When the Buckeyes sprint out of the tunnel at Ohio Stadium for their Sept. 1 opener against Miami (Ohio), few -- if any -- of the 100-plus players will appreciate the opportunity more than Ben St. John. The 6-feet, 3-inch, 285-pound guard is a third-year walk-on at OSU.
COLUMBUS -- The most improbable triumph two years ago for Ben St. John was not walking on to play football for Ohio State.
It was getting his little brother, Michael, to trade his blue for scarlet.
The Elmore native grew up in a house divided on the front lines of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. Ben lived for the Buckeyes from the day he was born when his father placed an OSU football in his crib. Michael, two years younger, rooted for the Wolverines.
"He had a little phase where he thought he liked Michigan," Ben said, laughing.
He added proudly, "We got that straightened out."
"Once Ben went to Ohio State," said his father, Keith, "Michael pretty much stopped wearing everything Michigan and started getting his Ohio State gear together."
How could he not pull for family? For that matter, how could anyone with a soft spot for underdog narratives not pull for St. John, who as a 5-year-old said he would play for OSU, only to be told by a doctor that he could not play sports?
When the Buckeyes sprint out of the tunnel at Ohio Stadium for their Sept. 1 opener against Miami (Ohio), few -- if any -- of the 100-plus players will appreciate the opportunity more than St. John.
The 6-feet, 3-inch, 285-pound guard is a third-year walk-on at OSU. He has not played a snap in a game and remains behind a line of more heralded players.
Like the rest of the two dozen or so walk-ons, St. John pays Ohio State for the right to effectively work two full-time jobs. This summer, as players worked to remake their bodies under new coach Urban Meyer, he woke up most mornings at 5 for workouts that helped him shed 25 pounds. He slept in on Fridays. Those sessions began at 7:45 a.m.
Ask St. John if the toil is worth it, and the answer never changes.
"I can't imagine my life without it," he said.
"Do you still love it?" Keith often asks his son.
"With all my heart," Ben replies.
Besides, St. John intends to play.
It would be a mistake to write him off.
That happened once before when he was diagnosed with asthma in elementary school. St. John followed every order from his doctor but one: Avoid intense activity. It was not easy. The attacks came frequently, including during youth football practices. Twice he was rushed to the hospital. One time in fifth grade, his lungs shut down and he passed out.
Even the best practices were marked with trials.
"He was a big kid, and he was a little slower and with the asthma it hurt him even more," Keith said. "So he took a lot of razzing from other kids."
St. John never considered quitting. Just the opposite happened. He developed a single-minded drive.
He managed his asthma through breathing treatments and became one of the top athletes in the Woodmore district. In high school, he started three years for the Wildcats' football team, won the Suburban Lakes League heavyweight title in wrestling, and qualified for the regional track and field meet in shot put and discus.
By his senior year, he was attracting interest from several smaller college football programs, including Baldwin Wallace and Heidelberg. St. John still kept alive his scarlet-tinged dream -- he sent an application to Ohio State to keep his options open -- but he wanted to keep playing
In February, the call came from Columbus. Jim Bollman, then the Buckeyes' offensive line coach, had seen film of the Woodmore senior and wanted to meet.
"You are never going to guess who called," St. John told his mother, Karen.
An offer to walk on soon followed. St. John's college search was over.
"I couldn't pass this up," he said.
When St. John ran out in to Ohio Stadium before the Buckeyes' 2010 opener against Marshall before a family united -- Michael now proudly wears his brother's No. 67 jersey -- he called it "one of the best feelings in the world."
"I experienced an overwhelming pride," Keith said. "I flashed back to when he was 5 years old and told me he wanted to play for Ohio State. I had tears in my eyes when I saw him run down that tunnel. ... Ben worked through a lot of adversity to get there."
St. John's next aim is to make the travel squad and get on the field, perhaps as soon as this season. For now, this born-and-bred Buckeye is living the dream.
"I just love the sport," he said. "The first day we put those pads on this camp, it's just like it's football again. I can't imagine my life without it. Working hard and being around the guys, it's fun. I love it here."
Contact David Briggs at: DBriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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