James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman have plenty in common. Both are senior linebackers who turned down millions of dollars in the NFL to return for their final seasons as Buckeyes. Both put together standout junior seasons and figure to feature heavily into the team's leadership situation this season.
And both have a love for professional wrestling. Of all the similarities between the two, the latter reason proved to be the stepping-off point that got the friendship between Laurinaitis and Freeman off to a glowing start.
"It's funny because when I first met James, it was all about meeting his dad," Freeman said. "I didn't care about James – I wanted to meet the Animal. I think our relationship has truly grown from acquaintances to teammates to truly best friends."
Laurinaitis arrived on campus for the 2005 season. Freeman, who played as a true freshman in 2004, found himself fighting the Minnesota native for the chance to serve as the primary backup to Bobby Carpenter. Freeman finished his season as the No. 2 strongside linebacker and looked to be a potential starter in 2005.
But after suffering a knee injury in the season opener and then undergoing an infection during the recovery, Freeman was forced to watch from the sidelines as the true freshman worked his way up the depth chart and eventually replaced Carpenter when he went down with an injury in the last game of the regular season.
Rather than resent the new face taking away his playing time, Freeman embraced him. Three years later, that fact is not lost on Laurinaitis.
"He hurt his knee and then instead of being the guy who was like, ‘Hey, that could be me in there,' he helped me out with everything," Laurinaitis said. "I'm forever grateful for that and we've built our relationship off of that."
No longer are the two competing with each other for playing time, however. Both have started each game in the last two seasons. Laurinaitis mans the middle linebacker spot, while Freeman lines up at weakside backer.
The duo finished one-two in tackles. Laurinaitis led the way with 121 total stops and was honored with the Butkus Award, while Freeman tallied 109 tackles while earning second-team all-Big Ten honors.
Together, they figure to give the Buckeyes one of the top linebacker tandems in the country. But in addition to their individual talents, Laurinaitis said the two feed off of each other while on the field.
"You know you have a lot of trust with each other," he said. "You know the other guy is going to be where he needs to be. I know if I'm going to be in a certain place and I don't make the play that Marcus is going to be there to make it. When you have trust like that amongst each other and camaraderie on your team it helps your team play better."
Both Laurinaitis and Freeman refer to each other as brothers. Like siblings, each has qualities he is more successful at than the other. Chief on that list is the ability to be a vocal leader.
Score one for Laurinaitis in that category.
"Not very often do you get a guy that's so talented on the football field and at the same time vocally can be a leader," Freeman said. "James is a guy that can do that. He's a guy that demands respect and he gets respect because of how he plays and what he says and how he backs up everything he says with what he does on the field."
However, Freeman has an extra year of collegiate experience under his belt. Score one for the fifth-year senior in that category.
"I think mentally I've been here so long that I know a lot," Freeman said. "I'm trying to understand the whole scheme of football – not just what the linebackers are doing, but what my safeties and the line are doing. I want to know what the offense is doing because that helps you become a better football player."
But it is not always just fun and games between the two. When it comes to any sort of competition, linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the two have no problems getting after each other.
The key, however, is to balance that competitive nature on the field with their friendship off the field. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, that is not a problem.
"It can be bad if you don't have the right people, and I think that that's the key," Fickell said. "I can remember back to my freshman year where if I had to roll with somebody it might make you mad, but when you've got good people and you're all in it for one thing – the good of the team – it doesn't bother you one bit."
Friends. Teammates. Competitors. Brothers. Whatever Freeman and Laurinaitis are to each other, they have one sport to thank.