The Last Man Standing

He has been the face and the unquestioned leader of this season's team, and Saturday will be the last time fans can see Kirk Barton take the field in Ohio Stadium. Although the situation could have turned out better for his teammates, Barton has made the most of his chances during his time.

Somewhere, deep down within the innermost reaches of Kirk Barton's mind, he has to be wondering where all these impostors came from.

On Saturday, the senior team captain will likely be the last player to run across the field and be recognized for his contributions to the Ohio State program. Although he is just one of 15 seniors slated to be honored, he is arguably the one who most deserves to be there.

He has fought the good fight, he has finished the race, and he is the last man standing from a recruiting class that has little to show for a world's worth of promise.

Sure, there are the few members plying their wares in the NFL, but Barton is the lone member of the class of 2003 to sign his name on the dotted line and live up to his end of the deal: staying in Columbus for the entirety of his collegiate eligibility.

The exploits of the recruiting class that ceased to be have been well-documented. Some players, like Donte Whitner and Ashton Youboty, are playing football on Sundays. Others, like Ira Guilford, Louis Irizarry and Marcel Frost are playing in front of much smaller crowds on Saturdays. One player, quarterback Todd Boeckman, has one more year of eligibility after grayshirting for his first year of eligibility and then also taking a redshirt season.

Others, like Devin Jordan and Curt Lukens, can only look on after their own bodies have broken down on them, forcing them to the sidelines.

But Barton, a four-year starter, has stood tall. And he has done so on his own terms.

The all-Big Ten player from a season ago has drawn headlines both for his play on the field and comments away from it. Despite the negative publicity he has occasionally brought to the program, his selection as a team captain was a no-brainer.

"There's no clash (between us), but there's a lot of difference," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said of Barton. "The beauty of a team is that you have a million different personalities. If everyone was like me, we'd be in trouble. If everyone was like him, we'd be in trouble."

However, it could not have hurt had a few more members of the class of 2003 turned out to be like Barton. As bad as smoking a Cuban cigar following last season's victory against Michigan or telling reporters a young Troy Smith was looking good in practice might be, they pale in comparison to being arrested or kicked off the team for failing a drug test.

Wide receiver Devin Jordan, whose own career was derailed by injuries, said it would have been easy for any of the other players to fall into the same trap that caught Ira Guilford and Louis Irizarry, both of whom were dismissed from school after being charged with assaulting a fellow student.

"Louis Irizarry, that was like my best friend," Jordan said. "Ira Guilford, that was my roommate, so that situation really hurt me. It's kind of funny – I was actually home that weekend and I could've been right with those guys in that situation but thank God it didn't end up that way."

Where the class has lost members, though, it has picked up replacements along the way. Players such as Trever Robinson and Tyler Whaley have been converted from walk-on status to scholarship, and the team's lone senior on defense transferred in prior to last season in the form of Larry Grant.

Sitting at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center during the week leading up to the Illinois game, Barton gestured at the other seniors scattered throughout the interview space.

"We've had a lot of guys join us," he said. "I wouldn't trade Larry Grant for any of those guys. Some of the guys that walked on early and got scholarships like Trever Robinson and Tyler Whaley, I wouldn't trade those two because obviously they put in the time and did the work to be here.

"They're as much a part of that class as anyone. I wish they would've just offered those guys scholarships from the get-go because they really worked for it and they've been assets to the team."

But the heart and soul of this season's team has been Barton. If the offense struggles, he calls them out in post-game interviews. If a player on the team needs reigned in, Barton's the guy.

Barton has come a long way from the first time Jordan said he met him but in some ways remained the same.

"I was on a seventh-grade team at a little middle school in (Massillon) Perry and our coach says, ‘We have a new guy coming on to the team,' " Jordan said. "Here comes this big, uncoordinated guy who happens to be Kirk Barton. He's always been a goofy guy since the first day I met him in seventh grade."

According to Tressel, his work ethic has been second to none.

"He was in that weight room and training room and all that all summer long, double shifts," he said. "His practice habits have been fantastic. He hasn't been the kid of guy that, ‘Hey, I'm a fifth-year guy and I know more than the rest of you so listen to me.' "

Although he said his focus is simply on beating Illinois and moving one step toward avenging last season's loss in the national championship game, Saturday's game will mark the end of the Kirk Barton era in Ohio Stadium.

And though he's made it this far, it is clear his work is not done yet.

"I told the guys I'd rather have a national championship ring than a Big Ten championship ring," he said. "I don't want it anymore. I want the big one. That's all I care about, and I'll do whatever it takes to get to it."

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