One is a scholar and a smart-ass, as outspoken as his coach is bland. The other is a wild man with a big grin whose mother says of him, "That boy could have fun at a funeral -- and he has." They are Ohio State senior tri-captain Kirk Barton and junior Alex Boone, respectively, and they are the finest pair of tackles in the nation, as valuable as they are voluble. While less technically polished than his counterpart on the right side, "I think I'm a lot dirtier," says Boone, making it clear that in his mind that's a good thing.
The Buckeyes are in the BCS title game -- a Jan. 7 meeting with LSU at the Superdome in New Orleans -- for the second straight year not just because a bunch of teams ranked above them played like the New York Mets down the stretch. There is junior quarterback Todd Boeckman, who until his final two games of the regular season (a loss to Illinois and a win over Michigan) played lights out for a first-year starter. And there is sophomore Chris (Beanie) Wells, who emerged as one of the nation's elite power backs. But neither of those players excels without the contributions of Barton and Boone, future pros whose clock-punching ethos pervades Ohio State's balanced, blue-collar offense.
Both linemen are history majors. ("You know Vlad Tepes was Vlad the Impaler," Barton offered during a car ride with a reporter. "Now that guy was a nut. He makes the Saw movies look soft.") Both realize that if they play as poorly against an LSU front anchored by consensus All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey as they played against Florida last Jan. 8, history will repeat itself.
Barton and Boone weren't the only goats in that 41-14 blowout loss to the Gators -- not by a long shot. They're just the ones everyone remembers. They made Florida defensive ends Jarvis Moss (two sacks) and Derrick Harvey (three sacks, a forced fumble) look like Reggie White and Deacon Jones in their primes. True, the tackles weren't responsible for all of quarterback Troy Smith's lumps. Tight ends and backs whiffed on blocks as well, and center Doug Datish made a few strange line calls. For nearly a year the Buckeyes have lived with their embarrassment from that long night in the Arizona desert. Says Barton, "I'll do whatever it takes to get away from that feeling."
Blessed with great wheels for his size, the 6' 5" 312-pounder has yet to outrun the grief that descended on him in the summer of 1998. Twelve years ago Barton's father, Kirk Sr., ran a thriving landscaping business, and the family lived in a spacious house on a 10-acre spread in Naples, Fla. "We had the nicest house on the block, a pool in the backyard," Barton recalls. "Life was good." That changed on Valentine's Day 1996, when Kirk Sr. was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare throat cancer.
He would live another 2 1/2 years and endure more than 20 operations, including one to have a large tube inserted into his throat to keep open his damaged trachea. To speak, "he had to put his finger on it," says Barton. "He was the greatest guy in the world, but when you have something like that, everybody looks. Everybody stares. It got to him." From the pain in his voice, it's clear that it got to Kirk as well.
Three months after losing her husband, Brigette Barton moved Kirk and his younger sister, Kasey, to Massillon, Ohio, to be closer to her family. She bought a house down the street from Calvary Cemetery, where Kirk Sr., an Ohio native, is buried. "He was so upset about his dad," remembers Brigette of the son she still calls, in unguarded moments, Kirkie. "He wanted to destroy our home movies."
Barton made few friends as a seventh-grader at his new school -- "The cliques, the groups, they were kind of set," he recalls -- but he gradually gained acceptance as an athlete. Cut after tryouts for the basketball team that year, he vowed never to be cut again, in any sport. He went on long runs through the cemetery and sprinted up the staircase from the basement, making the house shudder. He went out for football in eighth grade and made the team but rode the bench. "Size doesn't mean anything," he says, "if you don't know what you're doing."
As his rangy frame filled out, Barton began to grasp the game's finer points. By the time he was a junior at Massillon Perry High -- lining up at tight end and defensive end -- he started to overpower opponents. Even in this football-addled pocket of the country, Barton stood out for his intensity. Upset with himself after a close loss to North Canton-Hoover, he walked the 2 1/2 miles home, feeling he didn't deserve a ride.
Barton was not a high-profile recruit. Ohio State slow-played him, not offering a scholarship until after his senior season. With the Buckeyes struggling in the first half of 2004, coach Jim Tressel shook things up, putting Smith at quarterback in place of fellow sophomore Justin Zwick and, in a move that made fewer waves, redshirt freshman Barton at right tackle for sophomore Tim Schafer.
Three years and 37 starts later, the kid who failed to make his all-county team in high school is nearly everyone's All-America. A two-time All-Big Ten selection, Barton is one of only three players in the 116-year history of Ohio State football to make four starts against Michigan and win all four.
At a recent press conference Tressel was asked how much he'll miss Barton next fall. "A year ago," the coach said, "I'd have said, 'Very little.' " The line killed -- the bar isn't that high at a Tressel media gathering -- and he was smiling when he said it.
But Tressel wasn't always happy with Barton, such as in '04, when Zwick was the No. 1 quarterback but the team was responding better to Smith coming off the bench. The Buckeyes limped to a 3-3 start, and Barton popped off into a thicket of microphones. It was his opinion that Smith needed to be starting. Thereafter, Barton was seldom available for media sessions. Funny how that works.
