CHICAGO — Jack Mewhort scanned the hotel ballroom filled with large men in suits, searching for his buddy at Big Ten media day.
“This is pretty cool,” he said.
What were the odds?
Here they were, Ohio State’s star left tackle and Illinois senior lineman Tim Kynard, bonded Thursday both as two of the league’s top 36 players chosen for this showcase event at the Chicago Hilton and graduates of the same closely knit class at St. John’s Jesuit.
It was just like old times, trash talk and all.
Now college rivals, both expressed pride in watching the other’s rise, only to make it clear their friendship will not mean mercy this fall. Ohio State travels to Illinois on Nov. 16.
“I’m going to tell Jack, ‘Good luck, I wish you the best, and get ready for a long game,’ ” Kynard said.
Heaven knows the former classmates will not let the other live down the last time they lined up opposite the other — or, heck, the battles they had during high school practices that resulted in words not for print.
Last year, Ohio State blistered last-place Illinois in Columbus, and Mewhort played to his usual all-conference form for all but one play. Yet afterward, the congratulations he received was mixed with equal parts grief from his former St. John’s teammates for that one play.
It was a sack by Kynard. On the third play of the game, he ripped past Mewhort with an up-and-under move to bring down OSU quarterback Braxton Miller.
“He didn’t like that one bit,” Kynard said with a smile. “We were just talking about that play. He was mad the rest of the game.”
“Probably one of my worst plays of the year,” Mewhort said, shaking his head. “That’s one I’ll never forget, and I’ll make sure it will never happen again. I got it from Tim and all my [St. John’s] friends. It was brutal. I owe him one.”
In any case, it will be a matchup to watch.
Mewhort and Kynard, who became friends as members of the Titans’ freshman basketball team and have remained close, are now senior cornerstones in the Big Ten.
Mewhort, a third-year starter, is perhaps the most authoritative and respected voice on a Buckeyes team that returns nine offensive starters and is now unchained to pursue a national title. Meyer raves about his dedication, as does even the normally reserved Miller.
“He’s just got so much passion for each and every one of us,” said Miller, who went to Chicago along with Mewhort and safety Christian Bryant. “He cares, and he shows it all the time when he might say something to somebody, and nobody’s going to say something back to him ‘cause he’s got that respect, and he’s got that talent, and he’s got that leadership."
Kynard, meanwhile, has traveled a more circuitous route.
He was recruited mostly by Mid-American conference schools, including Toledo under now-Illini coach Tim Beckman. The scholarship from Illinois arrived in December of his senior year only after an Illini coach went to St. John’s to visit lineman Evan Wiley, who later committed to Miami. Titans coach Doug Pearson showed the assistant Kynard’s highlight video, and Illinois offered on the spot.
“I started getting my looks after that,” he said.
Kynard decided on Illinois and spent his first three seasons as a reserve before emerging as a starter last year. Though fighting injuries, he finished with 18 tackles — including three for a loss — a sack, and two fumble recoveries in 11 games.
Now, Kynard is one of the Illini’s two senior defensive starters, charged by Beckman to provide a youthful team with a stabilizing voice through lean times.
“I want to be that guy they can lean on this year,” said Kynard, a sociology major.
At least one Big Ten rival will be pulling for him.
“I’m just really happy it’s turned out so well for him,” said Mewhort, a financial services major. “He’s a great player, and I’m really proud of him.”
To which Kynard replied: “It’s an honor being here with him in [Chicago], just being the brothers that we are. I’m proud of him. It’s great seeing his success.”
Well, for every day of the year but one.