For Ohio State and Big Ten fans, the name Leroy Hoard is one that immediately evokes a lot of memories.
Most of them are bad ones.
Hoard was a big, bruising back that ran mostly over Big Ten opponents, including Ohio State, from 1987-89, and was the Rose Bowl MVP after the 1988 season. He was the inside bruiser to counterpart Tony Bowles' outside speed, and he was a second round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns.
He spent a little over 6 years in Cleveland, working his way to becoming the team's feature back in 1994. That season he led the Browns in rushing, helped them win a playoff game, and made it to the Pro Bowl. He was traded to Carolina and then Minnesota in 1995, and finished his career with the Vikings after the 1999 season. He ended his career much the same way it began at Michigan – as a bruising fullback who got tough yards between the tackles, while a speedier counterpart (Ohio State grad Robert Smith) gashed defenses on the perimeter.
While in the NFL, Hoard had one of the greatest quotes of an NFL player in league history. When describing his style he famously said "if you need one (yard) I'll get you three. If you need five, I'll get you three."
Recently, Hoard was featured on ESPN's Outside the Lines to help bring attention to the health struggles of former NFL players. Hoard is suffering from the effects of multiple concussions and head injuries, and he's been to some dark places, both physically and mentally since his career ended. Physically, Hoard sometimes gets headaches so bad that he needs to retreat to the darkest and most quiet room in his house, the master bathroom. He shuts the door, turns off the light, and sits in total darkness.
Mentally, he thinks about the three former NFL players that have taken their own lives, after suffering from similar brain injuries to his own, Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and Andre Waters. Hoard is thankful that he too hasn't become a statistic. Hoard's also becoming forgetful, and has to write down daily tasks in a notebook to help him remember even basic day-to-day things. But before he starts writing his notes, he writes the names of those three players down to remind himself of how bad things could be.
To help him through his struggles, two former Ohio State backs, Robert Smith and Keith Byars, have offered Hoard their support. Smith and Hoard were teammates in Minnesota, and became close friends during that time. Smith has been a sounding board and has provided a lot of emotional support to Hoard, helping steer him towards a career in radio. Byars and Hoard go golfing as often as Hoard can get out and do it, and that helps him both body and mind.
The one thing I love about what's easily the greatest rivalry and all of sports is something like just this right here. There is nothing more satisfying than beating Michigan, but there's always been a lot of mutual respect between the schools and the individuals that comprise them. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry goes deep, but to see former adversaries on the field become close friends off the field, helping each other out in the times they need it most, impacts you at a fundamentally human level.
Leroy Hoard was a guy I feared when he was at Michigan, but he became one of my favorite Vikings players, and I think a lot of Ohio State fans who are also Browns fans probably feel the same way. I hope Hoard can find the help that he needs, and someday, I hope the NFL will start taking better care of guys like Hoard. It's guys like these that helped grow the game into what it is today.