Last summer came the news that former Ohio State hockey player R.J. Umberger would return to Columbus as part of a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers to play for the NHL's Blue Jackets. Around the same time, former OSU baseball hurler Scott Lewis made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians and eventually made the team's starting rotation out of spring training this year, though he's made just one start because of an injury.
A much less noticed transaction also crossed the wires this spring when OSU soccer alum Eric Brunner was traded to the Columbus Crew, the MLS squad located in the capital city.
Wednesday night, I was able to catch up with Brunner, an athlete I covered at Ohio State, after the annual Connor Senn Memorial Match at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. For those who don't know, the match between OSU and the Crew is held in honor of Senn, a freshman at Ohio State in 2001 when he collapsed on the field and later died of a congenital heart defect.
The game – as well as the accompanying silent auction – was created to help raise funds for a scholarship in Senn's name, a scholarship that now is fully endowed. The organizers hope to continue to fund medical research into heart conditions. For the record, the Crew won this year's event 3-1 with two goals in the final 30 minutes after putting what was essentially its usual MLS starting lineup, including Brunner, on the field.
Brunner played the final 45 minutes for the Black and Gold just a few years after suiting up for Ohio State in a number of the contests. Following the game, I took up a few minutes of his time with a short interview, after which I realized that I had done the same interview with Umberger a few months ago. A few weeks after my time with Umberger, I came to the conclusion that Lewis' story bore a striking resemblance to his, and Brunner's follows along the same path.
For Buckeye athletes, it seems that returning to Columbus – or Ohio – is a viable option during their professional careers. They can, in fact, go home again. Ohio ties in professional sports are strong, perhaps stronger than they are in sports when it comes to any other geographic area.
I came to that conclusion without doing much research, I will admit. Perhaps there are plenty of other professional athletes out there who are playing in the city or state in which they grew up or played collegiately. For example, I know off the top of my head that the Minnesota Twins feature one former Golden Gopher in Glen Perkins and another native of the state in catcher Joe Mauer.
But on the surface, it just doesn't seem like that common of a theme, although I will admit that the bonds might just seem stronger when it comes to OSU because of the dearth of non-football athletes who end up playing professionally.
Just five former Buckeyes suited up for more than one game in the NHL this past year, and the list of MLB Buckeyes is composed of just Lewis and Swisher. The only OSU alums in MLS other than Brunner are FC Dallas goalkeeper Ray Burse Jr. and Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza. To have three of those 10 playing in Ohio is statistically significant.
And in football and basketball, the links just simply aren't as deep, leading the Olympic sport ties to stand out. The only former Buckeye to be on either the Browns' or Bengals' roster this past season was Kirk Barton, who didn't play any games before being released and catching on with Detroit. Cleveland did just draft a Buckeye in Brian Robiskie, but Todd Boeckman's tryout in the Queen City ended fruitlessly.
Either way, for those who follow Ohio State sports, it is neat to see the local connections stay strong at some level of professional sports.
The following are some excerpts from my conversations with Umberger, which occurred in January as the Blue Jackets were in the midst of what would become a successful playoff chase, and Brunner.
Brunner Makes It Home
Brunner has always seemed to take the circuitous route to get where he's going.
Coming out of Dublin Scioto High School, Brunner opted to join the University of Maryland where as a freshman he saw time on a Terrapin team that reached the College Cup. But College Park proved not to be the right fit and the defender chose to transfer back to Ohio State, where he finished a decorated college career by earning first-team All-America status and leading the Buckeyes an NCAA runner-up finish.
Upon graduation, he was chosen by New York in the MLS draft, but the Red Bulls tried to drop him from senior to developmental status early in his first season. He opted to leave the team and join Miami of USL-1, the top pro league below the MLS.
Finally, in March, the Red Bulls traded his MLS rights to Columbus, the defending league champion.
"It's been a whirlwind, a dream come true in a sense," Brunner said. "It's been a long time trying to get it to work out. This offseason was long and stressful, and I didn't know where I was going to be. Once it was finally done – I knew the guys because I trained with them for a few years, but it's fun when you're playing with Chad Marshall and Danny O'Rourke and Frankie Hejduk."
Brunner wasn't sure how much playing time he'd see upon arrival thanks to those players, a decorated defensive group that includes a two-time World Cup veteran in Hejduk and the 2008 MLS Defender of the Year in Marshall.
But an injury to Marshall in the team's fourth game opened up the way for Brunner, a central defender, to take over and start the last three games.
"I think it's given me confidence," he said. "I had a long layoff from playing. I didn't go through preseason with the Crew like the rest of the guys did, but I think the first few games under my belt have helped my confidence and told me I can hold my own out there."
Playing with O'Rourke, a fellow central Ohio product, and the rest of the defending champions has been a positive experience for Brunner, even as the banged up Crew has limped to an 0-2-5 start.
"A lot of players are fortunate enough to play (at home) at the end of their careers, but for me to start my career off with the Columbus Crew, it's just awesome," he said. "My family can come to every game and all my friends can. I'm enjoying myself and having tons of fun. I wake up every day and I'm excited to go train because I'm familiar with the coaching staff and a lot of the guys. It's just a lot of fun."
Umberger Synonymous With Columbus
When it comes right down to it, it's hard to talk about the sport of hockey over the past 10 years in Columbus without mentioning Umberger's name.
Though he is a native of Pittsburgh, he's made a huge impact on the sport in Ohio's capital. He has been the most successful Buckeye of the John Markell era, earning All-America honors during his junior season at OSU and helping the Buckeyes begin a streak of NCAA tournament appearances.
And when it comes to professional hockey, Umberger has written his name in pen in the Blue Jackets annals. He helped push the team to its first-ever playoff appearance this spring by scoring 26 goals in the regular season, a career-high and the second-most on the team. Come playoff time, he led the team with three goals, including the first-ever franchise postseason tally and the initial CBJ playoff goal in Nationwide Arena.
"I think this team this year is exciting," Umberger said back in January. "It adds a lot to the city. We're getting a lot of fans again. I think the buzz around town is good. You want to be part of that first team that makes the playoffs. It would be something special.
"This city is getting there hockey-wise. It's always going to be Buckeye Nation, a football nation, but they're starting to get passionate about their hockey."
One got the sense at the time of our interview that Umberger was tired of talking about his return to the state capital, not a surprise since he'd done it numerous times with various media outlets. Still, he said he was pleased when he first found out he'd be returning when the Jackets made the draft day trade with the Flyers.
"With how familiar I am and my time here and the friends that I've had that are still here, old teammates, it would be fun to reconnect with everybody," he said about his thoughts when he heard the news. "I just thought it was a good fit … and it has (been). It's been good. Our team is playing well. It's been so far everything I expected."
He even took time out of his busy schedule during the year to reconnect with Ohio State. When the Buckeyes' 1998 Frozen Four team had a November reunion to be honored by the program, he was able to check in and hang out with the players who had returned. Later, in mid-January, he came back to speak to the team and brought the NHL Network with him in an effort to earn some exposure for the program.
"It was pretty cool," Umberger said. "It was a good chance to go back there and show some appreciation to them and tell them, ‘Good job.' It was fun.
"It's important to see the program doing well because it is a good program," he added. "I think they should be like that every year. I think they should be a top, powerhouse team every year. They shouldn't accept anything less."
The Buckeyes won 23 games in 2008-09 and reached the NCAA tournament after a three-year drought.