With Robert Landers, appearances deceive.

Let’s start with his position. A prototype nose guard is mammoth, big enough to swallow up double-team blocks. The Ohio State junior weighs at most 285 pounds. He claims to be only an inch shorter than his listed 6 feet 1. To which his position coach and mother laugh.

That’s only one way in which Landers — known to all by his nickname, BB — isn’t what one would expect. With gold-dyed hair, an ever-present smile and a jovial personality, Landers has the vibe of a guy who breezes through life.

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Nothing could be further from the truth. His journey has been fraught with tragedy, long odds and issues that he still confronts.

That he has gotten as far as he has is a testament to his family, his faith and mostly, his resilience.

“He’s such a fighter,” Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “Just when you think he’s down and out, he picks himself up and goes again. I tell him, ‘That’s who you are. That’s your DNA.’” 

• • • 

The turning point in Landers’ life came when he was 10. On the afternoon of Dec. 19, 2006, his father, Bobby, was in the parking lot of a Big Muffler shop in the Dayton suburb of Trotwood. Multiple gunshots were fired. Bobby, 30, was killed. The case remains unsolved.

“That part of my life was my biggest trial in my 22 years on this earth,” Landers said. “My father was a big part of my life.”

Bobby Landers was extremely close with BB and his two younger brothers, Trey and Tallice.

“He was the best role model, the best dad ever,” said Landers’ mom, Tracy Matthews. “Their dad was very active in their sports, their schoolwork, just raising them altogether.”

Matthews had plans to go to medical school. That dream had to be shelved. She became a nurse. She traveled often for her job because pay was more lucrative outside of Dayton and money was tight.

That made BB the man of the house. It was overwhelming at times.

“My mom did a phenomenal job raising me and my brothers,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better mother, friend or person to be a part of my life. But I also knew there were a lot of things she couldn’t teach or explain to us because she is a woman. I had a lot of trial and error with a lot of things, trying to figure out what comes with not only being a man but being a man of values, a man of morals and a man of respect.”

The family moved several times in and around Dayton. Landers had academic struggles. While his brother Trey, now a basketball player at the University of Dayton, grew to be 6-5, BB didn’t grow as hoped. Johnson calls him “gravity-challenged.” Matthews joked that her son only cracks 6 feet “in Timberlands.”

West Virginia was the only major program to offer him, and he accepted. Only when Landers dazzled during Huber Heights Wayne’s playoff run as a senior did Ohio State become interested, largely because opposing coaches raved about him.

Johnson watched video of Landers and was intrigued. He was sold after he talked with him for two hours before the state championship game in Columbus.

“He was so engaging that I said, whether he can play football or not, I want to coach this guy,” Johnson said. “I’ll take him because I think he’s something special. Thank God we did, because he is.” 

• • • 

Every team needs someone who keeps teammates loose. Landers is that guy. Who else would have the guts to take a Fruit Rollup to practice and stuff it in Urban Meyer’s pocket?

“He just looks at me like, ‘Something’s wrong with you,’” Landers said with a laugh. “Well, yeah, probably.”

Asked what stood out about Landers, Meyer’s first words were “sense of humor” before adding, “Sparkplug. A guy we love to death.”

Johnson said that Landers has become a leader in his room, and not just because of his humor. First, he has earned it with his play. His quickness off the snap and atypical size makes him a unique challenge for taller offensive linemen.

More important is his genuine concern for teammates.

“I feel I have a blessing God has given me of allowing people to feel comfortable around me,” Landers said. “I really care about getting to know the guys I have to sweat with and run with and grind with on a daily basis. That role, I’m built for it.

“When you have a connection like that with a person, especially if it’s multiple people and you all have the connection in one unit, it’s hard to break a bond like that. That’s how guys get to the point they can fully commit to not only the program but each other.” 

• • • 

But Landers acknowledged he doesn’t have all the answers. The determination to overcome the odds made him resilient, but it came at a cost. His effervescent personality masked anxiety and depression issues that still affect him.

“I used to use that as my wall,” he said. “When I finally came out and told my teammates what I was going through and what I was struggling with, a lot of them were like, ‘You are the last person I would have ever expected.’ I was like, ‘I know, that was the point.’

“I’m to a point where I’m not ashamed of it. I feel like telling my story and talking about it might help somebody else. I have my moments when it gets a little dotty and have my days when I’m a little down in the dumps. It’s an ongoing process.”

Johnson is a sounding board for Landers. Their relationship goes well beyond coach-player. He senses when Landers needs extra guidance. Landers’ struggles only reinforce Johnson’s respect for him.

Johnson said it’s a miracle that Landers has achieved what he has already.

“A lot of people would have quit,” he said. “He was told he would never graduate from college. Some people back home said that you won’t make it, you won’t play college football. He’s our starting nose guard.

“He’s defied all the odds. I told him he’s got great testimony. When he gets done playing, he’s got a great book he can write about perseverance and how you overcome to get where you want to be.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch