You know him. You love him. He’s probably hanging in your basement. The image of Zach Boren standing over Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner has become the icon of the The Game— perfectly emulating the dominance Ohio State has had over TTUN ever since the photo was taken in 2012.
While the image clearly portrays his distaste for *ichigan, that wasn’t always the case. Not only were the three Boren brothers raised to hate Ohio State, Boren’s father, Mike, played for Bo Schembechler and is the sixth-leading tackler in TTUN history, and his mother, Hope, ran track at Michigan.
Thankfully for Buckeye Nation, Justin Boren—the oldest of the three brothers— transferred from Michigan to Ohio State in March 2008 after Rich Rodriguez was hired as the Wolverines’ head coach. Zach and his younger brother, Jacoby, followed suit.
I asked Zach about his family’s reaction to Justin’s decision, what it was like transitioning to the other side of the rivalry, how head coaches Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer differed in preparing their teams for The Game, what it’s like to sack a *ichigan quarterback, and more.
LGHL: I assume you grew up hating Ohio State?
Boren: I did. I grew up as anyone would in a rivalry when you’re on one side of it. I definitely bled maize and blue, you know, loving the university of Michigan. My parents constantly took us up there as little kids. So, yeah, it was one of those things that as a kid and growing up, you obviously despise the other team in the rivalry and that was Ohio State.
LGHL: So your older brother kind of paved the way for you and your younger brother by making that big decision to transfer from Michigan to Ohio State. How did your parents react to that?
Boren: They supported him. I think it came to a point in my brother’s career where his two years, he loved the university of Michigan and loved coach (Lloyd) Carr. But then when coach (Rich) Rodriguez came in, he got to a point where he was either going to give up the game of football or transfer to Ohio State and, you know, my parents wanted what was best for him and my parents have always wanted what’s best for us kids. So, they supported the decision, they helped him through it. And, uh, as soon as he came to the Buckeyes, we threw all of our Michigan stuff out and went on a shopping spree and got as much Ohio State stuff as possible.
(Hope and Mike Boren, you rock.)
LGHL: In your first year as a Buckeye, did you find it hard to turn to the other side?
A— Actually, no. Because it’s like a mindset thing, right? Anytime you’re in a rivalry and you’re kind of trained to do something, you just automatically turn. We grew up on the rivalry, so we knew how important it was, and so we knew once you’re on a certain side, you better flip that mindset to hate the other. So, actually that was a fun experience— being able to experience both sides, granted the Ohio State side is much better than the Michigan side. It was quick—we literally flipped the switch, transferred to Ohio State, and as a whole family we just started to hate the maize and blue.
Q— Do you have any soft spot or love for Michigan left in you?
Boren: I wouldn’t say love. I still have a lot of respect for Michigan, you know, I think that’s the biggest difference. I think for so many people in the rivalry, they hate the other teams so much, that they don’t even have respect for them. But, trust me, I hope every single year we beat them a hundred to nothing. It doesn’t matter if it’s basketball, gymnastics, football, baseball, whatever it may be. I hope we actually kill them. But, at the end of the day, I have a lot of respect for the University of Michigan. I have a lot of respect for the city of Ann Arbor, the tradition, because that’s what I grew up on.
Q— I’ve heard a lot people say they’re worried about Justin Fields and the freshmen, thinking they might not understand the rivalry or how important it is. What are your thoughts on that?
A— That is absolutely impossible. It doesn’t matter. You know, Ohio State has such a national recruiting approach that you have guys from Florida, Texas, California, hell you even got my man Cam Johnston from Australia. I mean, they know how important that game is from the moment they step on campus when they’re getting recruited— from winter workouts to spring ball to summer workouts to fall camp to the first game of the season— it doesn’t matter what time of year it is. They are always reminding you of That Team Up North. If you haven’t lived in it like some of us Ohio guys have, they definitely train your mind to respect the rivalry, and to know it’s different than any other game— there is a hatred toward that other team and you are judged based off of your wins and losses versus that team.
