Jody Victor: In the nearly 120-year history of the Ohio State football program, student-athletes from around the country have had the opportunity to excel both on and off the field under the direction of the Ohio State coaching staff. From doctors and lawyers to Heisman Trophy winners and All-Americans, the players of Ohio State football have been molded to exemplify the best The Ohio State University has to offer.
Embracing the “pay it forward” mentality of the late Woody Hayes, for years, Ohio State athletes have had the opportunity to grow as players and individuals by giving back to the Columbus community.
For former Buckeye defenseman Ryan Miller (1993-96), Mike Vrabel (1993-96) and Luke Fickell (1993-’96), the chance to support the local community was an experience that would shape both their future and time spent at Ohio State.
“There were a number of organizations we had the opportunity to be involved with when we were in school,” Miller said. “You don’t realize how big an influence you have just by putting on scarlet and gray. There is a responsibility there you don’t even realize. Young boys and girls across the state of Ohio look to you as someone they want to emulate.”
Drawn together on the field, the friendship the three developed as players would remain intact for years to come.
“When you look at why people become roommates, you look at their attitudes, their work ethic and the things that define their personalities,” Vrabel said. “We were roommates and we played football so we saw each other constantly and it just continued to grow from there.”
During their four-year tenure at Ohio State, the three were a part of a Buckeye team that clenched a pair of Big Ten co-championships and compiled a record of 41-8-1. Concluding their senior campaign with a 20-17 Rose Bowl victory over Arizona State in 1996, Miller, Fickell and Vrabel ended their Buckeye careers with a No. 2 ranking in both national polls and an 11-1 record.
“Winning the Rose Bowl was just really exciting,” Miller said. “It was something we had all talked about for so long, so to win the way we did felt like justification for four years of hard work.”
Upon graduation, Miller, Fickell and Vrabel, although still guided by football, found themselves headed in different directions.
Miller, a linebacker, joined WBNS-AM and later WBNS-10TV as a sports anchor, eventually earning two Emmys for his work in sports broadcasting.
“It was a unique experience to be so close to the sport you love so much and had a chance to play,” Miller said. “I honestly don’t think I would have liked it as much if I were living in a different city or didn’t have the Buckeyes to cover.”
Notching 212 tackles during 50-consecutive game starts at nose guard, Fickell would spend a year on the New Orleans Saints injured reserve list before joining the Buckeye coaching staff in 1999 as a graduate assistant. Actively involved in game planning and strategy for the Buckeyes, Fickell was named co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach in April of 2005.
After graduation, Vrabel, a first-team All-American selection and Big Ten defensive player of the year, also became a member of the National Football League. Joining the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 91st overall draft pick, Vrabel went on to become one of the most decorated linebackers in the history of Ohio State.
Signing with the New England Patriots as an unrestricted free agent in March of 2001, the 6-foot-4-inch, 261 pound Vrabel has recorded 614 tackles, 51 sacks and 10 interceptions in his professional career. Recognized by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for both his personality and playing ability, Vrabel boasts three Super Bowl victories, the most of any former Buckeye.
And while the three found their individual successes both at and away from Ohio State, they had not forgotten the lessons learned as former players. Coming together after several years, the trio made the decision to once again reach out to the community which had always supported them.
Inspired by their previous work with the Right to Read program, Miller, Fickell and Vrabel decided to again volunteer their time to read to local children, this time with the idea of providing each child with their own book.
“We had always enjoyed Right to Read Week,” Vrabel said. “As athletes, it was a great way for us to go to the elementary schools and get kids’ attention.”
Focusing on literacy and urban youth, Miller, Fickell and Vrabel decided to hold a football camp in 2000 to help raise funds for their new initiative. Raising enough money to purchase books for seven second classes, the Second and Seven Foundation was created.
The foundation, now in its 10th year, has grown to incorporate elementary schools throughout Central Ohio and has been adopted by athletic programs at Toledo, Notre Dame, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina. The weekly readings, which now feature Ohio State student-athletes as part of the foundation’s “Tackle Illiteracy” program, reached 3,100 children in 46 schools in the 2007-08 school year.
“We used to go read the books two days a week, with four schools one day and three the next,” Vrabel said. “Now the student-athletes represent us and Ohio State. We obviously can’t get the message out to every single kid, so it’s nice to have the help of the student-athletes.”
To celebrate the foundation’s success, the decision was made to write and publish a unique book based on the principles of teamwork and determination. After brainstorming ideas, The Hog Mollies and the Pickle Pie Party was born.
“Everybody really pitched in and had their own concepts and there were no egos involved,” Miller said. “It was just how can we write a book that’s fun and mold it into something that’s exciting for a kid to read and get from student-athletes.”
To continue to raise funds for literacy awareness and the book’s publication, the foundation will have a busy schedule in the upcoming weeks.
Events are set to kick off Saturday, June 13 in the Arena District with a booth and story time led by Vrabel at the Park Street Festival. The FUNdamental Football Camp, which has now grown to accommodate 400 children, will take place June 15-17 at Hilliard Weaver Middle School. Finally, an 8-Ball Celebrity Shootout which in the past has featured the likes of Greg Oden, Tedy Bruschi, Troy Brown, Joey Galloway, Kirk Herbstreit and Jody Shelly, will be held in the South Campus Gateway June 18.
With the goal of raising enough money to publish 30,000 books for the upcoming school year, Miller, Fickell and Vrabel know their mission would not be possible without the support of the local community.
“Without the athletic department, without the volunteers, without the community and without the sponsors, it would be very difficult to reach as many kids,” Miller said. “Everyday we are thankful there is so much generosity. Ohio State has been great and I wouldn’t expect anything less. It makes you proud to be a Buckeye.”