Contrary to how it sometimes seems, not every difference-making football player at Ohio State will go on to have success in the NFL. In fact, it is a small group that even makes it onto a Week One roster.
However, just because a former player fades away from the spotlight, it does not mean that they deserve to be forgotten. Some of the most important moments and memories from the last 20 years can be attributed to the players whose careers ended with a bowl game.
This is a series acknowledging forgotten Buckeyes; an ode to the players without pictures and plaques hanging in The Horseshoe. These guys all played a pivotal role in historic Ohio State moments, and should be remembered for their special contributions to OSU football.
In recent years, Ohio State has built a reputation as “Position U” for defensive backs and defensive linemen. Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward, and Jeff Okudah continued the legacy of “DBU”, and since 2013, every starting cornerback at OSU has been drafted.
Buckeyes from the defensive line have been just as successful, even if they are not recognized as “DLU” unanimously. During Larry Johnson’s time in Columbus, he has helped develop 11 NFL draft picks at the position, highlighted by the Bosa Brothers and Chase Young.
With so much attention being paid to the front and back ends of the OSU defense, the linebackers roaming the middle of the field have been overlooked. However, four linebackers from the 2020 team have a chance to make NFL rosters as rookies, and it was not too long ago that Ohio State earned their first “Position U” moniker as “Linebacker U” – thanks to players like Matt Wilhelm, A.J. Hawk, and James Laurinaitis in the early 2000’s.
OSU has a long history of great linebackers, from Randy Gradishar and Tom Cousineau in the 1970s, to Ryan Shazier in the 2010s. Chris Spielman stood out in the 1980s and is arguably the most notable Buckeye linebacker of all-time.
Andy Katzenmoyer was the most dominant Buckeye on either side of the ball in the 1990s, and as previously mentioned, Laurinaitis and Hawk racked up individual accolades and trophies in the early 2000s. Gradishar, Cousineau, and Spielman are in the College Football Hall of Fame, and Laurinaitis is on the ballot for 2022.
So which one of these Buckeye legends is the all-time leader in tackles at Ohio State? The answer is: none of the above. The answer will undoubtedly be a surprise to many.
This tackling machine carried the linebacker torch between the Cousineau and Spielman eras, yet rarely gets mentioned in the same breath. He also wore the same jersey number as those two legends (36); a symbolic badge of honor passed from one dominant linebacker to another. His name is Marcus Marek.
Marcus Marek | LB (1979 – 1982)
Marek attended Brookfield High School, a small school in Northeast Ohio, and won a state football championship in 1978. He then chose to stay home and play for new Ohio State coach, Earle Bruce. Both Marek and Bruce were tasked with replacing a legend; filling voids left by the great “Cous” and Woody Hayes. While Bruce is still remembered as a beloved figure in Columbus, Marek is largely forgotten and his career oddly overshadowed.
He was a four-year starter at OSU, playing in all 48 games over that span. The Buckeyes won 38 of those 48 games, and grabbed at least a share of the Big Ten Championship in two of his four seasons. Perhaps most importantly, he holds a 3-1 record over TTUN.
In 1979, with Marek starting as a true freshman, Ohio State went 11-0 before losing by one to USC in the Rose Bowl. It was the closest OSU came to a title for at least 14 years (10-1-1 record in 1993). Still, the Buckeyes went 9-3 in each of the following three seasons, and won two bowl games. Despite the team’s relative success and his contributions to the defensive side of the ball, Marek’s name does not come up a whole lot all these years later. But about those contributions…
Marek finished his Ohio State career with an astounding 572 total tackles, besting Cousineau’s total by just three. He added 11 interceptions for good measure. In 1982, he set a career high with 171 stops. Somehow, that is good for only third best in OSU single-season history! Spielman and Cousineau had seasons of 201 and 244, respectively. There are linebackers being drafted into the NFL now with less than 200 tackles for their career, and Ohio State had guys doing it in just one season. Did I mention that some good ones have played in The Shoe?
Marek was a menace throughout the entirety of his Buckeye career, leading the team in tackles each season from 1980-1982. Although undersized, he always found his way to the ball. He also excelled in pass coverage, accounting for those 11 previously mentioned interceptions.
He was well-rounded and versatile, earning the respect of teammates and Big Ten coaches. He earned All-Big Ten honors in each of his last three seasons, but was only recognized nationally in 1982. Marek was named a consensus All-American that year. It is the only national playing award he ever received, despite racking up nearly 600 career tackles. His OSU career ended with a Holiday Bowl victory over BYU, before ultimately making his way to the pros.
If you were thinking NFL, you would be mistaken. At the time, the USFL was competing with the NFL, and their Boston Breakers offered Marek a contract before the NFL held its draft. He accepted, and spent the next three seasons playing all over the country. After Marek played well in 1983, earning All-USFL honors, the team moved to New Orleans in ‘84. The following year, they were on the move again — this time to Portland, Ore. Due to the start-up nature of the league, it was common for teams to move for financial reasons.
By the end of 1985, Marek had grown sick of the transient football lifestyle, and the USFL folded. Years later, he was named one of the top 25 players in their brief history. Unfortunately, his reputation in the failed league did little to help his chances elsewhere. He had already become an afterthought to most of the NFL.
Marek received a few training camp invites from NFL teams, but never played a down in the league. It is hard to say whether the game had passed him by, or if his size was too much of an issue for NFL teams. I tend to believe that he had plenty of football left in him after the USFL, but there was not a big market for 6-foot-2, 220-pound linebackers. Regardless of why it didn’t happen for him, 1985 in Portland was the end of Marek’s professional football career.
Marcus Marek has disappeared from the limelight, and as far as I can tell, is now tackling the lobster distribution game in New Hampshire. He has occasionally popped up at Ohio State games, and given a few interviews over the years. While his name does not come up often in a discussion about Buckeye greats, maybe it should.
Marek’s tackle record has stood for nearly 40 years, and may continue to do so for many more. Like the player himself, Marek’s legacy is undersized and undervalued. We should all remember his name among the great tackling machines in OSU history.