Looking back, trying to make sense of it all, Andy Katzenmoyer can barely fathom what has happened to him since the end of the longest spring in his life. Less than six months ago Katzenmoyer, then a high school senior, was a fretting, distracted hulk of a lad who was wandering the halls of Westerville (Ohio) South High haunted by the fear—born of too much partying, girl-chasing and football—that he might have blown the dream he had cherished since he was a boy. Katzenmoyer had already accepted Ohio State's offer of a football scholarship in February, but now he was sweating an English exam that would determine his academic eligibility. "The most pressure I'd ever felt in my life," he says.
On top of that—and despite the fact that he had been acclaimed by USA Today as the nation's best high school defensive player last year—the young middle linebacker doubted whether he could make the transition to a major college program, particularly one so bone-strong and rich in tradition as the Buckeyes'. So there he was last spring, wondering aloud to his father, Warren, "Can I play at the next level? Am I good enough?"
Today, one squeaker of an English test later and 10 games into Ohio State's season, his doubts have vanished like conquered ghosts, especially after last Saturday's 27-17 victory over Indiana. Katzenmoyer forced a key fourth-quarter fumble that teammate Matt Finkes returned 45 yards for the go-ahead touchdown as the second-ranked Buckeyes clinched their first Rose Bowl berth since 1985—even before this Saturday's showdown with Michigan—and continued the pursuit of a national championship that has eluded the school since 1968. "It's kind of weird coming out of high school and getting to go to the Rose Bowl in your first year," he says. "I haven't lost a collegiate game yet! It's just been a huge, dramatic change for me. I cannot believe that I made it. But I did."
Katzenmoyer has been the Buckeyes' starting middle linebacker since their first game of the season, a 70-7 shellacking of Rice in which he led the team in tackles, with eight, and became the only true freshman ever to start an opening game at linebacker for Ohio State. At 6'4" and 250 pounds, with a shy smile, a tight end's soft hands and a neck slightly wider than the head attached to it, Katzenmoyer has announced himself as a vibrant, hard-nosed presence inside on a team that allows only 10.1 points a game. Heading into Saturday's regular-season finale, he leads the Buckeyes' defense in tackles for loss with 16 for 80 yards, including nine quarterback sacks for 58 yards. His 66 tackles—42 solos and 24 assists—leave him only four behind the team's leader, senior strongside linebacker Greg Bellisari.
The kid doesn't turn 19 until Dec. 2, and rarely do stripling freshmen phenoms—no matter how dazzling the press reports that trail after them—arrive with such stabilizing force at so critical a position. "With most of these guys, you spend the first year getting their helmet size down," says Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Walt Harris. No one in Columbus is more ecstatic at Katzenmoyer's level of play and his prospects than is coach John Cooper. Last season, after middle linebacker Lorenzo Styles left early for the NFL draft, Cooper had to move Bellisari, a 230-pound natural outside linebacker, to the middle. He would have remained there if Katzenmoyer had not enrolled. With Bellisari and senior Ryan Miller on the wings and the Cat in the middle, Cooper has a set of linebackers quite as explosive as any in college ball.
"I don't think we'd be undefeated without Andy in there," Cooper says. "He allowed us to get Greg back outside. The most amazing thing about him—and he looks like a football player—is his ability to close on the ball. He has a nose for the ball, and the best thing he does is move laterally. And for a 250-pound guy, he can run! People aren't running up the middle on us because of Winfield Garnett, the big [6'6", 305-pound] defensive tackle, and Andy."
That Katzenmoyer should have ended up stuffing the middle at Ohio State was a development at least as natural as any instinct he might have had for closing on the ball. As a young boy he used to fall asleep listening to the Buckeyes' fight song on a windup cotton football that Warren's mother, Marie, a Buckeyes fanatic, had given Andy for Christmas when he was two. Katzenmoyer was born in Dayton, but his family moved to Westerville, a suburb northeast of Columbus, when he was six. He spent many days of his youth with his father, then a state wildlife biologist, hiking nature trails in central Ohio, hunting for rabbit and pheasant, and fishing for bass. "Dad knew all the good places to go," says Andy.
Andy's father attended Ohio State for two years, and his mother, Dianne, graduated from there in 1967. An uncle and two aunts also have degrees from the university. Before enrolling at Ohio State, Warren had been a 6'3", 190-pound tight end on scholarship at Iowa State, but he dropped out after mangling his shoulder during his freshman year. One of the seniors on that Cyclones team was a safety-running back named John Cooper. "A pretty good player," Warren recalls of the man who would one day recruit his son. Father and son attended a few home games in Columbus, but mostly the family gathered around the TV set on Saturday afternoons to root the Buckeyes home. So what chance, really, did Tom Osborne and Joe Paterno have?
Andy began playing football in the sixth grade, mixing it with baseball here and basketball there. By the time he had reached the end of his sophomore year—when he transformed from a chubby 6'1", 250-pounder to a considerably leaner 6'4" and 215 pounds—he had heard enough of his father's football stories and seen enough of Brian Bosworth to know what he wanted to do. "A crazy madman on the field," he says of Bosworth. "Nothing got in his way. I liked the hitting. It comes from wanting to decleat somebody. My high school coach [Rocky Pentello] used to use that word. That's when you hit a guy so hard that his cleats come out of the ground and he's hangin' in midair."
Katzenmoyer quit all sports but football, and the summer before his junior year he worked out ferociously, lifting iron and running six days a week. That fall he began his decleating of running backs with such abandon that scouts began descending from all over. "He had a hunger to hit," says Pentello. "I saw him put at least five kids out of the game his junior year. Nothing dirty or late. Just hard. Hard!" In the regional championship game in Katzenmoyer's junior year, against Dublin High, Pentello says that Katzenmoyer hit running back Rolland Steele the way "a train would meet a deer. When you look at the play on film, no matter how much you slow it down, the hit happened so fast that it came between frames. One frame they're about to collide, the next frame Rolland Steele has disappeared." Though the tale sounds apocryphal, or as though the film had gotten stuck in the camera, Pentello insists that it is true. "I've never see that in all my years of coaching," he says.