Ohio State has its own version of Rudy, and he just lost his stripe as a symbol of recognition from his peers.
When the Buckeyes take on Washington in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, walk-on safety Owen Fankhauser has little guarantee in terms of his own playing time. But he does have the chance to help the Buckeyes secure their first Rose Bowl win since their last trip in 2010 and send Urban Meyer out with a win in his final game as OSU’s coach.
And for Fankhauser to reach this point, his road to the Buckeyes and the Rose Bowl, and all the pageantry that comes with it, was littered with sudden, disheartening turns. Along the way, he questioned if his athletic career was finished.
Fankhauser was a two-sport star at Stow-Munroe Falls High School and a 2016 graduate. He attended Kent State without a scholarship with plans to join the baseball team as a walk-on. He had his path laid out. Division I baseball was the goal.
Except he didn’t make the team and the blueprint was torn to pieces. He began working out as much as he could, but there was no clear end game in mind. An opportunity eventually came along that winter to try out for the football team. It wasn’t his first choice, but he went, desperate to keep his athletic goals driving forward. He received the same response.
His plan to play baseball failed. A shot in the dark to walk on to the football team fell short, too. It appeared as though he had reached the end of a road he desperately wanted to continue to travel.
“It was a lot to handle,” Fankhauser said. “It was frustration, anger, and then determination would pop up again. When I got those ‘No’ answers, it started to build up and I realized, ‘Maybe this is it. Maybe I’m done. Maybe I go into the education part and go through my [education] major and move on.’”
He needed a dramatic shift, a significant philosophy change. He had long been taught that life resembled a wheel, with the hub being the main focus. But his wheel of life could no longer simply revolve around only athletics. Instead, he redirected his focus into his own sheer competitiveness and his faith in God to carry him along a path he hadn’t anticipated. It was no longer only about his talent. It was about the sheer idea of proving he could do something, a more inward, pure, philosophical driving force than what he had previously used as motivation.
Off to Ohio State
He knew baseball at the Division I level wasn’t going to happen after playing that following summer. Needing a change, he transferred to Ohio State to focus solely on academics. He continued to work out as much as possible, mostly to stay in shape but also out of a competitive drive that wouldn’t let him come to a complete stop. Before classes, between classes, after classes, he kept lifting and running.
He then came across an ad for walk-on tryouts for the Buckeyes football team. He had already been told no twice. He thought, “I’ve gotten them all, so what’s one more [no]?”
Fankhauser went with little expectation of making the team. Again, he was told, ‘No.’ Another rejection message, now three from two schools and two sports. But as he walked off the field after being turned away yet again, the rejections continuing to pile up and his chances to extend his athletic goals sinking deeper, he was given a break in the storm clouds and a sliver of light.
Fankhauser, a defensive back, was pulled aside by a recruiter. He was told he needed to lose about 10 pounds. He needed to get faster. But there was something in him the Buckeyes liked. They wanted him to come back the next year.
Fankhauser worked with a strength and speed coach as much as he could. He lost the weight. He shed two-tenths of a second off his 40-yard dash time. He showed up again to try a fourth time.
Making the team
At long last, he was told, ‘Yes.’ He made the team as a walk-on. Emotionally, he broke down upon hearing the good news. Finally, he had done it.
“It was super emotional. Extremely emotional,” Fankhauser said. “My family had my back the whole time. They were willing to help with whatever I needed with my goals and everything. I thought about representing my name, my family, even Stow and all the coaches who helped me out in every way possible.”
He hadn’t just accomplished the goal of making a team, proving he was a Division I athlete. He was a Buckeye, no less. Dreams hatched long ago when he’d throw the football around with his dad in the backyard while wearing a Troy Smith No. 10 jersey had been realized, and he didn’t even start this journey with that destination in mind.
“I mean, Ohio State football is a dream for every kid in Northeast Ohio,” he said. “It was honestly a dream come true. Now, it started from the bottom as a walk-on, so you’re at the very bottom of the totem pole, just trying to get your way out of the hole.”
Fankhauser knew his role would relegate him more so to the indoor practice facility at Ohio State than the Horseshoe on Saturdays. He was on the scout team as a safety, helping those ahead of him on the depth chart prepare for that week’s opponent. He watched the games in his jersey but without pads.
He’ll be in full uniform for the Rose Bowl in part due to a recent string of injuries to Ohio State’s defensive backfield but also due to losing his stripe from his practice helmet, an honor the Buckeyes bestow upon players as they earn a certain level of recognition. For Fankhauser, it took all season, but like his journey to Ohio State in the first place, it was a long road traveled successfully. And it was a recognition of a mountain of humbling experiences creating his foundation.
“It was pretty cool and a long time coming,” Fankhauser said of the announcement. “It’s kind of a respect deal. Once the program, the players, the coaches feel you put something forth to help the team enough or in a way that improves the team, they feel you can take that black stripe off, that you’ve earned it. It was a big deal for me, a big milestone I had been working toward to all year.”
That was on Dec. 18. The next day, he was told he’d be traveling with the larger, first contingent of players as they’d make their cross-country trek to California on Christmas Day. After all of those rejections and leaving Kent State, Fankhauser has found himself this week staying in downtown Los Angeles, practicing in the StubHub Center and enjoying Disneyland.
“It has been a ton of emotions all at once,” he said. “It’s funny, walking down the streets of Disneyland and everyone is seeing us, taking videos, asking for pictures. It doesn’t matter who you are on the team, they go nuts. That kind of treatment has been super surreal. I never thought I’d be in a position like this.”
It looked like his athletic career was finished. It made him rethink his life focuses. Along the way, his family and friends joked with him that he was Rudy, referencing Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who was repeatedly turned down by the Notre Dame football team in the early 1970s only to finally make it on his last shot, the story that resulted in the popular 1993 film.
Fankhauser laughs about the reference, though admits he only saw the movie once, and it was a long time ago, so he can’t really respond to it.
After all, he doesn’t need to see the movie. He’s lived it.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.