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COLUMBUS — One by one, 17 Ohio State seniors will tear onto the field before today’s home finale against Indiana.
Yet the loudest cheers may again be reserved for the player who won’t.
Like last year, when defensive end John Simon was sidelined against Michigan, the Buckeyes will close Ohio Stadium for the season without their defensive leader.
Senior safety and captain Christian Bryant will walk — or crutch — out of the tunnel, wishing like anything he could play but at last at peace with his fate.
He will be honored as part of a class that rallied from the nadir of 2011 to the brink of history. Against the underdog Hoosiers, No. 4 OSU (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) can win its school-record 23rd straight game and clinch the Leaders Division title.
"It will be one of those emotional days, knowing there’s a possibility it's my last game in the Horseshoe," said Bryant, speaking for the first time since breaking his ankle in a September game against Wisconsin. "Just walking out of the tunnel for the last time and seeing the fans’ reaction, it's probably going to be a great experience."
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A three-year starter, Bryant began the season as the anchor of a defense that replaced seven starters. Coach Urban Meyer called the vocal Cleveland native the unit’s heart and brought him to Big Ten media day in Chicago along with senior left tackle Jack Mewhort and junior quarterback Braxton Miller.
Then came the Wisconsin game, when a teammate rolled up on his leg on the second-to-last play of the Buckeyes’ win.
"I thought it was a high-ankle sprain," he said. "But as I was riding back to the locker room, it just started throbbing and then it went numb. The doctors X-rayed it and I heard one of them say it was broken. It was just one of those moments you can't explain."
In the postgame news conference, Meyer slammed his fist on the podium and fought back tears. On the way to the hospital, Bryant did the same. He said he was in an emotional "hole" for the next week.
With support from his family, coaches, and teammates, Bryant redirected his energy back to the football program. He crutched to midfield for the coin toss before games, remained a fixture in the film room mentoring his replacement — redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell — and grew just as loud outside the lines as he was between them.
"He’s still the spark plug on our defense,” safeties coach Everett Withers said. "He has tremendous value. He’s still the guy that everybody on that defense looks to. If something isn’t going well, he’s going to let everybody know."
Bryant may try to return in a limited role for the bowl game. Or he could apply for a medical hardship waiver to play another season, though the odds of it being granted appear long. To receive a medical redshirt, a player must not have participated in more than 30 percent of the season — the bowl game not included. Bryant’s injury occurred in the fifth game, which means he would have played in 38 percent of the Buckeyes’ 13 contests if they continue on to the Big Ten title game.
If he is denied, Bryant said he will have no regrets. He will begin training for a shot in the NFL — and, like today, keep cheering for OSU.
“I couldn’t even begin to understand the feelings he probably has because he’s such a competitor,” said Mewhort, a fellow captain and close friend. “It’s going to be emotional for all of us knowing he wants to be out there with us and he can’t. We appreciate him and we love him and I know we’ll be thinking about him.”