Hall said he’s now intent to be an inspiration as Kurt Coleman, Brian Rolle and others did for him.

Goebel is another interesting case. The senior nose guard is fierce on the gridiron and willingly takes on multiple blockers to pave the way for his teammates. Because of his job, he’s not used to being in demand with reporters, teammates or anyone else.

Garrett Goebel
Photo by Jim Davidson
Garrett Goebel

When his name was called during a team meeting, Goebel wasn’t sure how to react.

“It was just cool knowing that my teammates thought that highly of me,” he said. “I’m kind of a shy guy so I’m sure I probably blushed when I walked up there and my face got red, but it was cool.”

Still, Goebel fits well into this group because of what he’s endured and the kind of character he has displayed over the years.

“You’d have to be dumb not to vote for Garrett Goebel,” Simon said. “What he does every day is just come in and just put his head down and go to work. He’s a lunch pail guy. He comes in and does what he has to do, does more than what he has to do. He’s a selfless person, everything’s about the team, and that’s what you want in a captain.”

So at first, and even second, glance it appears the Buckeyes have come up with a nearly ideal mix of captains. Simon (Youngstown Cardinal Mooney) and Boren (Pickerington Central) are from Ohio while Sabino (North Miami Beach Dr. Krop) is a Floridian, Goebel (Villa Park Montini) hails from Illinois, and Hall (Jeannette HS) is from the neighboring state of Pennsylvania.

The five have combined for 185 games played and 74 starts. They’ve also sat on both sides of the good-bad teeter-totter.

Everything they do from small words of encouragement to great feats on the field will matter and will have absolute impact on how this 2012 season is judged.

Being named an Ohio State football captain is a lifelong privilege and can be worn as a badge of honor throughout those players’ post-college existence. Still, many captains have told me over the years they didn’t fully realize the weight of the award.

Lineman Moose Machinsky, a character if ever there was one, was named captain in 1955 mostly because of his popularity with his teammates as a prankster and joke teller. He’ll tell you today he wasn’t the best captain. But the truth is that team needed a guy who could lighten the mood considering the blazing intensity Woody Hayes brought daily to the field – and the fact that Hopalong Cassady usually kept to himself.

Cassady never was named an Ohio State captain. Neither were fellow Heisman Trophy winners Les Horvath and Vic Janowicz.

Legendary players such as Chic Harley (1919), Wes Fesler (1930), Rex Kern (1970), Griffin (1974, ’75), Art Schlichter (1981), Keith Byars (1985), Antoine Winfield (1998) and Troy Smith (2006) all served as captains and enjoyed successful sendoff seasons, although Byars was hurt much of his senior year.

But some of the best Ohio State teams also had under-the-radar, Goebel-like captains; players such as George Lynn (1942), Leo Brown (1957), Mark Stier (1968), Jim Laughlin (1979), Juan Porter (1996), Jerry Rudzinski (1998) and Donnie Nickey (2002).

Yes, there have been terrific captains for teams that underachieved. No one would dare question the toughness, dedication or willingness to lead others of Chris Spielman, but the Buckeyes went just 6-4-1 in his senior year of 1987 when he shared captaincy with William White, Eric Kumerow and Tom Tupa – and Earle Bruce was promptly fired.

Similarly, senior captain Tom Cousineau played his guts out in 1978 with a school-record 211 total tackles, but his career ended with a thud as the Buckeyes lost in the Gator Bowl, finished 7-4-1 and had to wave goodbye to fired head coach Woody Hayes after 28 years.

And I often refer to 6-6 Ohio State of 1999 as an example of a bad football team that actually had excellent captains. You won’t find better guys than Ahmed Plummer and Matt Keller, who both came to OSU from Cincinnati. Unfortunately, they were unable to lead the ragtag ’99 Buckeyes because that core group of players was selfish and loosely joined.

One image I still have of that team was a moment from a game at Michigan State. The Buckeyes were unable to generate any offense for the vast majority of the afternoon when Bellisari found a wide-open Ken-Yon Rambo and lofted him a perfect aerial deep downfield. Rambo dropped the ball and a sure touchdown, and as Keller went some 20 yards upfield to console the young wideout, Rambo shoved him away in embarrassment.

The following year Rambo was named a co-captain along with Bellisari, Cooper and spacey defensive end Rodney Bailey. I was very critical of the appointment and took a lot of heat for saying so. The Buckeyes played heartless football that year, John Cooper was fired, and athletic director Andy Geiger wasn’t afraid to point out the “deteriorating climate” in the program.

Here’s a fun fact: Edward H. French, the brother of Thomas E. French for whom French Fieldhouse was named, was named a team captain in one of the first seasons of Ohio State football. He also became the first college football player to be ruled academically ineligible and missed the 1896 season. The Buckeyes finished that year a mediocre 5-5-1.

Other notable Ohio State football captains: Marty Karow (1926, legendary OSU baseball coach); Sid Gillman (1933, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach); Galen Cisco (1957, MLB pitcher in the 1960s); James Herbstreit (1960, father of OSU quarterback Kirk Herbstreit); Gary Moeller (1962, former Michigan head coach), Greg Lashutka (1965, former mayor of Columbus), Ray Griffin (1977, Ohio State Hall of Fame inductee this fall); Bo Pelini (1990, current Nebraska head coach); Kirk Herbstreit (1992, ABC and ESPN football analyst).

Yes, this year’s quintet of captains joins a long and illustrious list. But their connection to greatness is not yet secure. It’s usually an appointment of historical reverence but, every once in a while, infamy.

Knowing what we know about Simon, Boren, Sabino, Goebel and Hall, here’s betting against the latter.

*This is the third installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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