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Column: Haskell Garrett’s performance against Nebraska is the feel good story we needed

The human spirit can be a remarkable thing, can’t it?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Oregon State at Ohio State Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

One down, ten to go. The No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes decimated the visiting Nebraska Cornhuskers on Saturday, 52-17, after looking awfully 2018-ish on defense throughout the first quarter and a half of the game. There is tons to talk about from the season opener, mostly good — and a little not so good — and we will certainly continue to do that over the next few days as the Buckeyes prepare to play the Penn State Nits in primetime on Halloween. But, right now, the only thing that I really want to talk about is Haskell Garrett.

We’ve been a bit bereft of feel good stories in 2020, but the senior defensive tackle’s performance on Saturday is something that should warm the hearts of football fans and agnostics alike. As I am sure you already know, on Aug. 30, Garrett was shot in the face while reportedly attempting to be a good samaritan on the south side of OSU’s off-campus area. Garrett was walking, and upon seeing a man “arguing and being aggressive” with a woman, the 6-foot-2, 299-pounder intervened. Then, the assailant fired at Garrett, tearing a whole through both of his cheeks.

Miraculously, not only did the Las Vegas native survive, but after a few days in the hospital, he rejoined his team, though could not fully participate. Nearly two months later, three days before the Nebraska game, OSU co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison confirmed that Garrett was preparing for the season, but had not yet been cleared to play.

Then two days later when the Buckeyes released their availability report, to the surprise of everyone, Garrett was not mentioned, indicating that he was eligible to play without restrictions. Though that seemed nearly impossible to fathom, it felt like a major boon for the defensive line, which — due to both injury and attrition — was considered the thinest position group for the Buckeyes coming into the season.

And while the Ohio State defense struggled in the early going of Saturday’s season opener, on second down in the final minutes of the first half, Garrett came up with what might be the most improbable sack in recent memory; not because it was the first of his career, or how it played out on the field, but for the remarkable journey that the young man was forced to take over the past two months to get there.

While the defense had been finding its legs for a few series, it felt like this moment, with all of the emotional weight that it carried, sparked something in the defense. On the next play, as I was still screaming about the sack, Josh Proctor stopped Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez for a loss of five, forcing a punt. The Buckeyes would go on to score again before the half, and they never looked back en route to a blowout, giving up only three points in the second half of the game.

What Garrett brings to the field as a veteran defensive tackle will obviously be important to the team as the season progresses, but to me just the fact that he is on the field at all is something worth celebrating. While little has been officially released about the injuries that he suffered during the off-campus altercation, it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that Garrett is lucky to be alive.

I honestly can’t even understand how a bullet can go clean through both cheeks without the victim suffering severe additional damage. Other than a few social media posts, Garrett hasn’t commented on the situation publicly, and I imagine that will be the case for the foreseeable future. But, his gratitude and joy to be back on the field with his teammates was palpable on Saturday, and when I wasn’t screaming at the immensity of his on-field accomplishment, I was crying at all that he certainly had to go through to get there.

In a sport that is designed for fans to focus on the flashy, skill-position stars, with the world both literally and figuratively on fire, it has become very easy to root for a senior defensive tackle who came into Saturday’s contest without a single sack in his career.

Will Garrett continue to be a game-changing force on the d-line for the Buckeyes’ this season? Will his presence and perseverance continue to be a motivating force for his teammates? Will his recovery and return be a catalyst to greater heights for this year’s Ohio State team?

While I certainly hope so, I don’t know. But, to be honest, in this moment, a day after witnessing one of the most remarkable OSU comeback stories I can remember, those things don’t really register all that highly with me. What my mind (and heart) keeps going back to is the emotional odyssey that Garrett has to have gone through since late August.

We’ve only heard about it through news reports and updates from coaches, but imagine where Garrett’s head must have been while lying in a hospital bed less than two months ago having just been shot in the face. No matter how tough he obviously is, despair has to have at least crept in, if not completely overwhelmed him, at some point.

The internal and emotional strength to not give in to the inevitable depression of knowing that what was supposed to be a good deed might have turned into a life-derailing moment is remarkable. However, even as an outsider, it is clear to me that very early on Garrett committed to recovering, both physically and emotionally.

While gunshots to the cheeks clearly don’t require the same physical recovery process that traditional football injuries do, imagine the pain that comes from having your face ripped apart. Do you feel it every time you smile? Does it hurt to take a bite? Does it ever not hurt?

And then, does that ever-present physical reminder bring back the overwhelming fear that you undoubtedly went through? How do you move on from something like that? Do you move on from something like that?

We often talk about things like character and resiliency when it comes to football players, and those are traits that the Ohio State program has prided itself on for years. But while those words carry certain meanings in our normal football conversations, they take on much more important and powerful connotations when you place them in the context of a young person responding to a life or death situation.

The character required to not succumb to fear and the resiliency required to fight to get back what was almost lost are inspiring; and — not to get too profound — in a year in which there have been far too many stories that could make us question if humanity is really all that it’s cracked up to be, Haskell Garrett’s example reminds us of just how much we are capable. And for that, Haskell, I thank you and I’m rooting for you.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!