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Haskell Garrett turns potential tragedy into triumph with breakthrough season

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

You can hardly see the scars now, which is only part of the miracle.

It all could have ended that night less than four months ago for Haskell Garrett. His football career. His life.

The Ohio State defensive tackle was shot in the face overnight on Aug. 30 while trying to break up an altercation between a man and a woman in the University District. The man had a gun and fired at Garrett. The bullet went in one cheek and out the other, through Garrett’s teeth and tongue.

In an instant, Garrett’s life changed. What he couldn’t know was that through all the pain and all the patience he had to endure, his life actually would change for the better.

Garrett returned to the playing field sooner than anyone but he could have imagined. The senior has played better than anyone could have expected. As Ohio State gets ready to play Northwestern with a chance to win a Big Ten title for the fourth straight season, Garrett has transformed himself from a role player into a star. Most important, getting a second chance has fast-forwarded his maturity.

Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett (92), here celebrating an interception against Michigan State two weeks ago, has had an outstanding senior season despite being shot in the face while trying to break up an argument on Aug. 30.

“I think you’re seeing the best version of Haskell,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Everybody here is very proud of what he’s overcome. Not just the way he’s playing, but the way he’s handling himself, the way he’s leading, the way he’s practicing.

“He went through a tough time. But in life, sometimes you have these moments, and it kind of shakes things up and makes you realize some things and maybe that’s what happened with Haskell. Ever since that happened, he’s got a different look in his eye, and I’m really happy that he’s able to take a negative and turn it into a positive.”

'Trying to do the right thing' 

Garrett was born in Vermont, the youngest of six siblings. When he was 13, his father died. His mother, Maria Key, who is Samoan, decided to move to Hawaii to be closer to her family. It was a hard adjustment for Haskell, Key said, but his football career began to blossom.

When the opportunity arose to play at national powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas as a sophomore, they took it. Gorman won state and unofficial national titles all three years he played.

He signed with Ohio State along with a more ballyhooed teammate, quarterback Tate Martell, whose career with the Buckeyes didn’t pan out. Martell transferred to the University of Miami last year after Justin Fields’ arrival.

Garrett gradually worked his way into defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s deep rotation, but he was merely a role player in his first three years. That’s not uncommon, and Garrett had high expectations for this year.

Haskell Garrett

Then the pandemic hit. Garrett returned to Hawaii after the Woody Hayes Athletic Center was shut down. He returned to Columbus in the summer amid uncertainty about whether the Big Ten would have a football season. Then came Aug. 30.

Garrett did not want to discuss the specifics of the incident, though the police report said he was trying to break up a dispute.

“I just know I was trying to do the right thing and it just was unfortunate the way it panned out,” he said. “That's really the only thing I want to comment about that night.”

Garrett managed to return to his apartment he shared with linebacker Pete Werner, who called 911 for an ambulance to take Garrett to the hospital.

“I was the first one to see him after the incident,” Werner said. “It’s hard to reflect on. He wasn’t looking good.”

Someone at the hospital called Key in Las Vegas to tell her what had happened. Garrett was able to talk, but he sounded as if he had marbles in his mouth.

“The first thing I said was, ‘Does my handsome boy have a face?’ ” Key said. “And he says, ‘Mom, I don’t know.’ He didn't know. The fact that he could talk on any level was amazing to me because his mouth was a mess.”

Haskell Garrett:'I am okay' after shooting, Ohio State defensive tackle tweets

Key got on the next flight to Columbus. Johnson picked her up at the airport and took her to the hospital. When Key was able to see her son, she was relieved.

Haskell Garrett, here tackling Miami University running back Tyre Shelton in a 2019 game, had high hopes he could be an impact player in 2020.

“I was very happy that he still had a face and that he was OK and that everything that needed to be done could be taken care of,” she said. “I came out and told coach Day he wouldn't believe it, but he looks just like Haskell. You wouldn't even believe that he got shot in the face.

“When you hear the news of getting shot in the face, you just think horrible things. He's been blessed. I don’t know how that happened. But it was a relief and a godsend. It was a miracle.”

Back with a vengeance 

Still, Garrett faced a long, uncertain recovery. He required multiple surgeries, including a bone graft. He couldn’t eat solid food. Even now, he has to cut meat into small pieces.

A return to football seemed a longshot, but Garrett was resolute. He worked with strength coach Mickey Marotti, butting heads at times when Garrett wanted to push faster than the medical staff would allow. He met regularly with Johnson, studying video and doing whatever he could to compensate for the missed practice time.

“Here’s guy who was an inch away from serious injury or death,” Johnson said. “He could have opted out. He could have said, ‘Coach, I’m done with football.’ And he came back with a vengeance.

“He has worked extremely hard. He’s a great practice player. He listens. He has a really high football IQ. He takes great notes in meetings. He is mentally prepared when he goes to the game.”

It was only four days before the season opener against Nebraska that Garrett was cleared medically to play.

“I cried when I got in my car because it was everything I waited for,” he said. “I just wanted that opportunity to go and compete and do what I love to do.”

From the Nebraska game on, Garrett has been a dominant force. Pro Football Focus grades him higher than any defensive lineman in college football. Against Michigan State, he tipped and then caught an interception for a touchdown. It was surprising that he was named only a third-team pick on the all-Big Ten team.

'Fat-guy touchdown alert':Watch defensive lineman Haskell Garrett's nifty touchdown

Garrett wears a beard, which hides the small scars from the shooting. But emotional wounds do remain.

“Just like anybody else (would), I still have PTSD from the situation,” he said.

Garrett is grateful to Ohio State that he is able to have weekly counseling. He thanks all of the people who helped him recover, physically and otherwise. A GoFundme account raised more than $37,000 for his medical bills.

Those who know him say he’s an easy person to rally around because of his friendliness and generosity.

Haskell Garrett (92) and defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste leave the field after a game last season against Miami.

“He’s one of my best friends on the team,” Werner said.

His mom laughed as she described the daily calls he has with his 18-month-old nephew.

“He is a big-hearted guy,” Johnson said. “The Polynesian culture is all about family, and he believes that to a T. He believes if I give you my word that means something. He is very friendly with everybody.”

Werner said he notices a change in Garrett since his recovery — a maturity and determination to make the most of his second chance. Garrett graduated last week with a sociology degree.

Ohio State football:Garrett's interception for TD highlights strong Buckeyes defensive performance

"I really do think that might be a big reason for the way he’s playing," Werner said.

It has been an amazing recovery, and Garrett is intent on it continuing.

“My story is still being written,” Garrett said. “All those people that endured my journey with me, it’s just so gratifying. That sense of success, it’s not just mine. It’s everybody’s. It’s like an investment. It’s paid off. Everything that my family and everybody around me has gone through, it’s just overwhelming.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch