*Special reporting by Michael McCann
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kosta Karageorge cut a looming figure on the Ohio State campus with his 6-foot-3, 273-pound frame, penchant for riding his motorcycle to class -- in the winter -- and career ambition to become a professional wrestler. He walked on to the Ohio State football team in August, but was best known for his three years as a varsity heavyweight wrestler at the school.
When Karageorge went missing after leaving his apartment around 2 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, his disappearance sent a shockwave through the football program, athletic department and university. He had earned a reputation as a gregarious and endearing character who dressed up as Hulk Hogan for Halloween and screamed “Yeah baby” every time he ran onto the practice field.
“Every time you were with him, it always made your day a little better,” said junior Craig Fada, a football teammate and close friend.
On Sunday Karageorge’s story took a tragic turn when he was found dead in a dumpster near his apartment in Columbus. Police determined he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound and later said the gun belonged to Karageorge. He was laid to rest on Wednesday, and as a community and university mourns key questions have emerged: Why? And who was Kosta Karageorge?
The reality is the portrait of Karageorge is complicated. We may not know definitive answers any time soon.
Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz told SI.com that Karageorge’s brain will be sent out for additional testing “because of his history being involved in high-impact sports, because of his history of concussions.” And while those results -- due back in 4-8 weeks -- may offer some medical clarity, there is still an aura of mystery around Karageorge’s death.
This is what is known: Karageorge’s sister, Sophia, told The New York Times that her brother had suffered four or five concussions throughout his athletic career and experienced disorientation and mood swings as recently as September. He sent his mother a cryptic text message a few hours before he went missing: “Sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all F----- up.”
Ohio State officials declined to offer any insight into Karageorge’s history of concussions other than to release a statement saying they are confident in their medical procedures.
Karageorge has also been connected to a drug investigation within the last two years by the Franklin County Sherriff’s Office, a source told SI.com. Sheriff Zach Scott would not confirm or deny if Karageorge served as a confidential informant in that case and there is no record of Karageorge being arrested.
Ohio State officials declined to comment on Karageorge’s legal issue. Football coach Urban Meyer met Karageorge for the first time in August and said he had no prior knowledge of Karageorge’s connection to the investigation. “Zero,” Meyer said in a phone interview on Wednesday night. “None.”
The surreal week at Ohio State has left Karageorge’s friends, former teammates and coaches in the football program, many of whom were just getting to know him, searching for answers. A clear picture may never emerge.
The night Karageorge disappeared, he and a group of friends went to Mirror Lake to witness an annual Ohio State tradition. Thousands of students jumped into the frigid water, which happens every year the week of the Michigan game. Fada said that they stood with a group of friends on a hill and watched the masses leap in. Teammate Pat Elflein said he saw Karageorge that day and didn’t notice anything unusual. “He was fine,” Elflein said. “Just normal Kosta.”
Afterward, Fada said he and Karageorge went to a friend’s apartment, chuckling at the site of the freezing students making their way home. The Mirror Lake tradition is essentially a big party, but Fada said they weren’t “partaking.”
Fada asked Karageorge if he needed a place to stay. Karageorge said he did not, and Fada went home. Karageorge reportedly got in an argument with his girlfriend and left his off-campus house around 2 a.m. without his wallet or any identification.
When Karageorge didn’t show up at practice the next day, Fada knew something was wrong. Like multiple Ohio State teammates and coaches, Fada said he didn’t see mood swings or signs of depression in Karageorge. “It was more surprising than anything I’ve ever had happen to me in my life,” he said.
Karageorge’s death also hit his former wrestling teammates hard. Karageorge wrestled during his first three years at Ohio State and compiled a 49-16 record as a heavyweight. Most of his matches were in open tournaments, essentially exhibitions, and he participated in two varsity matches last year.
Karageorge worked as a counselor at Jeff Jordan’s State Champ wrestling camp and roomed in Columbus with Jordan’s two sons, Bo and Michah, who wrestle at Ohio State. Karageorge would tease Jeff by saying, “Did you lose your softball?” He’d then flex his arm muscles, smiling as his bicep bulged to the size of a softball.
