Aaron Craft: Born to Win
By Brandon Castel
John Craft could hear the boys running throughout the house. He knew the sound all-too-well: the thud of two feet bounding across the floor, quickly followed by two more moving just as fast.
The noise filled the house. He knew Aaron was up to something. He always was. Even as a young boy growing up in Findlay, Ohio, Aaron Craft was always on the go. The same with his friend Micah, who became a fixture at the Craft household when Aaron was growing up.
Photo by Dan Harker
If they weren’t playing sports, they were doing something else equally reckless inside the Craft home until either John or his wife, Wendy, chased them out into the yard. The real trouble was getting them to come back inside for dinner.
“One thing I never had to worry about was video games with those two,” John said.
“They would play for 30 minutes, get tired and bored with it and throw it down and be outside climbing a tree or throwing mud. Instead of having a controller in their hand, they would much rather have a baseball bat or basketball. They’d much rather have the actual thing.”
Aaron and Micah once built a tree house at the Craft’s grandparents. That’s a pretty normal thing for most young boys enamored with the outdoors, but this particular tree house, like most things Craft did, was special. It was built without the use of nails, tape or anything else one might typically need to hold something together.
“I’m not even sure how we did that,” Micah said with a laugh.
“It didn’t blow over or anything. I think his grandma took it down a few years ago.”
Aaron (L) and Micah (R) pose with their trophies after winning a championship in 2002.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Craft
Aaron and Micah were inseparable as kids growing up in small-town America. It started in tee-ball. Soon enough they were playing on the same baseball team, as well as basketball and soccer, and they were almost always the youngest kids on the team.
“Our brothers would be on the 14 year-old team and we would be on the bench at 11 or 12 years old,” said Micah, who is a month older than Aaron.
“They might let us go out there and run bases or stick us in right field.”
No one hits the ball to right field, not at that age, but it wasn’t long before people started to take notice of young Aaron and Micah, and not just because of their older brothers. Micah’s brother Marcus and Aaron’s brother Brandon were also friends, and it made for a fiercely competitive environment whenever the four of them got together.
Micah and Aaron beam after winning a basketball title.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Craft
“Me and Aaron Craft, our whole lives all we’ve ever done is compete against our older brothers,” Micah said.
“I remember times it would be me and Aaron against his older brother and Jon Diebler. As unfair as it sounds, we always put up a battle.”
That’s where Aaron would first begin to develop the skills that made him the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year last season. It also helped Micah become one of the better defensive backs in the conference.
Micah Hyde was a product of Fostoria High School, where John Craft was a teacher and coach, and where Aaron would have gone to school if not for his transfer to Liberty-Benton.
Hyde wanted to play at Ohio State, but ended up at the University if Iowa. He earned the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year Award this past season and was named the Hawkeyes’ defensive MVP.
Micah’s older brother Marcus played safety at Michigan State, where he was a four-year letterwinner who earned second team All-Big Ten honors as a senior under Mark Dantonio in 2010.
“We never finished a game because it always ended in a fight,” Micah said with a smirk, shaking his head at the thought.
And it almost always ended with Aaron running home to tell John or Wendy.
“What I noticed first was the competitiveness,” John said.
Aaron (L) and Brandon (R) Craft show off medals they won as soccer players.
Photo courtesy of Wendy Craft
“Especially when it came to his older brother Brandon. Those two were always having contests over just about anything. Whiffle ball. Riding their bikes from our driveway down the street to a friend's house. It would be a race. Fishing. Anything and everything. Checkers.”
But basketball was always Aaron’s passion, if not his first love. Aaron grew up around the sport of football, attending his dad’s practices and often played the role of water boy when he was still too young to compete. He would do whatever was needed, whether that was fetching the tee after kickoffs or jumping in a drill when they needed an extra body.
Aaron was always around sports, but something always brought him back to basketball, to the purity of the game created by Canadian-born innovator Dr. James Naismith more than a century ago.
