The first photo of Mike Vrabel to appear in Buckeye Sports Bulletin features the high schooler, donning an open-collared dress shirt, with noticeable braces showing as the Stow Walsh Jesuit senior flashes a somewhat goofy but genuine smile.
My, how things can change.
Of course, not many people past the age of 25 can look at their high school photos without a bit of a laugh, but Vrabel's photo, snapped 19 years ago, is a timewarp back to the day he was one of the top football prospects in the state of Ohio.
That ranking turned out to be right on the money. Vrabel went on to a standout career at Ohio State in which he set school records for sacks and tackles for loss and won a pair of Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year awards, then became a standout during a 14-year NFL career that includes three Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots.
Now, Vrabel has decided to hang them up and return to Ohio State as the team's new linebackers coach under former teammate Luke Fickell. While the Vrabel is known as an intense competitor and driven leader, his accomplishments at OSU have in many ways been forgotten, as memories have faded of the exploits the man wearing No. 94 put together in Ohio Stadium from 1993-96.
Take a moment, then, to look back at Vrabel's career – from the pages of Buckeye Sports Bulletin.
Sept. 5, 1992 – Vrabel is listed as one of the top prospects in the state of Ohio in the class of 1993 as BSB took a look at which players new OSU recruiting coordinator J.D. Graham might set his sights on as he tries to put together that class.
(As an aside, it's interesting to note that the beginning of September is considered to be near the start of the recruiting season in 1992. Nineteen years later, Ohio State has 11 commits in the middle of July, while Michigan has 19. Things have changed, indeed.)
Also listed are such names as quarterback Scott Loeffler of Barberton, running back Marc Edwards of Norwood, wideout Joe Jurevicius of Mentor Lake Catholic, linebacker Bob Houser of Westlake and defensive back Dan Hackenbracht of Massillon Washington.
None would go on to quite have the career of Vrabel, who is listed at the time at 6-5, 240 pounds, with a 4.75 40-yard dash. BSB notes that despite dealing with a stress fracture in his back during his junior season, Vrabel was coming off a campaign in which he made 70 tackles and four sacks. Also a member of the basketball and track teams, Vrabel had narrowed his choices to Ohio State, UCLA and Michigan.
In another interesting note, BSB considers his high school, Walsh Jesuit, to be located in Stow, Ohio. By the time Vrabel's prep career concludes, BSB would follow the OHSAA's lead and list the Summit County school in Cuyahoga Falls, a policy that continues to this day.
Oct. 10, 1992 – BSB's 300th issue includes a one-page feature story on Vrabel not allowing his back problems to keep him from making an impact for Walsh Jesuit.
Vrabel's back problems first occurred in the summer of 1991, costing him the first three games of that campaign and putting his football career in doubt. He even was fitted for a back brace at the Cleveland Clinic but wore it only in practice, and he returned to the field after being assured he could do no further damage.
"Once I got the OK from doctors that I couldn't hurt it any more, I didn't worry about it," he said.
Vrabel's future position also is up in the air as he's being recruited. A two-way prep player when healthy at linebacker and tight end at Walsh Jesuit, Vrabel is considered a prospect at defensive tackle, defensive end and linebacker by college recruiters.
A preseason All-American in numerous recruiting publications, he is also considered a team leader by prep head coach Gerry Rardin.
"Mike is a team captain and is an excellent leader," Rardin said. "We've had kids that are great leaders because of their athletic ability, but Mike would still be a leader if he had half of his athletic ability. He's earned the respect of all the kids on the team and in school."
Vrabel also tells BSB that he wants to work in sports medicine upon receiving his degree.
Jan. 16, 1993 – Recruiting finally kicks into full gear as Ohio State reaches 11 members in its class, including Vrabel, who gave his pledge after a mid-December visit to Ohio State. BSB's Mark Rea calls it "perhaps the biggest in-state commitment so far" in the class.
"It really came down to a decision between Ohio State and Michigan, and I just felt more comfortable at Ohio State," Vrabel told BSB. "It was a decision that I wanted to make early so that I could concentrate on the rest of my senior year.
"But I think Ohio State is an up-and-coming team. They've been improving a little bit each year, and hopefully I can go there, contribute a little bit and help them get back to the top of the Big Ten again."
Also joining OSU's class in December are Ohio prospects Houser, defensive lineman Timiko Payton of Alliance and offensive lineman Raymond Harris of Massillon Perry, while Detroit MacKenzie linebacker James Ross pledges.
Jan. 23, 1993 – A feature story on Vrabel notes the first-team All-Ohio pick in Division I was also considered the top prospect in the state by both Ohio Football Recruiting News and Prep Football Prospects of Ohio. He is named the Columbus Touchdown Club's player of the year and a second-team All-American in USA Today.
