Shortly after I began contributing to Land Grant Holy Land, I realized that I was already struggling to come up with good content for the offseason/summer months. Hell of a start, right? But unfortunately, once the NFL Draft takes place, the content well tends to dry up unless you’ve already dialed in on one of the spring sports or the NBA Draft (but as Buckeye hoops fans... you get it). Ohio State football and basketball – our most popular topics – are still part of the news cycle, but they have taken a back seat. And recruiting... well, there are people at LGHL who do a hell of a job covering it, so I wasn’t about to swim with those sharks.
I needed to think outside the box. I thought: Football is months away, basketball is months away, recruiting is speculative and subject to change... many of the topics being covered now revolve around future events or predictions. But what about former players? And I’m not talking recent or soon-to-be draftees, because those athletes are still being talked or written about.
I am referring to unheralded and underappreciated Buckeyes from decades ago, that have been forgotten by some (or most) since they last donned the scarlet and gray. And there it was: Forgotten Buckeyes. Other OSU fans and media types have taken a similar approach to recognition, but this is my personal way of appreciating those who left an indelible mark at Ohio State.
Welcome to Volume II.
For decades, Ohio State was among the best when it came to producing All-Big Ten, All-American, and/or NFL-bound defenders. Their reputation has taken a hit (more like a glancing blow) in recent years, but Ryan Day is determined to improve the level of play on that side of the ball, which is why he brought in Jim Knowles. The new defensive coordinator and linebacker whisperer has his work cut out for him, but also plenty of talent to work with.
All of that being said, the legend and the history of the Silver Bullets is not dead. The term lives on, current players still talk about it, and hopefully the Buckeyes are able to revive that badass nickname sooner than later. And when I hear “Silver Bullets”, I think linebackers. Former DC Fred Pagac began using the term in 1996 while referring to the entire defensive unit, but I have always associated it with guys like Andy Katzenmoyer and A.J. Hawk.
While the Big Kat was OSU’s most famous inaugural member of the Silver Bullets, he had plenty of help stifling opponents in ’96. One of his linebacker peers was a veteran and multi-year starter by the time Katzenmoyer came around, and finished one tackle off the team lead that season. Greg Bellisari was more than just a supporting character. He was a supremely intelligent football player, a coach on the field, and a very productive Forgotten Buckeye.
If your Ohio State football knowledge only dates back to 1998, you might associate the name Bellisari with... less than stellar quarterback play. We’re all about positive vibes here, so I’ll keep it at that. But Greg was the OG Bellisari Buckeye, and he enjoyed a hell of a run during the mid-90s. He was part of a football family growing up, and earned all-state honors while playing high school ball in Florida. He also got it done in the classroom, winning at least one national scholar-athlete award and being nominated as a Congressional Scholar. Same thing happened to me, minus the athletic achievement and the GPA. I almost made it.
Bellisari committed to John Cooper and the Buckeyes as part of their 1993 recruiting class, and likely expected to compete for playing time right away. That is because OSU was experiencing pretty mediocre success at the time, at least compared to the more recent Meyer/Day era. But in a sign of things to come, the team went 10-1-1 in Bellisari’s freshman season. The young linebacker did not see a ton of action, but he was able to suit up for 11 games and contribute 12 total tackles. His playing time would see a massive increase the following season — the beginning of his three-year stretch as a starter.
Ohio State took a step back in 1994, finishing with a 9-4 record in Bellisari’s sophomore season. The defense was generally good during his first year in the lineup, but they got smacked in the face by Penn State, giving up 63 points in Happy Valley. Bellisari started on the outside, and proved to be a “right place, right time” type of player. He totaled 63 tackles and one sack, but led the team with three interceptions. For comparison purposes, the last time an OSU linebacker had three or more interceptions was in 2009, when Ross Homan played out of his mind for a season. One of his interceptions was taken back for a pick-six — the first by a player at his position in seven years. Bellisari also earned Academic All-Big Ten honors.
1995 turned out to be Bellisari’s best individual season. He led the Buckeyes in total tackles with 98, including another team-high of 54 solo stops. He also added three more interceptions and one sack. Bellisari was surrounded by the likes of Mike Vrabel, Luke Fickell, Antoine Winfield, and Shawn Springs on what had the early makings of a legendary (not hyperbole) defense. Ohio State held opponents to 16.9 points per game, but their performance was merely an appetizer for the following season.
However, the team started hot and faded late. After starting 11-0 – and obliterating certain opponents – they lost to TTUN and Peyton Manning-led Tennessee to close out the season. Bellisari was named one of 10 finalists for the Butkus Award, and earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors for his play. Off the field, he was again recognized as an Academic All-Big Ten recipient, in addition to being named an Academic All-American for the first time.
With Bellisari and most of the previous year’s starting defense returning to Columbus in 1996 – plus the addition of all-world phenom, Katzenmoyer – Ohio State was primed to compete for a national championship in his senior season. Joe Germaine and Pepe Pearson led the offense, but the defense became the star of the show and a dominant force. The Buckeyes surrendered more than 17 points just once all season. They pitched three shutouts, and held the opposition to a single touchdown in two other games. For the season, OSU gave up an average of 10.9 points per game!
Bellisari was again one of the leaders. So much so that he was named a team captain. He finished with 88 total tackles, including 9 TFL and 3 sacks. Surprisingly, he failed to pick off a pass. But he had plenty of stars around him who excelled at making plays. As good as the secondary was with Winfield, Springs, and others, it was almost rare that a ball carrier or receiver even made it to the third level. Bellisari and the (’96) front seven were arguably as fearsome a front seven as Ohio State has ever seen.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they dropped another heartbreaker to TTUN. Despite averaging nearly 38 PPG as an offense, the Wolverines held them under 10 in the low-scoring, late-season rivalry game. OSU rebounded with a Rose Bowl victory over Arizona State, but overall, the ’96 season has to be viewed as a missed opportunity. Bellisari was one of 11 semi-finalists for the Butkus, and again received Academic All-Big Ten and All-American honors. He was also named Second Team All-Big Ten for a second consecutive season, and played in the 1997 Hula Bowl. Bellisari’s teams finished with a cumulative record of 41-8-1, making it one of the more successful runs of the late Bruce/Cooper/Tressel era.
Despite years of production in college, Bellisari went undrafted in the 1997 NFL Draft. He eventually caught on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spending time as a special teamer/backup. But he walked away after just two seasons to pursue a degree/career in medicine. Bellisari found his way back to Columbus, and graduated from Ohio State’s medical school in 2005. He is now a practicing orthopedic surgeon in the area, and seems to specialize in sports medicine. A former football player who is now giving back to other athletes, Bellisari made a big difference on the field as a Buckeye.