"When things got tough, I was thinking about the stuff we went through," Johnson said. "I was trying to make sure that through all that pain and struggling we went through we actually got something for it."
Making the most of a difficult situation this year was a common theme among Ohio State's departing seniors. Entering their final collegiate seasons, they faced a new coaching staff – their third in as many years – and a postseason ban that would prevent them from not only competing in the BCS National Championship Game but for the Big Ten crown as well. Despite all that, those 21 Buckeyes led the team throughout the season and played an integral role as Ohio State completed a 12-0 campaign Saturday afternoon with a 26-21 victory against archrival Michigan at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes still have a chance to be named national champs through the Associated Press poll but will need help. But even if that does not come to pass, OSU head coach Urban Meyer wants to make sure those who led the 2012 Buckeyes are not forgotten.
He called his 21 seniors the "most selfless group I've ever been around." Preparations for the 2013 season will begin soon enough, but the seniors' efforts will still linger.
"The foundation's really, really strong," Meyer said. "It couldn't be stronger because of our senior class. That's all I can think about.
"I want to make sure they're properly recognized as one of the great groups of seniors in the history of this program. Maybe we'll get … bronze statues somewhere, raise some money."
Meyer was not the only one to recognize the team's elder statesment. Younger players made sure to sign the seniors' praises following the U-M game.
"Those guys have been through a lot with last year and everything that happened," junior safety C.J. Barnett said., "hey showed us the way. They kept us on our toes."
The seniors did not seem too worried about their legacy – or statues – after beating Michigan. They just hoped the younger members of the team would continue the momentum gained this season.
"This senior class, the way we went out and the way we came together and had a refuse-to-lose mentality… is something special," special teams mainstay Zach Domicone said. "Just for the young guys to be a part of that and just see how we came together as a team and how much team means, I think that was unbelievable for them to see."
If the 2011 season, one in which the Buckeyes finished 6-7 and had their seven-game winning streak against the Wolverines snapped, was a nightmare. The following season was a dream, especially for the seniors.
The seniors end their careers with multiple Big Ten titles and BCS bowl appearances (though both the 2010 league crown and Sugar Bowl appearance were vacated). They also steadied the ship after a difficult season last year.
Their journeys at Ohio State were unlike any other in program history, not that they're complaining.
"It's just unbelievable all the ups and downs we've been through, especially the guys that have been here for five years," Domicone said. "It's been an unbelievable journey, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
Now they leave college football. Some will move on to professional football careers. Others will not and enter the so-called real world. But they'll all remember their final year as Buckeyes and the bonds they made with their team.
"We went through everything together. They're like my brothers for real," Johnson said. "Any time they need me, they can call me for anything. I love them, the coaching staff as well and the managers and everyone. We've been through a lot and it's really paid off."