Born To Be A Buckeye Andy Katzenmoyer Of Ohio State, A Mere Freshman, Is The Linchpin Of A Ferocious Defense
Looking back, trying to make sense of it all, Andy Katzenmoyer
can barely fathom what has happened to him since the end of the
longest spring in his life. Less than six months ago
Katzenmoyer, then a high school senior, was a fretting,
distracted hulk of a lad who was wandering the halls of
Westerville (Ohio) South High haunted by the fear--born of too
much partying, girl-chasing and football--that he might have
blown the dream he had cherished since he was a boy. Katzenmoyer
had already accepted Ohio State's offer of a football
scholarship in February, but now he was sweating an English exam
that would determine his academic eligibility. "The most
pressure I'd ever felt in my life," he says.
On top of that--and despite the fact that he had been acclaimed
by USA Today as the nation's best high school defensive player
last year--the young middle linebacker doubted whether he could
make the transition to a major college program, particularly one
so bone-strong and rich in tradition as the Buckeyes'. So there
he was last spring, wondering aloud to his father, Warren, "Can
I play at the next level? Am I good enough?"
Today, one squeaker of an English test later and 10 games into
Ohio State's season, his doubts have vanished like conquered
ghosts, especially after last Saturday's 27-17 victory over
Indiana. Katzenmoyer forced a key fourth-quarter fumble that
teammate Matt Finkes returned 45 yards for the go-ahead
touchdown as the second-ranked Buckeyes clinched their first
Rose Bowl berth since 1985--even before this Saturday's showdown
with Michigan--and continued the pursuit of a national
championship that has eluded the school since 1968. "It's kind
of weird coming out of high school and getting to go to the Rose
Bowl in your first year," he says. "I haven't lost a collegiate
game yet! It's just been a huge, dramatic change for me. I
cannot believe that I made it. But I did."
Katzenmoyer has been the Buckeyes' starting middle linebacker
since their first game of the season, a 70-7 shellacking of Rice
in which he led the team in tackles, with eight, and became the
only true freshman ever to start an opening game at linebacker
for Ohio State. At 6'4" and 250 pounds, with a shy smile, a
tight end's soft hands and a neck slightly wider than the head
attached to it, Katzenmoyer has announced himself as a vibrant,
hard-nosed presence inside on a team that allows only 10.1
points a game. Heading into Saturday's regular-season finale, he
leads the Buckeyes' defense in tackles for loss with 16 for 80
yards, including nine quarterback sacks for 58 yards. His 66
tackles--42 solos and 24 assists--leave him only four behind the
team's leader, senior strongside linebacker Greg Bellisari.
The kid doesn't turn 19 until Dec. 2, and rarely do stripling
freshmen phenoms--no matter how dazzling the press reports that
trail after them--arrive with such stabilizing force at so
critical a position. "With most of these guys, you spend the
first year getting their helmet size down," says Buckeyes
quarterbacks coach Walt Harris. No one in Columbus is more
ecstatic at Katzenmoyer's level of play and his prospects than
is coach John Cooper. Last season, after middle linebacker
Lorenzo Styles left early for the NFL draft, Cooper had to move
Bellisari, a 230-pound natural outside linebacker, to the
middle. He would have remained there if Katzenmoyer had not
enrolled. With Bellisari and senior Ryan Miller on the wings and
the Cat in the middle, Cooper has a set of linebackers quite as
explosive as any in college ball.
"I don't think we'd be undefeated without Andy in there," Cooper
says. "He allowed us to get Greg back outside. The most amazing
thing about him--and he looks like a football player--is his
ability to close on the ball. He has a nose for the ball, and
the best thing he does is move laterally. And for a 250-pound
guy, he can run! People aren't running up the middle on us
because of Winfield Garnett, the big [6'6", 305-pound] defensive
tackle, and Andy."
That Katzenmoyer should have ended up stuffing the middle at
Ohio State was a development at least as natural as any instinct
he might have had for closing on the ball. As a young boy he
used to fall asleep listening to the Buckeyes' fight song on a
windup cotton football that Warren's mother, Marie, a Buckeyes
fanatic, had given Andy for Christmas when he was two.
Katzenmoyer was born in Dayton, but his family moved to
Westerville, a suburb northeast of Columbus, when he was six. He
spent many days of his youth with his father, then a state
wildlife biologist, hiking nature trails in central Ohio,
hunting for rabbit and pheasant, and fishing for bass. "Dad knew
all the good places to go," says Andy.
Andy's father attended Ohio State for two years, and his mother,
Dianne, graduated from there in 1967. An uncle and two aunts
also have degrees from the university. Before enrolling at Ohio
State, Warren had been a 6'3", 190-pound tight end on
scholarship at Iowa State, but he dropped out after mangling his
shoulder during his freshman year. One of the seniors on that
Cyclones team was a safety-running back named John Cooper. "A
pretty good player," Warren recalls of the man who would one day
recruit his son. Father and son attended a few home games in
Columbus, but mostly the family gathered around the TV set on
Saturday afternoons to root the Buckeyes home. So what chance,
really, did Tom Osborne and Joe Paterno have?
Andy began playing football in the sixth grade, mixing it with
baseball here and basketball there. By the time he had reached
the end of his sophomore year--when he transformed from a chubby
6'1", 250-pounder to a considerably leaner 6'4" and 215
pounds--he had heard enough of his father's football stories and
seen enough of Brian Bosworth to know what he wanted to do. "A
crazy madman on the field," he says of Bosworth. "Nothing got in
his way. I liked the hitting. It comes from wanting to decleat
somebody. My high school coach [Rocky Pentello] used to use that
word. That's when you hit a guy so hard that his cleats come out
of the ground and he's hangin' in midair."
