COLUMBUS — He grew up a Michigan fan in a basketball family, only to become a football player at Ohio State.
He was a 200-pound backup on the St. John’s Jesuit freshman team who grew into a 6-foot-6, 308-pound pillar of the Buckeyes’ earth-moving offensive line.
He arrived in Columbus a relentless but quiet guard whose move to left tackle last season suited his standing as one of the best leaders Ohio State coaches have ever seen.
KIRK IRWIN Enlarge
When Jack Mewhort slips on his scarlet jersey one last time at Ohio Stadium for Saturday’s game against Indiana, it will be the latest milestone in a twisting career filled with them.
“It’s been a great ride and a great journey,” said his father, Don. “Sometimes you don’t know how you get places. You just get there.”
You may hear louder cheers during the pregame ceremony for seniors like folk hero backup quarterback Kenny Guiton or running back Carlos Hyde — skill players given more mention on game broadcasts. But as No. 4 OSU (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) searches for its school-record 23rd straight win, insiders know who is the program’s cornerstone.
Coach Urban Meyer calls Mewhort the best player on the most prolific offense in school history and one of “my favorite all-time players.” Teammates spoke simply by making the guy who once refused to miss a single practice despite being hospitalized with two broken ribs the leading vote-getter for captain.
“Jack is everything that is right about Ohio State football,” said former Buckeyes offensive lineman Kirk Barton, who served as a graduate assistant from 2010 through last season. “He’s pretty much my favorite player I’ve ever coached.”
For Mewhort, a career that began with the Rose Bowl season in 2009 will come full circle Saturday, with the tumult in between making it all the sweeter.
Asked how his parents, Don and Gail, will handle senior day, he smiled and said, “Oh God, they’re going to be a wreck. I know my dad tries to give off that he’s the tough guy, but he’ll be a mess.
“It’s been a great run,” added Mewhort, a consumer and family resource financial services major on course to graduate next month. “The opportunities to grow up are a microcosm for life. You’re not always going to be on top, but it’s times like that when you’ve got to look inside yourself and get yourself back up. When I got here, Ohio State was on top, we hit rock bottom, and now we’ve pulled ourselves out of it and are still on the rise.”
It’s a nice tidy arc few could have foreseen.
Mewhort’s lineage pointed toward a career in basketball — his father, Don Mewhort III, was a former standout at St. John’s and Wittenberg University, and his grandfather, Don “Buzz” Mewhort, was a captain at Duke.
But he was not handed down a basketball body. Or, at first, much of a football frame. His freshman year at St. John’s, he was an undersized second-string lineman.
It was only after he added four inches and 70 pounds the next year that his future took form. Titans coach Doug Pearson said Mewhort “exploded” into camp as a sophomore, earning a starting job that only made him crave more. Offensive line coach Greg Peters recalled the young lineman staying after summer workouts, alternating between technique work and flipping an 800-pound tire up and down the field.
“I made a commitment that I was going to be the guy playing and working the hardest,” Mewhort said.
A three-year starter who would become an all-state tackle, he was generating interest around the Big Ten by his junior year. Then one Sunday night that December, former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel called Pearson.
OSU had a scholarship waiting, but Mewhort was not to be told until he finished his year-end exams. “I didn’t even tell my wife,” Pearson said.
On Thursday, Pearson asked Mewhort about his tests before adding, “And I have something to tell you.”
Mewhort wanted to commit on the spot.
Never mind that he grew up attending Michigan games. Mewhort called the offer “the best thing that had ever happened to me,” and exactly seven days after humoring his dad’s directive to take at least a week to evaluate his options, he called Tressel.
At Ohio State, he became a starter by his third season, the redshirt sophomore guard’s intensity and toughness unsurpassed even on a veteran line. One game at Nebraska, running back Carlos Hyde lowered his helmet into Mewhort’s back on a goal-line isolation play.
The result? Six points and two broken ribs.
“I remember Jack was in a lot of pain after the Nebraska game,” Barton said. “I told him, ‘You have to get your ribs right.’ Most guys would take the time off and let it heal, but he refused to miss practice. This kid is different. He was so committed that he wouldn’t even take a day off during a bye week.”
Barton knew Mewhort would be the perfect anchor to hold together a weary team that initially resisted a new way of life under Meyer. A day after flying back from the Gator Bowl — the final insult of the Buckeyes’ first seven-loss season since 1897 — four offensive linemen missed the coach’s first pre-dawn team meeting.
But Barton told line coach Ed Warinner, “Jack is the kid you’re going to lean on. You need the leaders to buy into the program, and Jack did right away,” he said. “He never asked any questions, never evaluated, he was ready to learn. He just performed and performed.”
Despite a brief suspension for a public urination incident last year, Mewhort fast became one of Meyer’s favorite players.
He also became the lodestar of his favorite unit, with Mewhort’s value to a line that starts four seniors clear in OSU’s 60-35 win at Illinois last week. The offense shut down when he was sidelined as a precaution with the Buckeyes off to a 28-0 lead, only to reappear in full when he returned.
“He’s turned himself into a definite high-level pro prospect,” Meyer said of Mewhort, who will no doubt hear his name in next spring’s NFL draft. “He’s one of the best leaders I’ve been around. I’d like to think that people would say that Ohio State is a tough program, and he’s kind of the benchmark.”