Jeff said he was flooded with calls and emails from campers and parents of campers with memories of Karageorge. “What a great testimony to the type of person Kosta was,” Jordan said.
Karageorge made a quick impression during his short time with the football program, too. After answering an open call for walk-ons, Karageorge earned the respect of team veterans. Some knew him from wrestling and around campus, where they'd spot him on his motorcycle giving his girlfriend a ride to class.
In the locker room, teammates noticed tattoos of Atlas holding a globe on his back and Greek gods on his arm. They also saw his passion for weightlifting, as he would often post photos of himself on social media working out at 2 a.m.
When asked if he was surprised that Karageorge had a gun, football teammate Taylor Decker said, “Nah, he was that type of guy.” Decker and Karageorge bonded over their love of tattoos and lifting weights. “He knew he was a badass,” said Decker, a close friend on the team. “That’s definitely the image he put [out].”
Karageorge may have taken toughness too far, as teammate Michael Bennett said on a recent Big Ten conference call that Karageorge had concussions he didn’t report. He called Karageoge “the toughest guy” he had ever met. “We knew he had a lot of concussions,” Bennett said. “But you never knew he was depressed or anything like that.”
Karageorge had little football experience and didn’t play after his sophomore year at nearby Thomas Worthington (Ohio) High. He knew little about the simple nuances and technical aspects of the game. When Karageorge, a defensive lineman, began with the Buckeyes he didn’t grasp the most basic moves.
“He didn’t know A from Z as far as football techniques,” said Vince Oghobaase, a graduate assistant football coach who was close to Karageorge. “He couldn’t do a basic club rip. That’s the fundamental stuff you learn in Pee Wee football. He just didn’t know.”
Karageorge saw reps mostly at nose guard in practice, with his teammates praising his understanding of leverage from his wrestling background. They appreciated how he relished contact, his toughness and how he embraced the thankless scout-team task of “giving looks,” in which players try to mimic the tendencies and intensity of the opposing defense.
“He was a good player,” said Elflein, who lined up across from him. “He was big and strong and had leverage from the wrestling background. He knew how to control his body and control other people.”
Oghobaase often worked with Karageorge, and the two developed a close relationship. One day, Oghobaase recalls practicing with Karageorge on stance starts and redirects. He stressed to Karageorge that he should squeeze his core tight when powering out of the stance. On one rep, he waited a few extra seconds to clap his hands to make sure Karageorge squeezed his core.
“Right before I clapped my hands enough for him to take off, he let out a massive fart,” Oghobaase said. “I’m like, Kosta, squeeze your core, not your butt.”
Oghobaase smiled at the memory this week. “He was like, ‘My bad, my bad. I was holding that in for a long time.' We laughed our butts off.”
Teammates noticed Karageorge’s work ethic and vast improvement. His technique developed as the season went on and they saw him get better. When Karageorge used a club rip to blow past a backup offensive lineman in a drill in late October, everyone noticed. “The defensive line went crazy,” Oghobaase said. “It was a such a change from where he’d come from to where he was at that moment. When everyone cheered for him that day, he knew they were his brothers and wanted him to do well.”
On Wednesday two buses took about 60 Ohio State football players to The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Columbus so his teammates could pay their respects. Meyer informed the team on Sunday night that Karageorge was dead and immediately the mood turned somber. “You could tell they got hit with a bat,” he said.
Large groups of Buckeyes football players and wrestlers poured out of the cathedral with hallow eyes and dazed faces, attempting to reconcile the memory of their beloved teammate with the complicated figure who has emerged since his disappearance.
Answers to what happened to their friend may become more clear when the medical results return to the coroner. But chances are they may never come. Those who knew Karageorge best have clung to his easy smile, hearty laugh and passion for his teams.
“If there was something going on, he had a hell of way of masking it or hiding it,” Oghobaase said. “There was nothing. There were no signs at all. He was a tough guy, man. I couldn’t tell you why or what or how. It doesn’t make sense to me.”