Late last season Barton again tumbled briefly from Tressel's good graces when he showed up in the interview room after a win over Michigan with a lit cigar and a bottle of champagne. Afterward the coach reminded Barton that he is a role model for young Buckeyes fans.
The mild-mannered Tressel liked to rebuke Barton for his profanity on the practice field by asking him, "Would Brigette appreciate that language?" In the end the coach has come to appreciate what Barton brought to the team. "If everyone was like me, we'd be in trouble," says Tressel. "If everyone was like him, we'd be in trouble."
The Buckeyes were in trouble on Oct. 8, 2005. Barton lay writhing on the turf at Penn State, holding his right knee. At halftime 18-year-old freshman Alex Boone was thinking, I wonder who they'll put in for Kirk.
"Hey, Boone," boomed a coach's voice. "You're going in."
"My heart just started pounding," he says now.
But Boone had long appreciated the effects of a good adrenaline rush. He recalls jumping off the roof of his garage, with older brother J.J., when he was six. He says straight up, "We were bad boys."
Where Alex was happy-go-lucky, J.J. was brooding and intense. As the two got older, their scraps took on a worrisome intensity. "We've got some holes in the walls that weren't here when we moved in," says their mother, Amy, a nurse who went back to school after divorcing Alex's father. During graduation ceremonies at Case Western Reserve, she was one of the speakers. "I remember being really proud," recalls Alex, then eight years old, "and really bored."
Both her boys played football at St. Edward High in Lakewood, Ohio. J.J. was a middle linebacker -- "He's got a big anger in him," says Amy, "so that worked out very well" -- then joined the Marines after graduating. He suffered a noncombat injury in Iraq and received an honorable discharge.
Alex was not without his own mean streak. "He liked to finish people off, make a point," recalls Scott Niedzwiecki, who was the offensive coordinator at St. Edward. "He treated every snap like a six-second war."
While Boone attracted more Division I recruiters than had Barton -- Alex chose Ohio State over Florida, Oklahoma and USC, among others -- he seemed ill-prepared to replace Barton in front of that deafening crowd in Happy Valley. Glowering at him across the line was Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali, a future first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I remember looking over at Hali and saying a prayer," recalls T.J. Downing, the guard next to Boone. He advised the freshman to "get your hands on him, and you'll be fine."
"Bulls---," replied Boone. "This guy's going to tear me apart."
Not true. Though Ohio State lost, Boone did not allow a sack, and his career was launched. He started the next three games while Barton recovered from his knee injury. Last year Barton was moved to the right side and Boone started 10 games at left tackle -- the last being that nightmare in Arizona, a game that merely added to his demons.
While his brother dealt with that "big anger," Alex wrestled with a correspondingly large thirst. The spring after his freshman season he was cited for DUI, having blown a 0.159 on the Breathalyzer (twice the state's legal limit; he was fined and ordered to attend alcohol awareness sessions). According to an August 2006 story in the Dayton Daily News, when Boone was a freshman the year before, he was "routinely downing 30 to 40 beers per day, a pattern of bingeing that began in high school and escalated when he arrived at OSU."
Asked recently if those numbers were accurate, the heretofore chatty 20-year-old grew reticent: "Now that I can't really talk about. I think some of it got exaggerated." Which parts? "I can't say which parts. Not to be mean or anything, but this has been a distraction, and I don't want to add to it."
According to the Daily News account, Boone had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Is his drinking under control? "Absolutely," he says.
As is his weight. After ballooning to 350, the 6' 8" Boone leveled off at 315 this season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. He will probably line up against the Bayou Bengals even leaner. In a tacit admission that his team got a bit soft and stale in the 51 days between the 2006 Michigan game and the game against Florida, Tressel has ramped up conditioning. He added a torment called LSU Tiger Drills, a series of timed sprints throughout practice. "They're a good idea," says Boone, "but for a lineman, they suck."
Yes, the Buckeyes have to get past another scary-good SEC squad to win the national championship. But the pregame dynamic is different from last year's. The Buckeyes are 4 1/2-point underdogs, and they much prefer it that way.
"Last year all we heard was, 'Ohio State's going to kill 'em,' " says Boone. "You hear that for a month, you start thinking, Maybe we are going to kill 'em. Yeah -- that's right! We'll kill 'em!
"This year, all we're hearing is how we don't deserve to be here. You hear that long enough, you start getting ticked. You start thinking, No one is going to talk that way about my teammates, my coaches, my family."
Now he's rolling. It doesn't even matter to him that the game in New Orleans is essentially a home game for LSU. "We're going to be outnumbered, they're going to be throwing stuff, who cares?" says Boone. "Let's keep it loud. We like loud. We want them as jacked up as possible.
"This isn't a game anymore. It's war. It's on! This is for everyone's livelihood at Ohio State. We lose this game, and we'll never hear the end of it for the rest of our lives.
"On the other hand," he says, flashing that grin, "it's just football."