Star on the field, zoologist off it: Get to know Ohio State star Taylor Decker
POWELL, Ohio—Taylor Decker opened the door, and the cat named Chewbacca sauntered over for a scratch and a nuzzle.
"Hey, buuuuuuddy," Decker said on a day in late June as he reached down and tussled the orange, black and white fur of the feline everyone calls Chewie. The Amur tiger cub, then two months old, showed no fear of the tattoo-covered, 6' 8", 315-pound human who towered over the other humans Chewie typically saw in the animal programs department of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Perhaps Chewie knew he'd someday outweigh Decker by 200 or 300 pounds. Or perhaps something in Decker's scent or movements suggested to Chewie that there was nothing to fear from this particular human. It certainly wasn't because Chewie knew he was in the presence of a potential first-round NFL draft pick. "These animals don't care who you are," Decker said. "They're instinctual."
They love Decker, the Ohio State senior offensive tackle who turned a conversation with a fellow student two years ago into multiple internships at one of the world's most respected zoos. Decker's classmate had mentioned working at the zoo, and Decker asked if he could get the name and phone number of her boss. In the summer of 2014, Decker found himself working alongside world-famous zoologist Jack Hanna, cleaning cages, feeding animals and handling everything from African black-footed penguins to snow leopards at promotional events. Those penguins? They don't like many people. Usually, the employees tasked with cleaning their enclosures get adorably attacked. Not Decker, who loved working at the zoo so much that he returned last summer and is welcome back whenever his football and class schedules allow.
Eventually, Decker will use his animal sciences degree to work with tigers, leopards, penguins and palm civets. But first, he plans to use the other skills he has procured at Ohio State to maul defensive linemen for a living. Before that, he would prefer to win a second consecutive national title. To do that, Decker and his fellow Slobs—the preferred nomenclature for the Buckeyes' offensive linemen—must protect their skill position teammates from the likes of Shillique Calhoun and Malik McDowell when No. 3 Ohio State (10–0) faces ninth-ranked Michigan State (9–1) on Saturday in what is essentially the first in a set of Big Ten elimination games. For Decker, who returned to campus this season even though his frame and skill set would have made him a high draft pick last May, this upcoming stretch means everything. Like the dominant male who leads a pride of lions, Decker knows he has a limited time in this position.
Decker has always loved animals, and he has always loved lions most. The Vandalia, Ohio, native watched The Lion King on a near-daily basis as elementary schooler. He swears he didn't cry when Simba's father, Mufasa, died. Decker, who is the youngest of five siblings, said older brother Justin was far more likely to shed tears during near-daily viewings of his favorite movie. "He would cry all the time when the Terminator would die," Decker cracked. "It was weird." Even though he has never worked with a lion at the zoo, Decker says the biggest cats remain his favorite.
Through his work at the zoo, Decker has developed an appreciation for other species. While showing off a palm civet named Toddy, he marveled that an animal about the size of a raccoon—it's actually related to the mongoose—would hunt dangerous snakes. The palm civet is most famous for its poop's role in helping produce the world's most expensive coffee. The civets eat the coffee cherries, and somehow a trip through the animal's digestive system imbues the undigested bean (the pit) with an unforgettable flavor.
This is the sort of information Decker dispenses on Factoid Monday. Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Decker educates his fellow Slobs about the animal kingdom to kick off each game week. To start preparation for Michigan State, Decker explained to his teammates and coaches how female cats don't ovulate like human females. Instead of releasing an egg at a regular interval, female cats ovulate because of stimulation provided during intercourse. This is also why male cats, up to and including lions, have barbed penises. The Slobs were fascinated by this lesson. "He was giving us the whole explanation," Warinner said. "We were dumbfounded."
When Decker isn't dispensing animal knowledge, he tries to prepare the youngsters in the offensive line room to bring honor to the Slob name. Decker was the only sophomore offensive lineman to start in 2013, and after his four fellow starters left for the NFL—where all four won starting jobs as rookies—he moved from right to left tackle and took the lead of an inexperienced group. That group struggled in a 35–21 loss to Virginia Tech in September 2014, but it grew into one of the nation's most dominant units as the Buckeyes marched toward the national title. In Ohio State's final six games last year, the Buckeyes averaged 5.2 yards a rush, and that includes yardage deducted for sacks. Since that Virginia Tech game, Ohio State hasn't lost. Decker has found himself being harder on the younger linemen because he doesn't want them to become complacent since the only thing they've known is winning. "I feel like I have a responsibility to leave our offensive line room the way it was given to me," Decker said. Then he added some infallible football advice. "If you don't have a good O-line," he said, "you're probably going to get your ass beat."
