COLUMBUS - The Lombardi Award is a solid block of granite. Nothing ornate or glitzy. It is given each year to the top lineman or linebacker in college football, a group that customarily fits the same general description.
When the preliminary watch list for this year's Rotary Lombardi Award was released yesterday, about six months before the first game, it featured a number of the blue collar "blocks of granite" types that will provide the foundation for some of the country's best teams.
At the head of that class is Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis, a finalist for last season's Lombardi Award, and a previous winner of the Butkus (best linebacker) and Nagurski (best defensive player) awards.
As the first teasers for the 2008 season go out, the 6-3, 245-pound Laurinaitis looks to be one of the early favorites to win the Lombardi, an award Ohio State has claimed six times in the award's 38-year history, more than any other program.
The Buckeyes' previous winners include a couple of other linebackers - A.J. Hawk and Chris Spielman - two guys Laurinaitis has idolized.
"It's unbelievable to be mentioned in the same category as A.J. Hawk or Chris Spielman,'' Laurinaitis said as the Buckeyes prepared for the national championship game in January. "To be honest, I don't even feel like it's necessary yet. It's so humbling and such a blessing. I still don't feel like I'm on the same level as those players.''
Hawk was Ohio State's most recent Lombardi winner (2005), and the guy who was playing alongside a jittery freshman named Laurinaitis who got pressed into a full-time role at Michigan when starter Bobby Carpenter broke his ankle on the first play of the game. Laurinaitis has been a fixture at linebacker for the Buckeyes ever since.
"A.J. taught me so much when I came to Ohio State, about the linebacker position," Laurinaitis said. "He continues to give me advice and support, now that he's with the Packers."
Ohio State linebackers have frequently been in the Lombardi mix.
Andy Katzenmoyer was a finalist for the award in both 1997 and 1998, and Spielman was a finalist in 1986 before winning the trophy in the following season.
When Ohio State offensive lineman John Hicks won the 1973 Lombardi, teammate and linebacker Randy Gradishar was one of the four finalists for award.
As the postseason awards circuit heated up late in 2007, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Laurinaitis was honoring his predecessors at the position with his play on the field, and the way he carries himself away from football.
"I think James really enjoys the fact that there is that tradition of people here that weren't just great linebackers, but they were great people, and they've gone on and done excellent things,'' Tressel said.
"It's an honor, and that's why I chose Ohio State, really, because of the guys that have come through here," Laurinaitis said. "You have to realize there were a lot of people here before you that made this possible, and that made this place what it is. And with that tradition, you know, comes the responsibility to kind of carry that on."
Laurinaitis has a good shot at carrying on the Lombardi Award tradition for the Buckeyes, since he is the only returning finalist from the 2007 vote. Louisiana State's Glenn Dorsey won the Lombardi last year. Michigan offensive lineman Jake Long and Virginia defensive lineman Chris Long were the other finalists.
Michigan's LaMarr Woodley was the 2006 Lombardi winner, and Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock was a finalist that year. Ohio State's Orlando Pace (1995-96) is the only two-time winner of the Rotary Lombardi Award, which is named after legendary coach Vince Lombardi.
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