Q— What was the difference between how Urban Meyer prepared the team for The Game versus how Jim Tressel prepared you? Was one of them more intense?
Boren: Oh, for sure. Coach Tressel had a more educational approach. He taught us a lot about the rivalry, the history of it, what it meant for the state of Ohio. It was more of a “we respect the rivalry” type thing. Whereas Coach Meyer came in and it was guns blazing. It was not about the history. It was about that week and us absolutely controlling and dominating the game against our biggest rivals. So, it was completely two different approaches from opposite ends of the spectrum. But, in both ways, they had their way of getting the message across that this was the most important game of the year.
LGHL: So we’ll get to “The Picture” in a second, but other than that infamous sack, what are some memories that stand out either from that game or any other rivalry game that you played in?
Boren: So, it’s not so much the memory, but the feeling. Going into this game— and you can talk to any other player that’s played in this rivalry—the night before the game in the hotel is different. The wake up call and breakfast and walkthrough is different. The bus ride— if you’re playing up there— the bus ride from the hotel to the stadium is different. The warm ups, the jog back and forth, running out of tunnel—it’s different. The game is completely different. I mean, guys are running faster, hitting harder, the emotions in the game are so high. You will never ever experience emotions like that in any other game, you know?
Ohio state has played in national championships, played in the Rose Bowl, in the Sugar Bowl, and played some other massive games, but there’s nothing that compares to the Ohio State/ TTUN games. It’s one of those things where the hair on you just sticks up thinking about that bus ride, the pregame, and the game itself. That’s the best way to describe it—not so much a specific memory, but the feelings that you feel going into that game.
LGHL: What’s your favorite rivalry game overall?
Boren: My senior year— 2012— for sure. You know we were 11-0, knowing it was the last game of the season. You know, I talk about the emotions of the game, but that 2012 game was different than any other just because there were so many more emotions going into the game. Not only will we be ending that season in the ‘Shoe against our biggest rival, but it was to go 12-0, it was our last game of the season and we knew it. Our backs were up against the wall from 2011 when we lost to them for the first time in a very long time. You know, we had the first losing season in over a hundred years of Ohio State football history and there were a lot of the same guys who were on that team.
Being able to go out there and win on our home field and go 12-0 to cap off the perfect season, it was wild. I beat the TTUN two other times before that, and we’d automatically turn our minds to ‘okay, we won the Big Ten, now we’re going to the Rose Bowl, or we’re going to the sugar bowl, let’s get ready for bowl practice.’ But, this time guys were crying in the locker room because that was the last game they played, guys are crying tears of joy. All of those emotions from that game just made it the best.
LGHL: Speaking of that game, the image of you standing over Gardner, you don’t have to repeat them, but I assume there were words exchanged?
Boren: You know what, there was. As a lot of former players can tell you, especially in that game, there’s, uh, some chatter going back and forth between plays and during plays. It’s kind of what makes the rivalry, right? I just remember before that play there was kind of a scuffle and I jumped in there, obviously, and was having the back of some of my guys and (Gardner) jumped in too. So, the very next play is when that (sack) happened. So yeah, I had some words for him for jumping in, and kind of telling him, uh, where his place should be.
Boren telling Gardner “where his place should be”:
Never gets old.
LGHL: Can you explain to the best of your ability— for those of us who have never and will never experience it— what it’s like to sack a Michigan quarterback? What is going through your mind when you realize that you’ve got him?
Boren: Honestly, the only thing I can tell you is during the game, people ask what it’s like to play, you know, in the shoe or big time college football. But, it’s like you don’t even notice the crowd. You’re so focused. You’re so dialed in at that point. When I sacked Gardner, it was one of those things where I was just reacting. I put everything I had into him. And it was one of the only times in my career where I got done with the play, and everyone’s going crazy, we were coming off the field cause it was fourth down, and everything went silent. I just looked around and really took it in. Those five seconds will probably be the best five seconds of my life. I really can’t put into words what you feel in that moment.
LGHL: That kind of answers my next question— was that your favorite play you made as a player?
