Stafford steps up

Most know the story of Upper Arlington's Mike Stafford by now as he has gone from non-starter on his high school team to walk-on at OSU to starting guard and offensive captain for the Kent State game. Dave Biddle talked with him recently to find out more about his past and how he feels about everything.

Next time you're at a high school football game, take notice of one of the backup offensive linemen. No, not a freshman or sophomore, look at one of the seniors. Then try and picture that guy playing D-I college football someday. After that, picture him playing for Ohio State. If you aren't laughing hard enough by then, picture him as a starter (who's on 
scholarship).

Sounds far fetched, but as all Buckeye fans know by now, that is the story of senior left guard Mike Stafford.  Stafford started just two games in his high school career, a number he is about to match on Saturday against Kent State with his second start as a Buckeye.

So, the question had to be asked: Was Upper Arlington's line really that good in 1997, or did the coach underestimate the abilities of Stafford?  

"It was a little of both," Stafford said. "We had a good team. It was between me and a junior and I played behind him except for those two starts. And just like I have done here, I played every position on the line, tackle to tackle. I was everyone's backup."

Stafford said he was happy to get any playing time at all in high school. "I didn't make varsity as a sophomore and I hardly played as a junior. The biggest I was in high school was 6-2, 240 and that was as a senior."

So when did he decide that he was good enough to try and walk-on at Ohio State? Did he ever consider going the MAC route, or D-II/III? 

"I sort of thought about going to a small school. I definitely wanted to play football in college, but coming to Ohio State was always in the background. I didn't know if I'd be good enough to make it, but I was a stupid freshman and decided to come out."

That was in the fall of 1998. Needless to say, the Bucks had a little bit of talent on the roster. However, Stafford survived cut-down day and found out he made the team just before the opening win over West Virginia.

"It was a big thrill knowing I was a Buckeye," he said.

That's right, the same guy that couldn't crack the full-time starting lineup eight minutes down the road in high school, was about to wear the Scarlet and Gray.  For most people, the story could end there and it would be something special. But Stafford wasn't even close to done proving people wrong.

For the next three years (98-00), he was basically a punching bag for the first team defense. Wherever he was needed on the offensive line is where he lined up. He never made it off the scout team, but he was living his dream.

Unfortunately, sometimes that dream turned into a nightmare.

"It was incredibly tough at times. You wonder if it's worth it, but that feeling always passed quickly. I actually had a lot of fun with it the majority of the time. Most of the guys were really cool about it and I liked being one the guys who could play anywhere."

Stafford walked into the 2001 season thinking it would be just like the last three, just with new coaches. He went through fall camp and even as a fourth-year junior, all of his snaps were with the scout team. Then, just before the opener against Akron, Stafford was being shuttled in and out with the second-team. He was still not listed on the two-deep, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

Two days after the win over the Zips, Stafford got a tap on the back from Dr. Dick Tressel, the Buckeyes' associate director of football operations.

"Coach Tressel wants to see you in his office right now," he told Stafford.

The lineman wasn't sure what to think.

"I was thinking about all the different things I could have done wrong, but I couldn't think of anything. So, I walked in there not knowing exactly what was coming and then he let me know they were putting me on scholarship... I wasn't showing it so much in my face, but I was just beaming."

Stafford never got in a game last year, but had finally made it. He was on scholarship, his journey was over.

Well, maybe not.

This year, he made another improbable leap — to the first-team offense. And after his strong performance against Texas Tech (had pull blocks on both of Maurice Clarett's long runs), he was named the offensive captain for the Kent game.

So now another question begs to be asked: Of all of Stafford's accomplishments at OSU (making the team, being put on scholarship, starting, being named captain), what is he most proud of?

"I'd have to say either starting, or being picked as captain. But getting the scholarship is right up there. It's hard to say." 

The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Stafford (listed at 6-3, 285) is the fastest of the Buckeye offensive linemen. We had a hard time making him admit it, but he finally did.

"Sure, I guess I am. I run about in the 4.9 range (in the 40)."

This is where you would usually say the story ends. But with Mike Stafford, who knows if that's true. Maybe he has one more surprise up his sleeve.

"The only goals I have left are winning the Big Ten and getting to the Fiesta Bowl."

That would sure be a Hollywood ending. But with Mike Stafford, it might already be in the script.


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