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The Problems That Keep Urban Meyer Up at Night

Criticized for the off-field issues his players encountered at past coaching stops, Urban Meyer now spends more time than ever working to prepare the Buckeyes for the pressures and temptations of big-time college football.

COLUMBUS — Robert Landers is easy to pick out as he wanders through the team dining hall inside Ohio State’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center. First you notice the splash of blond atop his afro. Then there’s the rest of his body—among the other Buckeye defensive linemen with towering frames and four- or five-star pedigrees, Landers looks more like a MAC player at just six feet and around 275 pounds. But what stands out most is the boisterous charm that radiates from the fourth-year junior everyone around here calls “BB”.

Landers, as he is quick to tell you, is the defensive line’s conscience and its spark, providing vocal leadership and levity in equal measure. He eats Fruit Roll-Ups during practice, occasionally trying to sneak one into head coach Urban Meyer’s pocket. He started dying his hair last year around mid-season. “Why? I have no clue,” he says. “I just woke up one day and said, ‘I’m about to do something different.’ This is my thing: I like to be serious, but I like to have fun.”

Landers is one of the most popular guys among Ohio State players and coaches. They know about his path to Ohio State, that his childhood favorite team didn’t offer him until a week after his senior season ended, when coaches from rival high schools in Dayton told Buckeyes assistants they needed to look at Landers, who had been committed to West Virginia for months.

They also know how he lost his father. Robert Landers Sr. worked in construction and was “one of the biggest, bubbliest, goofiest people on the planet,” his son says. BB thought his old man was invincible. But on Dec. 19, 2006, his mother got a call and came back home a couple of hours later with a blank look on her face. BB was 10. The police never found the shooter.

“It made me grow up pretty fast and allowed me to appreciate what I have,” he says. “You gotta grow through what you go through. You’ve got two choices in life. You can let what you go through become an excuse and disable you, or you can grow from it, learn from it and let it empower you. I try to let it fuel me. It’s one of those things where sometimes you gotta find the light in the dark.”

Still, what almost none of Landers’s teammates and coaches knew was that after a couple of seasons in Columbus, BB was struggling to cope with a darkness that was chewing him up inside. That changed in March, when Landers and several teammates let down their shields during Real Life Wednesday, a weekly offseason seminar program that personifies what’s changed about Meyer even as he has continued to climb the ranks of college football’s most successful active coaches.

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The roots of Real Life Wednesday go back to 2010, Meyer’s final season as head coach at Florida. His eyes had been opened when his oldest daughter Nicki was being recruited to play volleyball. Meyer would hear schools pitch Nicki on the training table or what jersey number she could wear, and he kept thinking, “This is my little girl getting ready to go away to college. What are they gonna do to help prepare her for life after sports?”

What started with a couple of sessions in Gainesville became a weekly staple in Columbus. The featured speakers were primarily business leaders, but in the past year or two Real Life Wednesdays have gotten a lot more, well, real for the players—and for their head coach. One day this spring, Meyer had brought in motivational speaker Dr. Derek Greenfield for a seminar on mental health.

“It’s a topic that is very taboo not just for football players but for young men and men in general,” Landers says. “The way [Greenfield] approached it was fun and loose, but it was real. It was something everybody could relate to. You saw some guys who were going through some things that you’d have never thought [would be struggling] because on the surface you couldn’t tell.”

Greenfield’s presentation moved Landers to open up to his teammates as he never had before.

“Before there were times I was ashamed of it, but I have suffered from issues with anxiety and depression,” Landers says. “There’s so much on your plate. You’re 18–22 years old. Yeah, you’re living out a dream, but your dream comes with some work and expectations. In all reality, you say you know what you’re getting into, but you really don’t. My way of dealing with it was to keep myself busy and just not think about it. But then when you have that day where everything piles up, you just explode.”

He recalls turning into a robot, dealing with mounting stress by burying it. Of course, that only made it worse.

“It just builds up more and more, and you pretty much make yourself a ticking time bomb,” he says. “It really opened up the eyes of a lot of people that, I’m going through something that I have been ignoring. Wow, I need help. I need this fixed. I need to talk to somebody and stop ignoring it.”

As Meyer’s right-hand man since the Florida days, Ohio State sports performance coach Mickey Marotti knows that players are often guarded when coaches are in the room for a speaker’s presentation. This gathering, though, was very different.

“The shield was down, and it was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Marotti says. “That meeting was powerful stuff, man.”