The quarterback is hopelessly confused; bodies are closing in, options dwindling. A linebacker reading his eyes would see them darting nervously, searching left and right. As time grows short Craig Krenzel shuffles his feet, frustration building. Finally he spots something. "Right there," he says. "Extra large."
From a set of metal shelves in a laboratory in the Tzagournis Medical Research Facility at Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center, Krenzel snatches a box of latex exam gloves. He snaps a glove on each hand and returns to his rolling chair at a sterile counter, where small vials of frozen RNA await his attention. Amid a flurry of activity he quietly resumes his small part in the search to cure acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that afflicts one in 50,000 Americans and kills nearly 70% of those stricken.
Krenzel lives in two worlds. In one he's the quarterback of the defending national champion Buckeyes, the fifth-year senior who twice in the last month of the 2002 season led game-saving fourth-quarter comebacks and who last January in the Fiesta Bowl threw his 6'4", 225-pound body at Miami defenders so often that he was the leading rusher in Ohio State's 31-24 double-overtime victory. In the other world he is a 22-year-old molecular genetics major with a 3.75 GPA and a staggering capacity for the swift retention of complex information. "When you think of having the physical attributes to compete at this level of college football, coupled with the intellectual capacity to compete at this level of medical research and study," says Dr. David Schuller, executive director of Ohio State's James Cancer Hospital, "you've brought it down to a very narrow subset of people."
At almost any given time in his saturated life Krenzel is a subset of one, different from everyone around him yet fitting in. On a Monday evening in July he was directing receivers, running backs, defensive backs and linebackers through the seven-on-seven passing drills that are a staple of any college football team's summer program. He blended seamlessly with the group—cursing himself ("I suck!") and schooling the likes of still-developing senior wideout Drew Carter ("You can't cut outside on the skinny post, gotta get under")—and stayed until only a handful of teammates remained, then dragged the footballs and the water bottles inside. He was, of course, the only molecular genetics major on the field.
Thirteen hours later Krenzel finished a weightlifting session at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and drove his small SUV to the hospital, where he would spend three hours of the morning in oncologist Michael Caligiuri's research lab. Working with brilliant science nerds, Krenzel blended in there too. In the spring 30 students, most of them graduate-level, interviewed for research positions in Caligiuri's project; six were chosen. Krenzel was, of course, the only football player in the room. "I had never interviewed a football player before," says Caligiuri, who has been selecting student researchers to work in his leukemia project for a decade. "Craig not only has high intelligence and a strong work ethic but also a remarkable degree of humility and self-awareness of his talents and his limitations. He is not caught up in who he is."
Who he is is what college sports craves: the athlete most likely to stay out of jail, graduate and just maybe cure a disease. The only knife he wields is a scalpel. (His shining image was valuable to Ohio State this summer when the athletic program had to defend its integrity against charges that sophomore running back and Heisman candidate Maurice Clarett had gotten preferential treatment for at least one exam, received improper gifts and filed a misleading police report. Clarett was being held out of preseason camp until issues regarding his eligibility had been resolved.)
There are moments of hilarious disconnect between Krenzel's world and that of his teammates. "Craig will leave school-work lying around the apartment," says roommate Alex Stepanovich, a senior and the Buckeyes' starting center. "I'll pick up a paper, and the tide will be a bunch of letters smashed together into words that I wouldn't even try to pronounce."
Yet Krenzel also has the abiding respect of teammates for, among other things, the toughness that allowed him to play every meaningful minute of a 14-game national championship season. "I'm so tired of saying, 'Man, you've got to get down on the ground,' " says senior tight end Ben Hart-sock, referring to Krenzel's willingness to take hits in the open field.
The Ohio State offense was a running—and passing—joke in 2002, scoring no more than two touchdowns in five of the last seven games with a ground-based system that leaned heavily on Clarett (who missed all or parts of five games with a shoulder injury). Krenzel averaged a pedestrian 150.7 passing yards per game and threw only 12 touchdown passes. (He also rushed for 368 yards.) Yet without him there would have been no national title.
On Nov. 9 against Purdue at West Lafayette, Ind., facing fourth-and-one and an eight-man jailbreak blitz, Krenzel lobbed a perfectly timed 37-yard touchdown pass to wideout Michael Jenkins to give the Buckeyes a 10-6 victory (sidebar). One week later, at Illinois, he directed a touchdown drive in overtime for a 23-16 win. In the Fiesta Bowl he rose from a punishing fourth-quarter hit by blitzing Miami linebacker Jonathan Vilma (story, page 78) and delivered a game-saving fourth-and-14 strike to Jenkins on the first possession of overtime. "You watch the guy on tape, and you think he's pretty decent," says Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack. "Then you play against him, and he's way better in person."