“It could be late at night, pitch dark, and we would get a spotlight out in the driveway,” said Micah. They would set up two hoops, one at each end of the driveway and go at it for hours.
“He was Duke, I was North Carolina. It might have been midnight or one in the morning, and we had been outside all night.”
And of course Aaron always had to win. He needed to win. If he lost, even in the driveway, Micah always knew they weren’t going inside unless they played another game.
“They’ve just always been competitive,” John Craft said of his three children, which includes Brandon, Aaron and Cait, a freshman point guard on the OSU women’s basketball team.
“I don’t know if my wife and I brought that out in them, or where they got that, but it’s just anything and everything they can compete in.”
Not just on the field or the basketball court. When Aaron saw that his older brother got a 29 or 30 on the ACT, he studied day and night to make sure he would get a better score when it was his time.
“I think Aaron got a 32 or 33, and then Caitie has to get in on it,” John said with a chuckle.
“I think she got a 30 as a sophomore but it wasn’t higher than Aaron’s, so she studies to take it again so she can get above Aaron.”
It might sound like an unhealthy atmosphere where the three children felt they needed to better each other in order to earn respect or love in the Craft household, but that simply isn’t the way John remembers it.
“As a teacher, I would take my athletes to the city library. I would complain that they should be doing it on their own,” John explained.
“I guess them hearing me for all those years, maybe that’s where they got the idea they were just going to do what needed to be done.”
While Aaron and his two siblings were always fiercely competitive, it wasn’t Aaron’s nature to allow what happened on the basketball court – or the driveway or the checkers board – to effect their relationship with each other.
That doesn’t mean they were buddy-buddy after an intense game of H-O-R-S-E or Connect Four.
“One of us always gets mad, one of us always has a chip on our shoulder when we lose,” Cait said.
“Like, ‘I’m irritated and don’t want to talk to you right now. It’s a good competitiveness, though. It’s not the type that effects our relationship in a bad way.”
Aaron and Cait grew close in high school, especially after Brandon left to play football at the University of Findlay. Aaron’s intensity rubbed off on his little sister, who would follow in his footsteps as Ohio’s Division III Player of the Year in 2012.
“I remember that in Aaron ever since he was little,” she said.
“There’s always some drive within in him. It’s amazing to see. Even when things are going well and he has everything going right, there’s always that little drive to do better and better himself.”
When Aaron transferred to Liberty-Benton, he ended up on a team that lost only one regular-season game in four years. It came on a bank shot from half court in overtime, and of course Aaron felt responsible for letting his team down.
“It was right after his junior football season, when they played in the state championship football game,” said Ben Gerken, a teacher at Liberty Benton and Aaron’s junior varsity basketball coach.
“We had a holiday tournament and he only had eight days of practice. That was the game Aaron went 8 of 25 from the free throw line. That was the only regular season loss of his career, but to see how crushed he was after that game.”
It didn’t matter to Aaron that he had just led the school’s football team to the Ohio Division 5 state championship game. He was an all-state quarterback that season and a fine free safety as well, but his award for Offensive Player of the Year in the state of Ohio couldn’t erase that loss from his memory.
“We won 79 or 80 regular season games when he was in high school, and of course the one game we lose he’s taking the blame for,” Gerken added.
“For him, it was doing the best he could. There were games we won where he would still be upset because he didn’t play as good as he could.”
There’s something inside Aaron Craft that is just wired that way. He loves to win, but more importantly, he really hates to lose. Not everyone is built that way. Woody Hayes was. Urban Meyer is. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant.
They are guys with a fire that burns deep inside, which explains why Aaron was back in the gym working on his game one day after Ohio State’s heartbreaking loss to Kansas in the Final Four last March.
“He takes it hard when they lose,” Gerken added.
“Winning is something that will take care of itself when you do the right things. That’s how his dad raised him and I can only imagine coach Matta is the same way.”
**Stay tuned for parts II and III of our feature series on Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft.
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