College Football 2008: Laurinaitis bucks trend, comes back for final season

John Supinie

Senior linebacker James Laurinaitis didn't return to Ohio State solely to win the national championship, although the title is on his mind.

The Buckeyes, the three-time defending Big Ten Conference champs who enter the season ranked No. 2 nationally, return 18 starters from last season's team that lost to LSU in the BCS national championship game. Then add freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the dual-threat phenom who already impressed the usually conservative coach Jim Tressel to say he would "absolutely'' put Pryor on the field, going so far as to say Pryor has "extraordinary ability.''

But for Laurinaitis, there's more than just taking another shot after losing in the last two national title games.

"We know more than anyone how hard it is to get to the national championship game, so that isn't a reason why you come back,'' Laurinaitis said. "What happens if you lose the first game of season? Then did I come back for the wrong reason?''

Instead Laurinaitis, a likely top 15 pick in the NFL draft last spring, followed his faith and went with three other variables: friendships, family and education. The Nagurski Award winner as a sophomore as the nation's top defensive player, Laurinaitis received the Butkus Award winner as the nation's top linebacker last season, then shocked nearly everyone in an era where his peers normally take the money and run.

"For me, the money was never a reason why to leave early,'' Laurinaitis said. "You have to be ready to move on with life. After the bowl game, coach said do the paperwork with the NFL. The coaching staff is great about letting guys know what they think. They want you to make sure you know about your decision. He said, 'Give me three reasons why you're coming back.''

Laurinaitis rattled them off, without hesitating.

"There was no doubt in my mind,'' Laurinaitis said. "Coach said, 'I'm glad to have you back.' ''

While Laurinaitis said he finishes on his commitments, he likely got a boost in returning when the bulk of the senior class decided also to stay. It happened in the locker room shortly after the 38-24 loss to LSU. Of the six juniors who considered leaving for the NFL, only defensive end Vernon Gholston made the jump. Linebacker Marcus Freeman, Laurinaitis' best friend, also chose to stay.

"They are like brothers," Tressel says. "You don't see one without the other. I think if Marcus had gone, James would have gone.''

Laurinaitis will also serve as chaperone for his sister, Jessica, an all-state defenseman back home in Minnesota who chose to walk-on the Ohio State women's hockey team. By staying Laurinaitis could also leave with a degree in communications this spring. If he completes the work, Laurinaitis would become the first in his family with a college degree.

Laurinaitis is also a man of faith.

"If I get hurt and it's God's will to not play pro football, I'm comfortable with that,'' he said. "Maybe you think I'm an idiot for not taking the money, but I'm comfortable with that. Maybe God gave me a path in another direction to be a bigger service than just football.''

Laurainaitis always had options. While growing up in Plymouth, Minn., he was a star youth hockey player who would have gone in the first few picks of the NHL draft had the scouts not been scared off by his football career. He led Wayzata to a state high school football championship, then became the first player from Minnesota to accept a scholarship to play for the Buckeyes since legendary NFL coach Sid Gilman in 1930.

But one choice he didn't have was following his father into professional wrestling. Joe Laurinaitis was known as Animal, one half of the tag team The Road Warriors. Years later, the pros would call James Laurinaitis "Little Animal.'' He would jump from his dresser onto then bed, simulating his Wrestlemania moves, but there was none of that in his future.

"My mom would kill me,'' he said. "She would beat me down. It's a lonely business. People don't see the pressures of it. Wrestling with torn muscles. It's demanding and cut throat. Doing everything to get on the good side of the boss.''

Now, Laurinaitis is his own boss, and he decided to stay put at Ohio State.

John Supinie can be reached