There was a little bit of a feeling-out process Monday as Urban Meyer made his first appearance at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Luncheon Club.
Anyone wearing blue won’t make that mistake again after the Ohio State football coach pounced on a questioner in a pinstriped shirt.
But by the time Meyer left the restaurant Tozzi’s on 12th, some in the crowd of more than 300 said he was one of the top two or three speakers they’d ever heard. And the club is now in its 50th year.
That was no disrespect to former OSU coach Jim Tressel, always a big draw. But Meyer showed a gift the inspirational Tressel never displayed on a stage or a podium.
A gift to let people in.
Those who attended learned Meyer didn’t sleep in bed with his wife Shelley the night before signing day. He headed for the couch and plugged in his cellphone so he could talk into the wee hours.
They found out the first time Meyer’s son Nathan got hit on the football field, he had tears in his eyes. Nathan looked to his father, seeking sympathy. Meyer pointed at him and said, “Get up.”
They felt for the girl Meyer sought out who told him in 2012 he wasn’t Ohio State’s football coach and needed a lanyard to get into the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s annual February gathering at Easton outside Columbus. This year she waved him in.
But what most touched the crowd was when Meyer vividly described the turning point of a 12-0 season that ended in November, when the Buckeyes became one of six OSU teams to go undefeated and untied.
The Buckeyes were uninspired and facing a bowl ban. The breakthrough came on Sept. 15, when defensive lineman and two-time co-captain John Simon broke down after receiving a game ball, and the next afternoon, when former running back Butler By’not’e addressed them.
To that point, Meyer said the players were “bickering, questioning and evaluating” all that had changed. He said the new coaching staff, with seven men he didn’t know, wasn’t working hard enough. Spring practice had been “a clown show.” Meyer said he was spending too much time on “the read play or shovel play or kickoff return” and not trying to find a way to bring his team together.
Then, after a 35-28 victory over Cal that sent the Buckeyes to 3-0, came the 24 hours that changed everything.
Simon played against Cal despite a painful right shoulder injury that required postseason surgery. When Meyer gave him the ball, Simon sobbed.
“I felt like I was going to throw up,” Meyer said. “I was sick because I couldn’t do the same thing. I was 48 years old and I didn’t put as much into it as he did. I didn’t have the same commitment as him. I looked around our team and I didn’t see that from anybody.”
Meyer said he went home that night and stared at the ceiling. He wondered, “Why can a 22-year-old man give so much and we give so little?”
The next day he went around the room and confronted his coaches and said, “You could not do what that young man just did.”
That afternoon Meyer held a team meeting he calls “reflection time.” He described it as a 20-minute chapel-type service where a former player gives his testimony or a life lesson.
The speaker was By’not’e, and he had no idea what Simon had done the day before.
“It changed my life when I heard this guy talk,” Meyer said. “It also changed our season.”
Meyer said By’not’e’s theme was “When you love something so much” and he spoke from the perspective of being a Christian, a father, a husband and a teammate. Meyer said By’not’e told the Buckeyes, “’When you love something so much, there’s three components that have to be part of it or it’s not real, it’s phony.”
Meyer said those three are choices, sacrifice and time. Choices are decisions that aren’t good for those you love, like hurting the team by being selfish, lazy or partying all week. “CST” became the team’s code the rest of the season.
“We didn’t have anybody on that team that loved that team. It was a bunch of phonies and the coaches were the same way,” Meyer said. “When we started talking about these things, I saw our team start to stand up.”
Meyer said the Buckeyes didn’t have the most talent in the country.
“But by the end of the year that team could have played with anybody in America because a group of players ripped their chests open and said, ‘Enough’s enough. I understand there’s no prize at the end, but we’re going to do something very few teams have ever done,’” he said. “It was magical.
“How does magic happen? Magic doesn’t happen because of a secret defense or a secret offense. It’s all about being selfless, dedicated and a genuine, pure love for your teammates. That’s the essence of the greatest team sport of all, football.”
About 300 men longed to suit up again. Meyer had opened the door into the usually private world of Ohio State football and let them feel the magic.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.