At a recent press conference Tressel was asked how much he'll miss Barton next fall. "A year ago," the coach said, "I'd have said, 'Very little.'" The line killed—the bar isn't that high at a Tressel media gathering—and he was smiling when he said it.
But Tressel wasn't always happy with Barton, such as in '04, when Zwick was the No. 1 quarterback but the team was responding better to Smith coming off the bench. The Buckeyes limped to a 3--3 start, and Barton popped off into a thicket of microphones. It was his opinion that Smith needed to be starting. Thereafter, Barton was seldom available for media sessions. Funny how that works.
Late last season Barton again tumbled briefly from Tressel's good graces when he showed up in the interview room after a win over Michigan with a lit cigar and a bottle of champagne. Afterward the coach reminded Barton that he is a role model for young Buckeyes fans.
The mild-mannered Tressel liked to rebuke Barton for his profanity on the practice field by asking him, "Would Brigette appreciate that language?" In the end the coach has come to appreciate what Barton brought to the team. "If everyone was like me, we'd be in trouble," says Tressel. "If everyone was like him, we'd be in trouble."
THE BUCKEYES were in trouble on Oct. 8, 2005. Barton lay writhing on the turf at Penn State, holding his right knee. At halftime 18-year-old freshman Alex Boone was thinking, I wonder who they'll put in for Kirk.
"Hey, Boone," boomed a coach's voice. "You're going in."
"My heart just started pounding," he says now.
But Boone had long appreciated the effects of a good adrenaline rush. He recalls jumping off the roof of his garage, with older brother J.J., when he was six. He says straight up, "We were bad boys."
Where Alex was happy-go-lucky, J.J. was brooding and intense. As the two got older, their scraps took on a worrisome intensity. "We've got some holes in the walls that weren't here when we moved in," says their mother, Amy, a nurse who went back to school after divorcing Alex's father. During graduation ceremonies at Case Western Reserve, she was one of the speakers. "I remember being really proud," recalls Alex, then eight years old, "and really bored."
Both her boys played football at St. Edward High in Lakewood, Ohio. J.J. was a middle linebacker—"He's got a big anger in him," says Amy, "so that worked out very well"—then joined the Marines after graduating. He suffered a noncombat injury in Iraq and received an honorable discharge.