Lineman knocked people down, later helped others up
Stand-up comedians could have fun with the rich irony of football terminology.
“Why call them offensive tackles when they’re not allowed to tackle anyone? And why call them run blockers instead of run openers? Isn’t the point to clear a path, not clog it?”
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Such silly mixed messages are not lost on the families and patients at the Unverferth House, who find it hard to believe John Hicks blocked anything. To them, the legacy of the former Ohio State lineman is of a caring man who opened a new world to them.
Hicks, a left tackle who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1973, was instrumental in raising funds for the Unverferth House, which since 1989 has provided free temporary housing for families and patients of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. The facility is named for Donald V. Unverferth, who played quarterback for the Buckeyes from 1963 to ’65 and later worked as a cardiologist at OSU.
Hicks, who died October 29, 2016, from complications related to diabetes, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for both the Unverferth House and the Central Ohio Diabetes Association.
Those who knew Hicks were not surprised that the ornery offensive lineman who put defenders on their backs was the same kind soul who helped people get back on their feet.
“John called me in 2016 and asked, ‘Would you help me help those who need help?’ And what’s amazing is when he made that call he was in a wheelchair, going blind, on dialysis and needing oxygen 24 hours a day,” said John Johnson Sr., who two years ago pushed to rename the Unverferth House annual fundraiser event — held on Nov. 18 this year — the “John Hicks Unlimited Love Unverferth House Event.”
“I get up every day to help people who need help, to honor my brother John Hicks,” added Johnson, who worked as an OSU graduate assistant under Woody Hayes in the 1970s.
Lou Holtz, who as an assistant under Hayes in 1968 helped recruit Hicks to Ohio State, once said of the lineman, “Why do we have to wait for people to have a catastrophe before we let them know we love them? I think so many times I wished I’d told John Hicks how much pride I took in bringing him to Ohio State.”
As for honoring Hicks’ legacy on the football field, let’s just say the current Ohio State linemen are struggling to walk in Hicks’ footsteps. Granted, the 2018 Buckeyes go about their business much differently than Hicks’ 1973 team. The current linemen pass block more than run block, which was unheard of under Hayes.
The ’73 O-line concentrated on run blocking, which allows linemen to be more aggressive, rather than defending against pass rushers. How big of a difference are we talking? Dwayne Haskins Jr. attempted 73 passes last Saturday in a 49-20 loss at Purdue. The 1973 Buckeyes threw 87 passes the entire 11-game season.
“He’d be on their (butts) for sure,” Johnson said, predicting how Hicks would react to this year’s line play, which is largely responsible for a paltry 4.4 yards per rush average.
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” Johnson said. “You could never have told me that two games ago we’d have (92) yards rushing against Minnesota and then (76) against Purdue. John would be looking at those lineman and saying, ‘What is your problem?’”
Hicks wasn’t perfect but knew how to become a bulldozer when the job called for it.
“I can’t remember exactly what game it was, but I know it was away and things weren’t going good at halftime,” Johnson said. “Coach Hayes tells John, ‘OK, you look across the line of scrimmage and tell that guy, ‘We’re coming straight at your (butt).’ And it worked. Maybe we need some of that same mentality now?”
Johnson recalled a conversation with Hicks in which the tackle noted how the 1973 linemen were “a bunch of street fighters.”
Will that brawler mentality begin to take shape this season? The Buckeyes had the bye week to bang home the idea that to run the ball effectively the linemen must be more physical.
“I’m sure (offensive line coach) Greg Studrawa, he’s a volatile get on you type person,” Johnson said. “But I think because of all the stuff that has happened with coach Meyer … when Urban came back (from a three-game suspension), maybe he allowed things to happen that were already happening. It’s the old story, when things are going good, why change? Sometimes, it takes something really bad to happen to change.”
Hicks understood that, which is why off the field he worked to make those really bad things feel less frightening.
“His dream was to help people who really needed help,” Johnson said.