Six a.m., and the alarm bell in the head of John Simon, the captain of the Dawn Patrol at Ohio State, was the heavy weights clanging on the bars he lifted in the weight room.
The senior defensive end was always the most motivated, most driven player on the team — the one least likely to yield to pain, the one never to be denied anything that effort could gain, the one by whom everyone else measured himself.
But Simon wasn’t helping anyone but himself if he didn’t bring a couple of sluggards along with him, and so that became a rule under coach Urban Meyer. No solitary pain in those workouts. Let others feel the burn, too. All season, John Simon has been the symbol of the Buckeyes’ dedication.
Otherwise, however, Simon always has to be evaluated on the field because he gives so little of himself to anyone outside the Ohio State team.
No one in an Ohio State uniform ever had a bigger pass-rushing game than Simon did in the Buckeyes’ 21-14 victory in overtime over their nemesis, Wisconsin, on Saturday.
Simon, the Big Ten Player of the Week, had four sacks — tying the school record shared by Vernon Gholston and Bobby Carpenter of the Jim Tressel years and Jason Simmons of the John Cooper era — for 36 yards in losses. He didn’t get credit for any quarterback hurries, but he was Badgers quarterback Curt Phillips’ shadow on several other passes.
He would erupt off the edge, 263 pounds of muscle and quickness, and Wisconsin’s tackles, 312-pound Rick Wagner and 342-pound Rob Havenstein, were either wrestling with air or clutching him as he went by.
“He told us we’re not going to lose this game,” said Johnathan Hankins, OSU’s own 322-pound rumble of thunder at defensive tackle. “He was flying around. We saw that in locker room, that what he was going to do was fly around and throw his body around,” said linebacker Zach Boren. “He’s so quick off the edge that it’s so hard for those 330-pound offensive linemen. He knows what his game is and he strives at it.”
Many Buckeyes made great plays on defense, from Bradley Roby’s coverage on the corner and blitzes to rattle Phillips; to Ryan Shazier’s hit on a leaping Montee Ball somewhere near the red line of Simon’s controlled fury, forcing a fumble on fourth-and-a foot at the 1-yard line in the final minutes; to Christian Bryant’s diving breakup of the last pass by Phillips to tight end tight end Jacob Pedersen in overtime.
“We knew how physical it would be. The tougher team always wins this game,” Simon said.
When you talk about a quarterback getting Simonized, though, there is only one man applying the elbow grease. Naturally, when probed about the sacks, Simon started sharing the credit. “Great coverage,” he said. “That quarterback was holding the ball a pretty long time. They had max protection most of the time. One time, he just kind of ran into me. Another time, [defensive end] Nathan Williams and I ran a great stunt, where Nathan forced him right to me. Great team effort.”
Simon’s biggest moments have private roots. Even now, no one outside the locker room knows exactly what Simon said to his teammates in September after a tense 35-28 victory over California, except that the team’s strongest player — so weakened that he could not lift his left arm above his head — spoke from the strength of his conviction that more needed to be done, that commitment makes you stronger than you think. After he was done, everyone else, including the intense Meyer, was moved to introspection and self-examination of his own effort.
Outsiders wonder why Simon stayed for his final year. The probation-bound Buckeyes are Big Ten Leaders Division champions, but they are barred from the conference championship game. “I stayed because it’s a team sport,” he said. “We (the seniors) would never consider leaving those guys. When I committed to being a Buckeye, I was a Buckeye through and through. I wanted to be here for four years, as long as I can.”
He enters the final act of his career Saturday, against Michigan, at the Horseshoe. Maybe he was thinking about all the solitary mornings that became a shared ordeal on the team. Maybe he was teaching again the lesson that Saturday starts on Sunday.
When Simon says, as he did after silent Camp Randall Stadium had emptied: “Got to get back to work Sunday. We have to make sure every day of the week is a success,” everyone listens.
Bill Livingston is a columnist for The Plain Dealer.