Walk-on Chris Booker, special teams player of the week, beats odds at Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Chris Booker tackles Nebraska's Rahmir Johnson on a kickoff return during the fourth quarter Saturday.

Not that long ago, Chris Booker figured his football career was over. Now he’s Ohio State’s current special teams player of the week.

“It’s been a crazy journey,” Booker said Wednesday in a Zoom call.

Unrecruited out of high school, Booker redshirted at the University of Dayton his freshman year while his passion for the game faded.

“I was really kind of feeling I wasn't into it and should move on with the rest of my life and find other opportunities elsewhere,” Booker said.

His grandmother encouraged him to enroll at Ohio State. Booker did, intending to be a regular student. But he joined the OSU club football team, and that rekindled his love for the sport.

As a former two-time all-state wide receiver at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis – Ezekiel Elliott was a teammate – Booker was a star at the club level. The team’s coach, James Grega, made a highlight tape of Booker and sent it to Tim Hinton, OSU’s executive director for football relations.

Ohio State coaches watched the tape and were impressed. After Booker passed the standard academic and character checks, they invited to join the roster in July 2019.

Gradually, Booker began making an impression. One day, head strength coach Mickey Marotti approached him after practice and told him that if he continued to progress, he’d earn playing time.

“I really didn’t even know what to say, because not a lot of walk-ons play here,” Booker said. “When he told me that, my mindset kind of changed, like I can probably do this.”

Booker knew he added to add some muscle, which he did. In training camp this year, he earned a spot on the kick-coverage unit.

“Just an unbelievable story,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “What he's done in the weight room with Mick, what (wide receivers coach) Brian Hartline has done in terms of turning him into a receiver and then his work on special teams with Matt Barnes, I can't say enough.

“You talk about a big heart. He wasn't playing football. I asked him in a team meeting, ‘How many stars were you?’ He said, ‘Zero. I wasn't recruited by anybody.’ It just goes to show you when somebody wants something enough and they have a big enough heart, anything's possible. What an inspirational story.”

Booker, a senior, is just thankful for his chance.

“The competition here is the first thing you think about when you think about a place like Ohio State,” Booker said. “It's a top-3 program. They get all the best recruits, the best talent. You know you’re going to have to have to work hard if you want to see the field at all.

“Just what I've been able to accomplish is amazing. The opportunity they have given me is amazing as well. I'm just grateful, and I can't say that enough.”

COVID-19 vigilance

The COVID-19 outbreak among Wisconsin players and coaches that has forced the Big Ten’s first canceled game serves as a reminder of how fragile this season is. The Badgers’ game against Nebraska won’t be rescheduled because the conference doesn’t have any off weeks in its schedule.

Day has given daily reminders to his team about the importance of doing everything to stave off the coronavirus, and the Wisconsin-Nebraska cancelation justifies his vigilance.

“I don't know if you can reinforce any more than what coach Day has already told us,” right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere said. “From Day 1, even during quarantine, from that moment we've been like you have to be careful around the people who we’re around. we have to treat everyone like everyone has the virus.

“Yes, it’s a cause of concern, but it doesn't change anything coach day's been saying for months now: Be careful. Always wear a mask. Self-isolate. Do things so we can have the best season we can possibly have.”