Warinner has noticed Decker's edge with the younger linemen, and the coach appreciates it. "He's trying to really teach those guys the work ethic and the grind," Warinner said. "Think about it. These freshmen have walked into a program where, since they've been here, we haven't lost. Since we've been recruiting the guys that are in this freshman class, they've been around one loss back in September of last year. Sometimes you take that for granted that when these other guys leave, we're just going to keep winning. There's a lot of work and preparation and development that goes before the winning."
Raw talent also helps make that work and preparation pay off. Decker's love of big cats is appropriate. Like a 600-pound adult Amur tiger, Decker is faster and lighter on his feet than someone his size has any right to be. Watch him kick slide to cut off a rush end coming from a wide angle. He glides just like a tailback. Meanwhile, Decker's build (lean but muscular upper body, thick thighs, big butt) allows him to generate precisely the amount of power someone his size should generate. That's why he can cave in defensive linemen on pin-and-pull run plays or rock a linebacker onto his heels when blocking on the second level.
Warinner saw the potential for that kind of skill set in early 2011 while watching Decker play basketball for Butler High as a junior who weighed 45 pounds less than he does now. "Not many guys that are over 6' 7" are that athletic. There are big guys all over the place, but usually the bigger they are, there's some stiffness to them," Warinner said. "Taylor was 270 [pounds] and very athletic. You could tell he was going to be 315 and have great flexibility and change of direction."
Decker connected with Warinner and coworker Tim Hinton during the recruiting process, but unfortunately for Decker, they didn't yet work for the school he grew up loving. They worked at Notre Dame, and Decker's room was packed with the scarlet and gray of his home state's flagship university. Decker thought of the members of the Buckeyes' 2002 national title team in the same way a boy 10 years from now will think of Decker and his '14 teammates. "His bedroom was all decorated in Ohio State gear," Warinner said. But Ohio State, where Jim Tressel was still the coach and current Michigan State assistant Jim Bollman led the offensive line, wasn't interested in Decker. So, in March 2011, Decker committed to Notre Dame.
Eight months later, Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State. Two of his first hires were Warinner and Hinton, but they had pledged not to recruit anyone they had recruited to Notre Dame. That didn't mean Decker's high school coach couldn't reach out to the Buckeyes. When Meyer learned of Decker's interest, the head coach began trying to keep Decker in Ohio. It took until January 2012 to get Decker to flip, but Meyer ultimately landed Decker in a class that also included future Slob starters Jacoby Boren and Pat Elflein.
That group has grown up together, and even though he could have left after last season to go to the NFL, Decker barely gave any thought to skipping his senior year. The chance to turn pro snuck up on him so quickly that he had little time to process it. Meanwhile, the ride to the national title was so hectic that Decker didn't have much time to enjoy it. That's why he's so glad he returned. "Knowing this is my last shot at it, I've been able to appreciate everything more," Decker said. "If you don't know it's going to end, you don't appreciate it as much."
Decker shouldn't have much trouble when he moves on to the NFL. After all, a man who will enter a cage with two adolescent clouded leopards while wearing only shorts and sneakers can handle any pain a professional defensive end might inflict. (The leopards like to bite and scratch, but Decker's most painful incident at the zoo came when a three-banded armadillo named B.J. rolled into a ball and trapped one of Decker's fingers inside his armored plates.) Meanwhile, a career at the zoo will be waiting for Decker whenever he decides to trade blocking Jaguars and Panthers for caring for them. As Decker left the animal programs department on that June day, he passed supervisor Brian Greene. "You might go the NFL?" Greene kidded. "You told me you were here full-time."
Greene then explained that most zoology and animal sciences students from across the country would be jealous of Decker's work experience. It's tough to get a soon-to-be-scratched foot in the clouded leopard cage at a prestigious zoo, and Decker has earned the trust of the employees and animals at the zoo just as he has earned the trust of the Slobs who play alongside him at Ohio State. "He's great with the animals," Greene said. "It's not for everyone."
It is for the captain of the Buckeyes' pride.