Katzenmoyer quit all sports but football, and the summer before
his junior year he worked out ferociously, lifting iron and
running six days a week. That fall he began his decleating of
running backs with such abandon that scouts began descending
from all over. "He had a hunger to hit," says Pentello. "I saw
him put at least five kids out of the game his junior year.
Nothing dirty or late. Just hard. Hard!" In the regional
championship game in Katzenmoyer's junior year, against Dublin
High, Pentello says that Katzenmoyer hit running back Rolland
Steele the way "a train would meet a deer. When you look at the
play on film, no matter how much you slow it down, the hit
happened so fast that it came between frames. One frame they're
about to collide, the next frame Rolland Steele has
disappeared." Though the tale sounds apocryphal, or as though
the film had gotten stuck in the camera, Pentello insists that
it is true. "I've never see that in all my years of coaching,"
By Katzenmoyer's senior year, when he was bench-pressing almost
400 pounds and squatting 550, he was being ballyhooed as the
hottest defensive prospect in the land. In Columbus they were
calling him another Tom Cousineau, another Chris Spielman or
Steve Tovar. He found Penn State appealing on his visits there,
particularly Coach Paterno--"A fatherly figure," Katzenmoyer
says. He liked it so much that Warren and Dianne traveled there
too, to see the place and meet Paterno and the staff. In the
end, though, with all that Buckeyes tradition in the family and
with home games 20 minutes from Westerville, there was only one
place for him to hang his helmet.
When Dianne called Penn State's Jay Paterno, Joe's son, who had
helped recruit her son, she broke down as she delivered the
news. "Can you imagine being engaged to two beautiful women at
the same time?" she asks. "We debated the decision every night
at the dinner table for a year and a half, but in the end Andy
couldn't marry them both."
Warren shrugs. "Joe was sleddin' uphill," he says.
So was Andy, after dogging it through classes for two years. On
the eve of his senior season, Pentello warned him that the ice
was growing perilously thin. "Keep going the way you are, and
you're not going to play college football," he said. Crunching
the numbers, Pentello told him that he needed at least straight
B's his entire senior year. In the spring Andy needed to score
at least 80% on his English final. He barely squeezed through
the seam, getting by with the minimum. They were dancing with
the practice dummies at the Woody Hayes Center on that day.
His first appearance on the practice field in August was more
memorable than propitious. "The first time I saw him," recalls
senior free safety Rob Kelly, "he was trying to run two miles,
and he was running along and puking all over himself." Luke
Fickell, a senior noseguard, remembers looking over, chuckling
and saying, "Welcome to the big leagues, kid."
Katzenmoyer had made himself a target of public wrath when he
showed up wearing jersey number 45, the unofficially retired
number worn by Archie Griffin, the game's only two-time Heisman
Trophy winner (1974 and '75). The former Buckeyes running back
is an icon in Ohio, but Katzenmoyer wanted the number because
he'd worn it since the seventh grade. Griffin didn't care: "If
it motivates him, let him wear it."
But callers scolded Katzenmoyer on talk radio shows, and one TV
station used its 800 line to poll viewers on the matter. At one
point an exasperated Cooper got tired of the wailing and told
Andy, "If I were you, I wouldn't wear the damn thing!" Never
flinching, the kid kept pulling it over his pads.
Cooper knew after one week in camp that he probably had the
starting middle linebacker he'd been looking for. While his
physical gifts were manifest, Cooper says, "we didn't know what
kind of instinct he had. Then you'd look up, and hey, the ball's
over there or there, and Andy is too. You can't teach instinct."
Cooper mulled over his choices for a while. "It was a calculated
risk to start a true freshman," he says. "I finally said, 'The
heck with it. He's the best we got. Start him!'"
Veteran players were skeptical, wondering how a boy just out of
high school could learn the complex schemes and reads he would
have to know at the flick of a snap. "Deep down I was
concerned," Fickell says. "The first couple of games, I thought,
What's this kid going to do when it comes down to a big play?
Will he remember to pick up the back coming up the middle on a
Cooper has had no serious cause for regrets. Even before the
game-turning contribution his middle linebacker made last
Saturday, two Katzenmoyer plays stuck out in Cooper's mind. In
the season's fifth game, against Wisconsin, 54 seconds were left
in the scoreless first quarter, and the Badgers had the ball,
fourth-and-goal, at the one-yard line. Lining up over a
Wisconsin guard, Katzenmoyer sensed a rerun of a sweep that the
Badgers had run twice in that drive. It was a perfect read. As
the guard pulled, opening a gap, Katzenmoyer shot through and
nailed tailback Carl McCullough for a seven-yard loss. The play
prevented what would have been a decisive touchdown in the
Buckeyes' 17-14 win. Three weeks later, with Ohio State leading
Minnesota 17-0 in the third quarter, Katzenmoyer ignited a 45-0
blowout when he keyed on a receiver slanting into his zone.
Katzenmoyer drifted left about five yards, stepped inside the
receiver to pick off the pass and raced 42 yards to score his
first collegiate touchdown. "He doesn't play like a freshman,"
Cooper says. "You'd think he was a junior. Or a senior."
It's as though he is caught in a time warp, where all that has
happened the last three months feels as if it happened last
week--the camp, the days of practice, the endless hours watching
films, the games following one another week upon week. "I never
thought the dream would come true so fast," he says, "You don't
have time to sit back and reflect. How intense it was running
out of the tunnel in front of 93,000 screaming fans the opening
game. There were times in that game I couldn't think, it was so
loud. The hype and the pressure. A sea of people. Just that,
itself, was unbelievable....It's indescribable how much I love
The Rose Bowl looms five weeks away, and he will find no better
place than Pasadena to end a storybook season.