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Wrestling with success

Laurinaitis making a name for himself at Ohio State

Posted: Thursday September 28, 2006 11:44AM; Updated: Thursday September 28, 2006 3:29PM
James Laurinaitis has been the Buckeyes' biggest playmaker on defense this year.
James Laurinaitis has been the Buckeyes' biggest playmaker on defense this year.
Al Tielemans/SI
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Normal for James Laurinaitis is having his dad dress up in face paint, tights and spiked shoulder pads.

It's also hearing people such as The Undertaker, Kurt Angle and Smash of Demolition tell him they saw him play on national television.

James' father, Joe "Animal" Laurinaitis, was one half of the WWF tag team Road Warriors, a.k.a. Legion of Doom. The 6-foot-2 325-pounder could do a flip off the top rope and had a collection of action figures made in his image.

But to James, he is simply Dad.

"Everyone asks, 'Is it any different for you to have your dad as an action figure?' That's just all I know," the 6-3, 244-pound Ohio State sophomore said after last Saturday's 28-6 win over Penn State. "I think it's weird to not have a dad as an action figure."

These days, Joe is in semi-retirement and can be seen at Buckeyes games wearing his son's number 33 jersey. He makes it a point to put the limelight squarely on James.

"When I go to those games, I'm very much incognito with a baseball hat on, and I take myself out of the spotlight, because that's his time," Joe said. "I won't sign any autographs at games unless I'm alone afterward. This isn't my spotlight. This is James' spotlight."

"Son of Animal" has had little trouble making a name for himself, spearheading a defense that hasn't lost any bite from last season, despite losing nine starters. Laurinaitis has team highs in tackles (36), interceptions (three) and forced fumbles (two).

"He's smart, he studies [the game], he's committed physically, he's very instinctive, and I think he'll do nothing but keep getting better," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said.

Laurinaitis appeared in all 12 games last season but started in only five, totaling nine tackles. His big break came against Michigan last season, when Bobby Carpenter, now a rookie with the Dallas Cowboys, broke an ankle on the first play.

"It was mixed emotions," Laurinaitis said. "I was excited because I was getting thrown into the game, kind of surprised. But I was also devastated because Bobby, a kid who's mentored me and taught me a lot that I know about the game right now, went down with injury. It was more devastation than anything."

Laurinaitis played the entire game, making one tackle, on the final play of the game, and went on to start the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

Entering 2006, there were questions about how effectively the Buckeyes could replace the dynamic linebacking trio of Carpenter, A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel with Laurinaitis and a group that includes freshman Ross Homan, redshirt sophomore Marcus Freeman, redshirt senior John Kerr (whose longest stint since transferring to Ohio State from Indiana had been 10 minutes before this season), junior Curtis Terry and juco transfer Larry Grant.

"You have to [use that as motivation]," Laurinaitis said. "Look at the way they played last year, and to try and keep that up, you definitely have to keep going."

Laurinaitis said he learned a lot from Carpenter, Hawk (which was also the name of his father's former tag-team partner) and Schlegel.

"They were so dedicated," Laurinaitis said. "You learn about how to handle stuff off the field, how to handle stuff on the field and how to prepare for a game."