Anyone who has ever met Robert Landers will attest he is a jolly ol’ soul.
It seems to follow that Christmas Day would be his day of days, filled with the joy that comes from great company and great home-cooked food by his mother, Tracy Mitchell.
“I don’t even care what’s under the tree,” said the Ohio State defensive tackle, a fourth-year junior. “I just want to see what my mom has cooked.”
Zeroing in on his favorite, “That’s a hard question. I would say her stuffing. … We go honey-baked ham and my mom’s stuffing. It’s great.”
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As for the Christmas spirit he enjoyed as a youngster, well, he doesn’t expect that ever to be quite the same. It was shattered when as a 9-year-old, some six days before Christmas 2006, he was told his father, Robert Landers-Carr, had been murdered inexplicably while standing in the parking lot of a muffler shop in Trotwood, Ohio, west of Dayton. The crime has never been solved.
“Christmas is so close to the anniversary of my father passing away,” Landers said. “The best way to put it is it’s the reminder of a bittersweet day. We still had gifts, we still had a Christmas tree that year, but it’s a milestone in my life I will never forget.”
It also the anniversary of him having to grow up in a hurry. With his mother and two younger brothers, he suddenly had to become the man of the house, or at least try, he said.
“There were a lot of things my mom could not teach me and my brothers, her being a woman — things only a man can teach,” Landers said. “So I felt like I had to sacrifice a lot of my childhood in order to raise my brothers properly.
“Of course, there was a lot of trial and error, because I wasn’t sure how to be a man yet. So I had to bust my head a little bit to learn right and wrong, do’s and don’ts, and what it takes to become a true man with good morals with a good head on his shoulders. … It for sure has made me the person I am today.”
But that first Christmas a year and six days after his father’s passing was tough.
“I thought it was like a dream I couldn’t wake myself up from,” Landers said. “I would be going through the day, have thoughts about my father, and it was just unreal.
“For my brothers, though, they were a little bit younger than me, so we made sure we still had Christmas gifts for them. I think they sort of understood, but I’m not sure they fully realized it was the first full Christmas without him. For me, it was like I was in a zone and just going through the world.”
As painful as it was, there has been a benefit that endures.
“It has made me appreciate time with family more,” Landers said, knowing he has to catch a plane Christmas afternoon for a flight to Los Angeles to rejoin his teammates in preparation for the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl. “It has made me appreciate the little moments, the special moments you have with the ones you love.
“And it has made me realize that everybody has a clock. So whatever time that you get, such as the holidays, you take advantage to express the love you have for your family and cherish those moments, because you never know when it’s going to be the last one.”