One of the more interesting revelations in the recent ESPN the Magazine story about Chris Borland—the former Wisconsin and San Francisco 49ers linebacker who retired after just one season in the NFL due to health concerns—was his admission that, while he loved the adrenaline rush that came along with football, he could not actually say that enjoyed football.
Because football, he said, simply is not fun.
“It’s intoxicating,” Borland says in the story. “But fun is the wrong word for it. I don’t consider football fun. It’s not like a water park, or a baseball game.”
It’s a quote that came to mind as I watched a recent episode of “Scarlet and Gray Days,” the mini-documentary series, currently being aired by the Big Ten Network, that follows the Ohio State Buckeyes as they prepare to defend their national championship.
The BTN camera crews were given, it seems, almost unfettered access to Buckeye camp, so viewers get a very real sense not just of the amazing athleticism of this team, or of the cunning, almost cutthroat vision of coach Urban Meyer (he’s rather blunt in telling players that if they don’t pull their weight, they won’t be long for the team), but also a harsh reminder of just how not fun football can be—especially during training camp.
As the show progresses, we see the Buckeyes systematically beaten down—physically, mentally—by Meyer and the coaching staff. We see players so exhausted after a day’s worth of practice that they can’t manage to stay awake even for the 10-minute bus ride back to the team hotel. We see players vomiting. We see players struggling just to walk—and that’s after just a couple days of camp.
Training camp, we learn, is just one long, arduous, miserable grind. The players may put a brave face on it—Team camaraderie! Togetherness! Toughness!—but in their unguarded moments, you can tell: they hate almost every minute of it.
But that’s the way it has to be in Columbus these days; after all, the Ohio State Buckeyes last season reached the absolute pinnacle. They set a standard. And now they face the daunting task of playing at that same high standard for another entire season—and bringing home another national crown. The only path forward, then, is hard work—almost impossibly hard work, actually.
Make no mistake: These Buckeyes may be a confident bunch, and they have every right to be, but they are facing real and serious pressure this season—and their success or failure will rest almost entirely on their ability to deal with that pressure.
Ohio State fans are some of the most demanding in the nation, and Columbus is a true pressure cooker; it’s a big-league town that just so happens to focus almost all of its energy on the local college team. And when things are going well? Well, the attention only ramps up further.
This Buckeye team will enter the 2015 season as the first-ever unanimous Associated Press preseason No. 1. Yes, the first one ever. I mean, think about that: every single voter in that poll—from every corner of this college football nation—thinks the Buckeyes are the best team in the nation. Now they have to go out there and prove them right—not just by winning, mind you, but winning impressively.
Every close win will be scrutinized. Every perceived flaw will be blown out of proportion. Every mistake by whoever wins the starting quarterback job will used as fodder for a quarterback debate that probably will continue the entire season.
Ezekiel Elliot will be fully expected to be the best tailback in the nation and earn an invite to New York in December.
Joey Bosa will be fully expected to play like the future No. 1 NFL draft pick that so many expect him to be.
Even though they’ll missing four key contributors, including Bosa, for their season-opening trip to Blacksburg, the Buckeyes will be fully expected to beat Tech—and beat them good.
They’ll be fully expected to beat everyone, for that matter.
And the moment they fail to do so? The day they get tripped up? Well, the season will be classified by some, at least, as a failure.
Urban Meyer was hired by Ohio State to bring the national title back to Columbus. He’s done that.
But in some ways, last year’s success has only made his job—and the job of his players—even more challenging than it was before. The Buckeyes will be playing this season under a microscope, with legions of Buckeye fans expecting perfection and legions of Buckeye haters celebrating their every slip-up. There will be no escaping the spotlight. The cameras that have followed them from the first minutes of camp will be there every step along the way—for the good, the bad and the ugly.
For the 2015 Buckeyes, then, the “fun”—if you want to call it that—has only just begun.