COLUMBUS, Ohio – The night began with the thrill of a pregame speech from LeBron James. It ended with a violent slam of a podium.
It began with inspiration and so much awe that one of the Buckeyes felt "like a groupie." It ended with another Buckeye in an ambulance and a third saying his night was "ruined."
Ohio State's night featured a crucial 31-24 win over dogged Wisconsin to stay unbeaten during Urban Meyer's tenure here, but what might linger a bit longer is what took place before kickoff, and what was learned about a captain's injury after the final whistle.
If you can believe it, the Buckeyes hardly noticed the most famous Ohioan in the world walking into their team room before the game.
"We were so focused on what Coach Meyer was saying," said sophomore defensive lineman Adolphus Washington, "that he kind of snuck in."
Meyer was speaking to the Buckeyes about their primetime home game against the Badgers, and the importance of seizing the moment.
"Now we're going to have one of the greatest athletes of all-time come and talk to us," Meyer announced, and there was James, decked out in Buckeyes scarlet.
The Miami Heat star spoke about playing for the guy next to you, and how he understands his fame but championships aren't really about him.
It didn't really matter what he said, though. He was LeBron James, coming to talk to the Buckeyes, then going out to the sideline and cheering for them – even giving high-fives as they exited the field.
"When he walked in," Washington said, "I couldn't believe it was him."
James stood on the sideline with the Ohio State basketball team for a good part of the first half, and told ABC he loved football even more than hoops. So it was unclear whether James was more of a recruiting tool for Meyer's Buckeyes or Thad Matta's.
But that doesn't really matter either.
"It certainly doesn't hurt recruiting," Matta said at halftime. "Everybody knows what he stands for and to have him around your guys, it certainly motivates them."
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The person who motivates the football Buckeyes even more than James, however, is Meyer – the no-nonsense coach who levered the two-time NBA champion's theme of seizing the moment into preparation for the biggest game of the home season. Players said Meyer set the tone even before James showed up. Meyer was the one who got them ready. The real star of this Saturday night was not the man who left Ohio for Florida, but the man who left Florida for Ohio.
"He's great at focusing on the goal right ahead of you," said junior defensive lineman Joel Hale, "so we're prepared in every aspect."
They were prepared for the Badgers, even though Wisconsin threw a huge curve by passing the ball far more than even their own fans are used to. Quarterback Joel Stave threw for 296 yards – 207 of which went to receiver Jared Abbrederis, who was the standout of the night even in the loss. The Buckeyes didn't relent on rush defense, though, and held star running back Melvin Gordon to 74 yards for the evening. The Badgers, one of the most powerful running teams in the country, were held to just 104 yards total on the ground.
The difference in the game came in a matter of nine seconds. At the end of the second quarter, a Braxton Miller heave from the Wisconsin 40 was dropped in the Badgers secondary. What should have been an interception turned into a fourth-down chance with 10 seconds to go in the half. Miller looked to Meyer and got a wordless message: "Let's do it again."
Miller chucked another one down the field and this time it landed in the hands of Corey Brown for a touchdown with just one tick left on the clock. That made it 24-14 and the Buckeyes ended up winning by 7.
It was the very definition of seizing the moment, or in this case, just a few seconds. It was proof of what both Meyer and James spoke about. And that was underscored even more by Miller's return to the starting lineup and to his Heisman form. Backup Kenny Guiton, who won so many hearts here for his play during Miller's rehabilitation from injury, was the first onto the field to congratulate Miller after his first touchdown throw of the night. What was a minor controversy had ended peacefully and ideally. Guiton seized his moment, and Miller got his moment back. Before answering any questions after the game, Miller took the chance to publicly thank and congratulate his "brother" for doing so well in his absence. It was quite the display of teamwork.
A lot of the credit for that goes back to Meyer, who had all kinds of invective thrown his way from afar over the summer because of the off-field issues of former Florida player Aaron Hernandez. The team Meyer left behind in Gainesville didn't seem to be much of a team at all, subject to division and conflict. This Buckeyes team, however, appears as glued together as any in the country.
"He's been surprisingly calm," said Meyer's wife, Shelley, after the end of the game. "He's so confident in the players. They're all bonded, on the same page. But we're 17-0."
Asked about her husband's health, Shelley said it was "perfect."
"He's taking great care of himself," she said. "He eats regularly and he's getting exercise."
"But again," she cautioned, "we're 17-0."
She dwelt for a second on that tenuous optimism, saying she was shocked to even see the team go 12-0 last year, even though her husband has had undefeated seasons before.
"Who does that?" she said of the 17-0 record. "There's gotta be a stumble somewhere."
She was prescient. In the locker room moments later, the team learned one of its captains, senior free safety Christian Bryant, had broken his ankle in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Curtis Grant consoled Bryant before he was placed into an ambulance, telling him he loved him. Grant called it "emotional" and said the injury "ruined my night."
So it seemed for Meyer, who was unusually demonstrative as he made his opening statement to the press.
"We just got news we lost our captain," he told reporters. "Christian Bryant has a broken ankle. And it's just tough news. That's the hardest part of this whole job to see. I'm not sure everybody understands what goes into playing a football game."
He too said he loved Bryant, then asked those in the room to keep him in their prayers.
"And he's going to be even more valuable outside football," Meyer said. "I love that guy. Doggone it."
He raised his left palm and brought it straight down onto the podium, making a harsh sound that reverberated through the microphone and around the stunned room.
"Hard part of the game, boy," he said.
Meyer addressed the game almost as if it was an afterthought. At the end of the short press conference, reporters were informed there would be two more questions.
He only took one – about the key road game next weekend at unbeaten Northwestern.
"My leader, our leader is in an ambulance right now going to have surgery on his leg," Meyer said. "So that's the concerning part. He's our leader. There's no doubt. And he's just devastated. So that's concern number one. Concern probably one, two and three is who is going to fill his spot."
"Incredible young man. Incredible. His parents should be very, very proud of that guy. I love that guy."
Then Meyer looked down and walked out of the room.
The night began with an exhortation from a champion to seize the moment. It ended with a reminder that before you know it, the moment is gone.