"Personal goals never came into play that much for me," he said. "This is a sport in which team goals achieve better results than individual ones do."
Both Rardin and Vrabel note that they see no reason why the prospect cannot see the field in his first season as an Ohio State defensive end in 1993. In fact, he does end up contributing, making two sacks in his freshman campaign.
Aug. 1, 1995 – Vrabel and fellow defensive end Matt Finkes earned a headlining role in the football preview issue of BSB going into their junior years, and it's a result of their making headlines on the field the year before.
BSB proclaims "Finkes, Vrabel Ready To Rattle Opposing QBs" after Vrabel set a school record in 1994 with 12 sacks, the final two in the Citrus Bowl against Alabama. Vrabel added 68 tackles, 20 for loss, while Finkes had 11 sacks and was actually the first to break Jason Simmons' school record, doing so against Michigan.
Praise for the pairing known as M-Squared, the Buckeye Bookends and the Dynamic Duo wasn't hard to find.
"Are they as good as any pair in the country?" ends coach Bill Conley asked. "I don't think there's any question. No doubt about it.
"Obviously, we've had great defensive ends and great outside ‘backers in the history of Ohio State, but I don't know if we've ever had two at the same time. It's kind of like having two Archie Griffins carrying the football."
For his part, Vrabel – like Finkes a first-team All-Big Ten choice in 1994 – already has his share of coach-speak down.
"We just try to get better every day," said Vrabel, who had gotten up to 255 pounds.
Nov. 18, 1995 – While Eddie George graces the cover of BSB – that'll happen when you pile up a school-record 314 rushing yards in a blowout win – the inside features a two-page feature story on Vrabel's assault on the school record books.
At the time, his 22 sacks – including eight in 1995 – placed him third in the OSU annals behind Simmons (27½, 1990-93) and Eric Kumerow (23, 1984-87). Meanwhile, with 39 TFL, Vrabel was tied for third with Kumerow behind Simmons (56½) and Jerome Foster (43, 1979-82).
"I'm not really keyed in on the record," he said. "I just try to go out and do my job. If that comes, that's great. I know I'm up there with an elite group that set the standard long before I was here. I'm just trying to uphold the tradition and legacy those guys set."
However, the defensive end does admit some frustration with rampant holding penalties not being called on offensive linemen trying to slow him down.
"People are going to hold," he said. "That's just the nature of the Big Ten. Whether or not they call it, you can't complain or cry."
Head coach John Cooper compares Vrabel at the time to the standout Illinois duo of Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy, while Vrabel also tells BSB he doesn't plan to skip his senior season of football.
"When I came here, I came here to get a degree and play football for Ohio State for four years," he said. "If everything works out down the road, I'd love to play (professionally)."
At the conclusion of the year, Vrabel is named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after finishing with 13 sacks to go with 63 tackles, and his 26 TFL remain a school record.
Dec. 1, 1996 – Vrabel's senior season ends with a Rose Bowl appearance, Ohio State's first in 12 years, and Vrabel again repeats as the league's Defensive Lineman of the Year after making 48 tackles in the regular season with 16 TFL and nine sacks. He finishes the slate with 64 career TFL (he'd add two more in the bowl game to reach 66) and 36 sacks, both school records.
"There's been a lot of great players who have come through and set a tradition," he said. "Just to be able to be mentioned with some of those guys who played here and just see your name in there once or twice will be a good feeling later on down the road."
Conley was full of praise as well even though Vrabel's numbers had dipped a bit from previous campaigns.
"I think he had his best year," Conley said. "If you look at every game film and watch what he did, he was dominant at his position. There can be no more dominant defensive end in the country than Mike Vrabel.
"He completely dominated the tight ends that we played. A lot of teams tried to double on him and that freed somebody else up. He just did a tremendous job."
Conley also notes that Vrabel was moved inside from his previous spot of lining up outside the tight end, which was perhaps one reason why his numbers fell a bit.
The move was designed to help OSU shut down opposing running games and offenses as a whole, and it worked – the Buckeyes allowed only 10.4 points and 243.3 yards per game.
When asked about what he would take with him from Ohio State, Vrabel had an answer seemingly planned out.
"The idea of being able to play here with a lot of great people, being able to make a lot of great friends and be coached by some of the best coaches in the country," he replied. "Every day, after you go to class, you come over here and work to get better.
"These are the people that you've been family with for four years. There are some special memories. When you come to a school like Ohio State, you play in a lot of big games.
"If anything else, you can still you say you were an Ohio State football player. Bottom line, that carries a lot of weight. Old guys still talk about that now – remember when we played at Ohio State.
"When we're old and gray, we can sit back and have a beer and people will talk about being an Ohio State Buckeye."