IS THIS HOW IT ENDS? BRUISED AND scraped and numb with disappointment, James Laurinaitis stood in the shower at the Louisiana Superdome and posed that question to himself. Yes, he'd finished the BCS title game against LSU with a ridiculous 18 tackles. "But it meant nothing," he says of that eye-popping stat. "We lost."
After the Tigers' 38-24 win, Laurinaitis replayed in his mind the plays he and his teammates hadn't made. He reflected on the dropped balls, personal fouls, a roughing the punter penalty—the uncharacteristic lack of discipline and focus. As a stream of hot water stung his multiple abrasions, he spoke these words aloud: "This can't be it."
In the weeks before the BCS title game against LSU, Laurinaitis vowed that he would not enter the NFL draft "based simply on whether we won or lost the championship game." His choice, in that case, seemed straightforward. He was widely projected as a top 10 pick. The New England Patriots, choosing at No. 7, were said to be especially interested. Laurinaitis was looking at a contract in the neighborhood of $15 million, with much of that money guaranteed.
But standing in the shower with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Marcus Freeman and tackle Alex Boone—juniors facing the same decision he was—he found kindred spirits. "We were all just kind of talking," says Laurinaitis, "and everyone was saying they didn't really want to leave."
To the delight of Ohio State's coaches and fans, that informal consensus held up when it mattered. With the exception of supremely gifted defensive end Vernon Gholston, none of the Buckeyes' high-profile juniors entered last spring's NFL draft. Ohio State, as a result, has nine starters returning in 2008 to a defense sure to be one of the stoutest in the nation.
Star-studded though this lineup will be, one name will be at the top of the marquee. Already a two-time All-America, Laurinaitis is one of those rare defensive players who will appear on Heisman watch lists. As a sophomore in 2006, he won the Bronco Nagurski Award, bestowed upon the nation's top defensive player. He followed that up by winning last season's Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the country. If they handed out a trophy to the college football player with the coolest pedigree, Laurinaitis would've won that, too.
THEY WERE A DOG-COLLARED, MOHAWKED, face-painted cavalry of two. If you and your bad-boy colleagues were ganging up on one of pro wrestling's good guys in the 1980s and '90s, you needed to keep your head on a swivel. Because you never knew when the Road Warriors might be climbing through the ropes to make it a fair fight. "It's three against one, four against one, I'm gonna get the Road Warriors," says Joe (Animal) Laurinaitis, who was half of that legendary tag team. "We were the bullies of the bullies." To future generations of wrestlers they bequeathed their signature move, an instrument of terrible, swift justice known (as if you have to be told) as the Doomsday Device, to which we shall return.
James Laurinaitis has become a helmeted, eye-blacked cavalry of one. His journey began when Ohio State strong-side linebacker Bobby Carpenter broke his right fibula on the first defensive play at Michigan on Nov. 19, 2005; Laurinaitis, a true freshman, trotted onto the field before a hostile Big House crowd of 111,591. While Animal's son cannot be said to have saved the day in the Buckeyes' harrowing 25-21 win, he held his own in helping OSU limit tailback Mike Hart to a measly 15 yards rushing.
"Running in there," he recalls, "I realized: I'm in the huddle with A.J. [Hawk] and Anthony [Schlegel] and all these other studs. I didn't need to do anything special, because I had a bunch of special players around me."
Three years later the 6' 3", 244-pound senior threatens to eclipse his former mentors. Coach Jim Tressel puts Laurinaitis in the same class as such Buckeyes linebacking greats as Hawk, Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman and Randy Gradishar. Following that baptism by fire in the Big House, Laurinaitis started 13 games in 2006 and became the first true sophomore to win the Nagurski Award.