T.J. Downing lettered three years for The Ohio State Buckeyes football team from 2004 through the 2006 season that ended with a loss to Florida in the National Championship Game. The 6'5", 305-pound OL from GlenOak HS (Canton) shared the Jim Parker Offensive Lineman Award at Ohio State with running-mate Doug Datish in 2006 while being named a first-team All Big-10 and second team All-America by the Associated press. He also spent 2006 protecting Troy Smith, later to be named the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner, as well as opening holes for 1,200-yard rusher Antonio Pittman. Downing helped to anchor one of the better offensive lines in recent Ohio State memory alongside names like Kirk Barton, Alex Boone and Steve Rehring.
Oh, and he beat Michigan three years in a row.
In late 2008 Downing ran into some issues off the gridiron and, just as he did in dealing with the ups and downs of college football, he leaned on the words of one man in particular to fight his way through it and come out a better person on the other end. As was with many Buckeyes over the last decade, that voice was the one of former head coach Jim Tressel.
We talk haircuts, memories, Michigan and Tress with former Ohio State offensive lineman T.J. Downing...
BHC: So your father Walt was a Michigan Wolverine in the 70's. How in the world did you become a Buckeye, and how did you get away with that!?
T.J.: My father left the decision totally up to me. His father gave him the same freedom on his college choice. I was always very independent so I think he knew he would just be giving me input and not telling me where I was going to go. My father was actually very impressed with Coach Tressel and by the end of the summer leading into my senior year in High School he was actually pushing me towards Ohio State. Michigan sort of assumed I would go there just because of my father but when coach Tressel started pushing real hard to get me to come it kind of sealed the deal.
BHC: You were about as intense as they come and the mohawk fit right in with that. What did your teammates and coaches think of that intensity and haircut, or did they just roll with it?
T.J.: It was actually a training camp haircut gone wrong. Kirk Barton was supposed to shave my entire head and he put the Mohawk on there to start and then Alex Boone came in and saw it and he said you gotta leave it that’s the greatest thing ever. When I showed up to the next morning meeting coach Tressel had a look on his face like he knew something like this would be coming from me just not in the form of a Mohawk. I think he was puzzled by it. I always wanted to be a leader and set my example by physical relentless play that encompassed mental warfare as well. You can ask the Troy Smiths and Kirk Bartons and they will all tell you I was the most talkative person on the field always trying to get in someone’s head and take their focus away from what was important. I think I was able to evolve in all aspects of my game because of the discipline and focus that coach Tressel and coach Bollman instilled in us.
BHC: As you look back, what's your proudest moment as a Buckeye?
T.J.: My proudest moment, which sounds cliché but I’m sure coach Tressel would enjoy this response - was graduating. Balancing football and classwork was always a struggle for me but when I got that degree it made the struggle worth it. I also know how much pride he took in his guys graduating so I’m sure of all the things I did he probably enjoyed that the most. But on the field without a doubt was going 3-0 as a starter against Michigan. We faced some very tough defenses from Michigan and were able to do a lot of things against them that no one else in the country could do. In 2004 we had scoring drives of 97 and 99 yards in consecutive series which had never been done before in the history of that rivalry and I don’t think will ever be matched. In 2005 beating them in the big house was probably my greatest game played as a buckeye as I received offensive lineman of the game and of course the 88 yard drive with less than 2 minutes to go to win the game in classic Troy Smith fashion topped it off. But to win the game of the century in 2006 really was the icing on the cake. Michigan had the #1 defense in the country and no one had rushed for more than 100 yards all year on them, we were able to carve them for 225+. I have never seen an atmosphere then what we all walked through to the skull session. It seemed like there was 10 million people there.
BHC: Do you have a favorite game you played for the Buckeyes, or a specific experience in Scarlet and Gray that sticks out as a great memory?
T.J.: Those were probably my most favorite games but you can also add in the games against Texas. I was never as sick to my stomach as I was waking up the morning after losing to Texas in 2005. We had the game in the bag and we let it slip away and that hurt. We all felt the winner of that game would go on to the National Championship and sure enough they did and not us. Revenge was very sweet beating them in Austin the following year facing off in week 2 as the #1 and #2 teams in the country. They had some studs on their defensive fronts ( Rodrique Wright, Frank Okam, Tim Crowder, Brian Robison, Brain Orakpo and not to mention some great linebackers) all of those guys played in the NFL. We all knew that if we could compete with them we could compete with anybody in the nation.
BHC: Have you been able to keep in contact with Coach Tressel since finishing up your Ohio State career?
T.J.: I try as much as I can to stay in contact but we all get so busy and have so much going on that it gets difficult at times. Now that he’s at Akron maybe I will see him more.
BHC: Through everything you went through in late 2008, were you able to lean on Coach Tressel or anything that he had instilled in you during your time at Ohio State?
T.J.: I never spoke to coach Tressel in 2008. I was dealing with some personal issues that unfortunately were brought out in public. I used a lot of things to carry me through that I learned at Ohio State. Most important was faith. Coach Tressel always talked to us about faith and belief and being spiritual. None of us are perfect and none of us ever will be. We all make mistakes in the journey through life but it’s what you learn from those mistakes that helps mold and shape your character for future choices.
BHC: What is your fondest memory of JT the man, not the coach?
T.J.: My fondest memory of coach Tressel was seeing him with the corn rows in his hair after we won the National Championship in 02. It was a bet with the seniors that he had to pay up on. I guess as bad as my Mohawk looked he looked even worse with corn rows. I didn’t even know he had that much hair to pull it off!
BHC: What was the most important thing coach Tressel taught you in your years at Ohio State?
T.J: I mostly learned how to be a man. I showed up on campus in 2002 thinking I was the man and I wasn’t. He was there to pick up the pieces and shape me into a guy that was able to contribute to the success of the program. Physically he always challenged me to be a better athlete from stretching and jump roping to always getting on my case about playing lower and bending at the hips. Mentally he expected 100% focus at all times. From knowing your assignment to snap counts and not committing stupid errors that would hurt the unit as a whole. I always felt very military like with the discipline we were expected to have. Those things stick with you for life.
BHC: What do you miss most about tOSU Football?
T.J.: Game days without a doubt. Walking into the horseshoe in front of 100,000 people. Hearing Hells Bells come on over the loudspeakers. College Gameday and prime time TV in front of millions at home. It makes you bring out the absolute best in yourself. You feel like a gladiator out there trying to impose your will upon another man and as Russ Grimm said it best - “There’s no better feeling then taking a guy from point A to point B against his will”. Playing for the Buckeyes and being able to play in that stadium is the ultimate privilege and coach Bollman reminded us of that before we took the field every time. It’s the ultimate honor to wear the scarlet and gray.
BHC: After all that has gone on in the last 17 months around OSU football, as a Buckeye vet, what would you have to say to Buckeye Nation?
T.J.: I would say to everyone that one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch and that there is a lot to be proud of in Columbus. Things happen that are out of our control and you have to pick up the pieces and move on. We will weather this storm and come back stronger than ever.
BHC: Given just one word to describe Jim Tressel, which would you chose?
*Editor's Note: BHC would like to give a special Thank You to T.J. Downing for taking time to inject his thoughts into a wide range of topics. We had as much fun working our way through his answers as I'm sure you did. That trip down memory lane, especially with regards to some of T.J.'s teams and coach Jim Tressel, is always a welcome journey.
- Jim Tressel - A Decade of Greatness in Pictures
- Honoring Jim Tressel - BHC Q&A with Brian Rolle
- Honoring Jim Tressel - BHC Q&A with Devin Barclay