I mean, I knew he was a three-star recruit out of the state of Indiana when he arrived at OSU in the class of 2011, in which he enrolled early. I knew he was a starter on the defensive line by the time he had finished his junior season, and I knew he was a tough competitor.
But that was about it.
That all changed last summer. Working on a story about the leadership training the team had instituted under Tim Kight, I was given the chance to sit down and discuss the matter with Hale.
I still remember one answer he gave during that interview.
"I'm a huge jerk," he said when it comes to dealing with teammates who are falling short of the program's lofty standards in some regards. "My goal when I came to Ohio State wasn't to be a leader – because I am that. My goal is to help the team be the best. Sometimes you have to be a jerk to get the job done, to get people doing the right things."
"You can't have a gray area," Hale continued. "I've been through that talk with Coach Meyer 100 times. There's no gray area. It's either yes or no. There's no ‘Uhh, maybe.' No. It's not that. You're good enough or you're not good enough. You're doing your stuff right off the field, you're not doing your stuff right off the field.”
I left that conversation with a bit of a newfound respect for Hale. In any team’s leadership corps, I think you need to have good cops and bad cops, players who build through encouragement and players who build through accountability. Hale made it clear he is the latter, not afraid to get on his teammates but doing so with the belief that his messages have to be delivered for the squad to get better.
Then, I watched as Hale ended up having a bit of a lost 2014 season – at least on the field. He played sparingly and then not at all, taken down by an injury that cost him most of what was supposed to be his senior campaign.
Of course, the team went the opposite direction, coming together behind a cadre of youngsters and jelling into a national champion – something Hale was obviously excited to be a part of.
“What we’re doing now, this is going to go on before and after me,” he told me in Dallas before the national title game. “This is something huge at Ohio State. This is what the fans wait for, this is what I came here for. I’m sad it’s just now coming in my fourth year. We should be here every year.”
While Hale wasn’t a factor on the field at the end of the season, not playing in the team’s playoff run, he still had a key role behind the scenes. When the Buckeyes would gather in a team huddle on the field at the end of warmup drills before each postseason game, the team would form a circle around Hale, who delivered an inspirational message in his own unique way.
“I just felt I had to say something,” he said. “It was in my heart and I had to get it out. I’ve been on the big stage before and I’ve never done anything about it. Last year, I knew it was the time and the opportunity was there. The message was we were going to capitalize, and we did.”
For Hale, he was staring the end of his career in the eye at that moment, but he wasn’t done. He wanted a medical redshirt and, even with the Buckeyes bumping up against the NCAA’s scholarship limit, he got one.
He’s too important to the Ohio State program for the team to have decided otherwise, Urban Meyer said.
“He’s one of my favorite players,” the head coach said. “He's a guy that loves Ohio State. He's one of the toughest guys on the team. He's a guy that's an inspiration, pushes guys, grinds guys. In the offseason, he's one of Coach Mick's favorite guys.
“I believe he should coach some day. He knows how I feel about that. He certainly has a position here if he wants it, that's how strong everyone feels about him here.”
But this year is one more year on the field for Hale. He again hasn’t made much impact in the box scores – after a preseason calf injury limited him, Hale has four tackles in four games as a reserve defensive tackle – but again he is part of the heart and the soul of the Buckeyes.
When media day came around this year, I found my way to Hale’s table and had a simple question for him. Why are you here?
“Love of the game,” he said. “Love for this team. The love to just always improve myself. I thrive off of competition and improvement. I love this. I love it. That’s really all I can say about it. I love the grind. I love the camaraderie. I love these dudes on this team. It’s how I get through my day. Some people devote a lot of time to their – I love my family and I love my mom to death, but this is my family. That’s how I get through my days. I couldn’t lose that.”
Now, I know Joel Hale, and that’s exactly the answer I expected.