All-Time Greatest – No. 16: John Hicks

BuckeyeSports.com counts down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. The series continues today with No. 16: offensive lineman John Hicks.

Of all the tremendous offensive linemen who have passed through the tunnels of Ohio Stadium, only a handful have transcended past stardom to greatness. John Hicks is definitely one of that select few.

Born March 21, 1951, in Cleveland, Hicks was an All-Ohio guard and linebacker for John Hay High School. Initially torn between playing his college football for Michigan or Ohio State, Hicks took his official visit to the OSU campus on Nov. 23, 1968.

That just happened to be the day when the Buckeyes pummeled their archrivals 50-14 on the way to the 1968 national championship.

"Seeing the band, the crowd, the team in those scarlet and gray uniforms running onto the field – it was the greatest experience of my life," Hicks wrote in the book What It Means To Be A Buckeye. "Coach Hayes later met me and asked, ‘How would you like to be a Buckeye?' I thought I was living a dream."

Hicks was 6-3 and 258 pounds, but had the mobility of a much smaller player. He was a rare blend of size, strength, speed, attitude and coachability that comes along only once every so often. In fact, Hayes made a highlight reel of Hicks' blocking technique and used it as a teaching tool for the remainder of his coaching career.

After spending his first season on campus on the freshman squad, Hicks was quickly welcomed into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 1970. It was same year that the "Super Sophs" of the '68 national title team were seniors and the Buckeyes were loaded with talent at nearly every position.

For a sophomore to crack that starting lineup was an achievement in itself, but Hicks did much more than just start. He paved the way for John Brockington to set a new OSU single-season rushing record with 1,142 yards and the Buckeyes sailed through an undefeated regular season that included a 20-9 win over Michigan.

Unfortunately, the season ended with a 27-17 upset loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl, but the team still finished ranked No. 2 in the final United Press International poll and fifth in the Associated Press rankings.

After his sophomore season, Hicks was looking forward to anchoring the Buckeyes' line in 1971. But he hurt his knee during a summer practice session, an injury that required reconstructive surgery.

It cost him the entire '71 season and the team sorely missed him. OSU finished just 6-4 overall and dropped to third place in the Big Ten after three straight conference championships.

As things turned out, the injury could have been a blessing in disguise. It came during a transition season for the OSU program – the Super Sophs had graduated after the 1970 campaign and an influx of new talent was coming in 1972, just in time for new NCAA legislation allowing freshmen to play varsity sports. Hayes' recruiting class of '72 featured plenty of talent including Tim Fox, Brian Baschnagel, Cornelius Greene and Archie Griffin.

Hicks returned to his offensive tackle position in '72 as if nothing had happened. Instead of blocking for the powerful, straight-ahead Brockington, he got to blow open holes for the elusive Griffin, who set a single-game record for the Buckeyes that year with 239 yards in a 29-14 win over North Carolina. In addition, sophomore fullback Harold "Champ" Henson set a new OSU single-season scoring record with 20 touchdowns.

OSU rebounded from its 1971 doldrums to post a 9-1 regular-season record that included another win over Michigan and another trip to the Rose Bowl. But the Buckeyes again couldn't rise to the occasion in Pasadena, getting stung 42-17 by No. 1-ranked Southern Cal.

Nevertheless, Hicks earned All-Big Ten and All-American honor – not bad for a guy whose career was in doubt after missing an entire season with knee surgery.

In 1973, Griffin was joined in the OSU backfield by fullback Pete Johnson to form one of the most potent one-two punches in college football history. And both nearly always tried to find Hicks to run behind. As a result, the senior offensive tackle had one of the finest seasons a college lineman has ever had. In fact, the argument could be made that no offensive linemen on any level ever had a better season.

Griffin ran for a school-record 1,577 yards, the Buckeyes finished 10-0-1 and turned the tables on Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl, whipping the Trojans by a 42-21 score. Hicks led the way all season and again in the Rose Bowl as Ohio State rolled up 452 total yards on USC. Griffin and Johnson combined to rush for 243 yards and four touchdowns as the Buckeyes erased a 21-14 third-quarter deficit with 28 unanswered points.

In that game, Hicks became the first man ever to appear in the starting lineup of three Rose Bowls and later won his second all-conference and All-America honors.

As one of the main cogs in an offense that outscored its opponents 413-64 that season, Hicks won the Outland Award as the nation's best interior lineman and the Lombardi Award as the nation's top overall lineman.

Then he topped things off with a second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Penn State running back John Cappelletti. It was – and still is – the highest finish ever for a lineman in the Heisman voting, and Hicks led a powerful Ohio State contingent that year that might have split the vote and cost him the award. Griffin finished fifth that year and linebacker Randy Gradishar was sixth.

Following his OSU career, Hicks was one of three Buckeyes taken in the first round of the 1974 NFL draft. Gradishar and linebacker Rick Middleton were the others, going to Denver and New Orleans, respectively.

Hicks was selected with the third overall pick by the New York Giants and immediately made an impact, earning NFC offensive rookie of the year honors in '74.

He went on to start each of the first four seasons he was in the league. But he suffered another serious knee injury that robbed him of his mobility, and the Giants traded him to Pittsburgh in 1978. He tried to come back from the injury, but never played a game for the Steelers before officially retiring in 1979.

He returned to Columbus to enter private business and has become a regular fixture both at Ohio State home games and at various charity functions.

Yesterday: No. 17 A.J. Hawk

Tomorrow: No. 15


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