Sometime it isn't the stars on the team that capture your imagination. Of all the heroes and greats of Buckeye lore, one forgotten backup QB will always stick around in my mind.
Granville, Ohio is a small village in Licking County, which I swear is a real place, about 30 miles east of Columbus. It's home to Denison University, about 3,000 people, a handful of churches, a very good public school system, and not much else. It is a little too far away from Columbus to be considered a suburb, and doesn't have enough interesting qualities to merit interest by itself. The only reason I'm aware it even exists is because I'm from there.
On paper, Granville appears to be an unlikely place to develop great athletes. Unlike the farming communities nearby, Granville is a village of professors and middle managers, where kids are unlikely to develop country strength. It's mostly affluent and safe, where a few frat bros peeing behind the local bar might constitute a crime wave. It's a village that is far more likely to produce excellent trombone players or English teachers than star quarterbacks.
But it did produce one: His name was Scott McMullen, and I'll be damned if I'm not the only Granvillian who wished his story ended differently than it ultimately did.
Scott, or "Scotty Mac" as he was sometimes known, etched himself into Granville folklore by leading the Granville High School Blue Aces to a perfect 10-0 record. Back in the late 90s, Ohio only took 4 playoff teams per region, and Granville's perfect record against the high school equivalent of the Sisters of the Poor didn't give them enough computer points to secure the school's first ever playoff bid. The ensuing outcry helped pave the way for the OSHAA to expand the postseason. Even though Granville has made the playoffs a few times since then, I still remember nearly everyone talking about McMullen's teams with an Uncle Rico sense of reverence. "Well you know, if Liberty Union had won 'nother game and we snuck in them playoffs, we woulda won state....No doubt 'bout it". Ohio's BCS-esque computer system refused to recognize Scotty's brilliance, but the boys in Columbus did not, and offered the 6'3" favorite son a scholarship.
Granville stood by patiently while Scotty toiled and waited in the shadows. This would have been an easier wait if McMullen was sitting behind Troy Smith or Braxton Miller, but the starting quarterback during those days was Steve Bellisari. If you're unacquainted, allow me to put it bluntly: Steve Bellisari totally sucked. Now you're up to speed. While fans all over Buckeye Nation fretted after every Bellisari arm punt and interception, folks in Granville were downright apocalyptic. But then, a miracle! In mid November of 2001, Bellisari was arrested for a DUI, and McMullen was going to start against Illinois. I remember clearly as my then computer lab teacher actually yelped for joy. Kids across the school took off entire classes just to talk about how Granville's own native son was going to throw for a gazillion yards, and Kurt Kittner was going to be exposed for the clownfraud that he was. Clearly.
If you're from some tiny, insignificant speck on the map, having a famous athlete is a big deal. A few famous people had gone to Denison, but they weren't really Granvillians. To the east was Newark, which even in the early 2000s gave off a kind of depressed post-industrial vibe, and to the west was Patalaska, which hadn't really been developed yet. With McMullen starting for the Buckeyes though, Granville was suddenly front page news. Columbus Dispatch sports columnist Bob Hunter would surely mention it in a column. Bret Musberger would have no choice but to say something like "the gunslinger from Granville" at least four times on the air. It doesn't get much better than that, right? All Granville needed was for him to do well.
Naturally, McMullen failed to live up to the occasion.
He started the game well and good enough, but finished a measly 3-14 passing for a paltry 48 yards. Craig Krenzel came in to relieve Scotty midway through the second quarter, and achieved slightly better results, even going as far as to nearly lead Ohio State to victory. The Buckeyes led 22-21 going into the 4th quarter, but Kittner's Illini pulled away. Illinois ultimately went to the Rose Bowl, Krenzel, having looked the more competent of the two, got the start the next week against Michigan, beat them despite not exactly overwhelming anyone, and never gave up the job again. The Pride of Granville lasted less than one half.
It isn't fair to say that McMullen's career at OSU was a failure. It wasn't. He did lead that impressive come from behind victory over Penn State in 2003 following a Krenzel concussion, and the Buckeyes did win the national title in 2002 with McMullen armed and ready should the situation dictate a second chance. Maybe it wasn't fair for Granville to have such unwieldy high expectations for the guy; he wasn't a consensus five star recruit or anything and even fewer foresaw him as the long term answer at quarterback for the Bucks. Nearly everybody I knew that followed Ohio State during that time felt like McMullen left a little on the table, though. Krenzel was notoriously smart and an effective game manager (which of course I mean as both a compliment and a pejorative), but he never really set the world on fire. McMullen was big and strong, and could make throws that Krenzel simply couldn't. But Krenzel was a winner though. The Pride of Utica, Michigan (Michigan!) carried the day. The Pride of Granville carried the clipboard.
McMullen had a shot for his second moment. He had a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles but didn't ultimately make their final 53 man roster. He played arena footall in Columbus for a while, then bounced around the Granville coaching ranks for a bit before fading away like so many former almost college stars do. There were always whispers back home that maybe he didn't want it bad enough. Maybe he wasn't disciplined enough. Maybe he was just unlucky. Maybe he just wasn't that good, and we shouldn't have expected anything more.
What I do know is that McMullen represented unfulfilled expectations to a high school Matt, and maybe even to me now. There are lots of other McMullen's playing college football now, including some on Ohio State. They dominated at the HS level, and their little towns, desperate for a hero, latch on hoping they can fulfill their local boy makes good stories. A few of them do, but so many fade back into anonymity, eventually just becoming another big guy with a story. A story about that one time, when they almost made it.