Tracy Sprinkle knows that amassing big statistics is not a nose guard’s job. So when he can make a big play, it’s special.
Ohio State had only a 7-0 lead in the first quarter last week against Rutgers when the Scarlet Knights drove inside the Buckeyes’ 20-yard line. Sprinkle fought off a double-team block and tipped a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Dante Booker. The Buckeyes then rolled to a 56-0 victory.
“I was very excited,” Sprinkle said. “Sometimes when you’re down in that nose position, you don’t get a lot of glory for the plays you make. To be able to push the pocket and get my hands up and see Dante make the interception was real nice. That’s a real good friend of mine, and he’s been through some tough stuff.”
So has Sprinkle. Both he and Booker suffered season-ending leg injuries in last year’s season-opener. Sprinkle suffered a torn right patellar tendon, an injury that defensive line coach Larry Johnson said typically ends a career.
But that was just one of the several obstacles the Elyria native has overcome to become a beloved team captain in his senior season.
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Sprinkle’s path has been an unusual one, starting from birth. His father, Percy Hicks, said that he and his wife, Tracie Sprinkle, were unaware that she was pregnant with Tracy until an hour before he was born. Only when Tracie complained of stomach pain did she go to the hospital. They were shocked when the doctor said that she was pregnant and that birth was imminent.
“People still trip out on the story,” Hicks said. “But it happened.”
The unusual circumstances are part of the reason they decided to name their newborn after Tracie, tinkering with the spelling.
Tracy has 12 siblings and is the youngest of seven boys. They are a close family, but money sometimes was tight.
“It was not really easy growing up, trying to feed all of us,” Sprinkle said. “That’s something I learned at a young age — fighting through adversity and a lot of hardships growing up.”
The biggest came when Sprinkle was a junior and budding star at Elyria High School. A brother, Jamelro Hicks, was shot and killed in Cleveland. He was 22.
“I’ve kept it low-key, but that’s something I think about all the time,” Sprinkle said. “I have family picture in my locker so I can see him before every game. That’s something that’s real close to my heart.
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“He always told me I was going to be the one out of all my dad’s kids to make it somewhere. ‘Put our family on the map,’ is something he told me.”
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But Sprinkle’s career at Ohio State almost ended before he ever played. After redshirting his first year on campus, Sprinkle was involved in an altercation at a Lorain bar that summer. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer dismissed him from the team but reinstated him after additional evidence exonerated Sprinkle.
“At first, I was kind of lost and confused, like, ‘Why is this happening?’ ” Sprinkle said. “All I can say is when your faith is strong, you can get through a lot of things.”
Sprinkle was determined to make the most of his second chance. A prolific pass-rusher mainly at defensive end in high school, Sprinkle adapted well to moving inside as he put on 50 pounds of bulk.
Last year was to be his breakout. Then came the injury.
“You know that when you have a bad dream and you try to wake yourself up?” Sprinkle said. “I was literally trying to wake myself up walking off the field.”
At first, he was relieved when told it wasn’t an ACL tear. But patellar tendon tears might be worse. Working with physical therapist Adam Stewart, Sprinkle began the arduous rehab process. By this summer, he was back, and his teammates voted him one of the Buckeyes’ nine captains.
“He kept his head down throughout the whole process and didn’t allow the adversity to get to him,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “He had this vision of where he is now in his mind at all times. Some people could really struggle with that.
“Tracy has such a strong will and was so determined to get back. Seeing that every day was inspiring to us.”
Johnson said that Sprinkle’s job as a nose guard is mostly to occupy blockers and be disruptive so others can finish off plays.
“Tracy is in my heart,” Johnson said. “I think what he’s done, how he’s overcome things to be in his position right now, boy, what a blessing for him. What a great testimony for himself and who he is as a person. He’s a great leader, a great young man. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Sprinkle earned his degree in May in family resource management. He wants to be a financial adviser when he’s done with football.
His career has had more ups and downs than most, but he was always taught by his parents that adversity is part of life.
“We know that life is a rollercoaster,” his father said. “Kids don’t understand that. He learned that at a young age, and that’s what’s going to make him so much stronger in the future. He hasn’t been on a small roller coaster. He’s been on the double loops and everything.”
Sprinkle wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think the battles have defined what type of career and what type of person I am,” he said.
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