Boren: Oh yeah. And the reason why I say that is because at that point in the game, you don’t know. It’s still a close game. A play needed to be made. We knew as a defense we had to go out there and make a stop, kind of turn the tide. And I think that was just my favorite play, not just because of the picture, but it was because I felt like I was bringing value to the team at that point. Right. Like someone needed to step up and I felt honored stepping up and making that play, especially at that point in the game.
LGHL: When and where did you first see that picture?
Boren: So, after that game, you know, we’re in the locker room, celebrating and it took us a little while to leave the locker room because of media obligations and all that. But, I got out and went to my parents’ tailgate, and the very first thing someone says to me is ‘look at this picture.’ Like, it was probably two hours after the game finished the first time I saw it and it just started going crazy from there.
LGHL: Did you ever think it was going to become, like, the icon of the rivalry?
Boren: Honestly, I don’t think anything of it. I know some people may take that the wrong way, but it was just me making a play, doing my job. I always tell everyone— I think it’s one of those things that later in life when I get older, when I have kids and you know, my kids see the picture and ask about the picture, I think that’s when I’ll have a full grasp and gratitude towards that picture. Whereas right now I just see a picture of a play that happened— not that I’m not grateful for the picture or anything, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. Even, you know, seven years later.
LGHL: Have you ever gone to a bar or someone’s house and seen the picture hanging up?
Boren: *laughs* I have. It is a very popular picture.
LGHL: Please tell me you have it framed somewhere in your house.
Boren: So, I didn’t do it myself, but my mom— after we get done with college— my mom always keeps a whole bunch of articles written about us and she framed them and gives them to us to put up in our house. So, I do have a memorabilia section of my house. We have my helmets and jerseys, and I do have the picture framed up, but it’s from a Lantern article I think.
Q— Do you ever hear it from Michigan fans for betraying them?
Boren: Yeah, I do. I mean not so much here in Columbus, Ohio. But they’ll throw some jabs, even though they don’t really have any feet to stand on.
LGHL: Thoughts on Jim Harbaugh?
Boren: I definitely respect him as a coach. I think when he was hired, that was the best decision. You know, I had respect for Brady Hoke, but I just didn’t think he was the right man for the job. And with Jim Harbaugh coming in, I honestly thought he was the person that was gonna turn their program around. I think he’s taken them in the right direction, but, he still hasn’t been able to win a big time game. So, I don’t think he will have the respect from the national media or even the full respect of the fanbase up there because he got the job to beat Ohio State and it hasn’t happened.
LGHL: How many gold pants did you rack up and where do you keep them?
Boren: Three gold pants. My mom has them all. I was always under the impression that when you get gold pants, they always go to your mom. I know she had all my brothers as well and when they got married, the very first Christmas after the wedding, she gifted one of the pairs of the gold pants to their wives. So, I’m sure one day when I get married, a pair of gold pants will go to my wife.
LGHL: What is your number one piece of advice for the Ohio State seniors playing on Saturday?
Boren: Take advantage of every single second of that game— every play, every little detail. You never get this game back. I would do anything to go and suit up and play this game on Saturday. As seniors, you have to make the most of every opportunity to go out there and beat your biggest rival, win the biggest rivalry in all of sports, and add to your legacy. Stay grounded, stay focused and literally go out there and play your game.
LGHL: Last but not least, do you think this is going to be a close game and what is your score prediction?
Boren: I definitely think we are so much better than Michigan across the board on offense, defense, every single position. We outplay them, out athlete them. We are a so much better team. The one thing that I worry about is the possibility of precipitation, whether it be rain, snow, sleet, whatever it may be. Obviously that turns an open game with throwing or running into a one dimensional game. It quickens up the game when you’re running the football, the clock’s ticking. I think if this was on a neutral field, Ohio state would beat them by 35 points. But going into Saturday, I think it’s going to be an old fashion, smashmouth football. I still think Ohio State on the offense and defensive lines, and what J.K. Dobbins is able to do, is going to be so much better than whatever Michigan is going to give us. So, my score prediction— I’m going to go with 31-7 Ohio State.