What you leave behind
A stellar senior season is important for Ohio State receiver Austin Mack, but so is his group dedicated to changing the perception of black male student-athletes
When many college football players begin their senior season, they think of their legacy.
They enter college dreaming of a storybook career, of glory and championships and acclaim. But while football is important to Ohio State receiver Austin Mack, he does not want his legacy as a Buckeye to be measured strictly by his performance on the football field.
“I want to be someone different,” he said, “to prove to people that you don't just have to be a football player — that you can be a starter, that you can do your dreams and make it to the next level, but still have a different definition other than you're (uniform) number or whatever.”
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Mack has taken tangible steps toward securing that, most notably as a driving force and first president of an organization — Redefining Athletic Standards — that serves as a haven for black male student-athletes from all sports and a bridge to the broader black community on campus.
Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller, who was nominated for the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy given to college football’s outstanding senior athlete, describes Mack as a visionary.
“Whenever I talk to Austin, I definitely get something from it,” Fuller said. “Anything he’s involved with, I try to be involved with.”
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Mack returns to his home state Saturday when Ohio State plays Indiana in Bloomington.
He grew up in Fort Wayne, the older of two children of Ernest and Shannon Mack. He has a sister, Alyse, who turned 17 on Friday.
“He was an amazing kid,” Shannon Mack said. “Both of my kids are. We never had any problems with him. He always picked his friends wisely.”
She said that Austin grew up playing several sports, with baseball at the top of the list early. But he was noticed early in football. Indiana, then coached by current Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, offered him a scholarship as a freshman at Bishop Luers High School.
“As a young man at the time, it was incredible,” Mack said.
After signing with Ohio State, Mack quickly became a player to watch. He was the first member of the 2016 recruiting class to have his black helmet stripe removed, signifying his full-fledged status as a Buckeye.
Mack has had some big moments. His clutch catch in traffic of Dwayne Haskins Jr.’s pass at Michigan in 2017 in the quarterback’s first meaningful action stands out as a signature play.
But Mack has also faced tough times. He had to learn patience while playing behind talented veteran receivers early in his career. Last year, after he dropped several passes against TCU, he faced the wrath of critics on social media, which he acknowledged was demoralizing.
“Imagine somebody doing that to you because you messed up at your job,” he said. “I'm still a human being.”
His season ended prematurely at Purdue when he suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his left foot. The injury required surgery, and it wasn’t until after spring practice that the soreness disappeared.
With his senior year underway, Mack knows what he wants his football legacy to be.
“A guy that tackled adversity and then ended up making it something special,” he said.
He referenced Terry McLaurin, another Indiana native who was a late-bloomer at Ohio State.
“He had 35 catches last year and now is a starting receiver for the (Washington) Redskins,” Mack said.
He revels in his role as a leader, a guy who encourages younger players and is relied on to make third-down catches and key blocks.
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Mack's desire to make an impact off the field is even stronger. Redefining Athletic Standards grew out of informal discussions he had with minority advisers and other athletes who didn’t want to be pigeonholed.
“The goal is to create a safe space, create a new definition of what a student-athlete means at a PWI (primarily white institution),” Mack said. “There’s always a light bulb that goes on in people’s head of what that athlete is, or who he probably is. ‘He probably sucks at school. He’s just all about football. There isn’t much to him.’”
Mack wants to change that stereotype through RAS. Its purpose is social and educational. Among their events: a mental-health seminar and a Kick It In the Woody get-together inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility with black students who are nonathletes.
“When you think of (Ohio State) athletics, you think of success, you think of championships,” Mack said. “How can we create another pipeline of success — that people are entrepreneurs, they’re visionaries, they’re leaders off the field as well? We want to help create that space that people can find a new brotherhood that’s not always just with your own sports team.”
Mack is trying to spread the word and encourage athletes at other schools to form similar organizations. He traveled to Austin, Texas, to speak about RAS at a student-athlete summit.
“We left there with four or five universities wanting to take our idea,” said Mack, who is on track to graduate in December with a degree in consumer and family financial services. “I’ve talked to people who are alumni, and they let them know what we’re doing. They wish they had it when they were here. They say, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing it. Big props.’”
Fuller is the strategic partnership chair in RAS.
“Austin is kind of like the visionary guy,” he said. “He comes up with great ideas from a business perspective or a brotherhood perspective, just trying to help his people. Austin is not about the fluff. He’s about the real stuff.”
Mack knows that to most Buckeyes fans, he’s No. 11 on the football team. But he believes he is cementing the other legacy, too.
“People will now see me on campus and it’s Austin Mack (from RAS) and not the football player,” he said. “I think that’s huge.”