Ohio State sophomore forward Michelle Mu±oz has a new appreciation for athletics after spending last season bound to the Buckeye bench as a she sat out the 2003-04 season meeting NCAA transfer requirements. Compounding the experience for Mu±oz, who spent her freshman campaign at the University of Tennessee, was the fact that although NCAA regulations permitted her to take part in practice, she also was handcuffed by injury and the subsequent surgery and rehab which followed, preventing her from working and contributing in the practice setting as well.

The ordeal was quite challenging for someone like Mu±oz, who hails from an athletics pedigree matched by few. The daughter of Anthony Mu±oz, who starred for 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals of the National Football League and ultimately earned a spot as one of the sport’s immortals as a NFL Hall of Fame enshrinee in 1998, Mu±oz has excelled in athletics her entire life. Whether on the basketball, tennis or volleyball courts or on the softball and soccer fields, Mu±oz, whose brother is following their father’s footsteps as an All-American offensive tackle at Tennessee, has competed at the highest level as long as she can remember.

Confined to street clothes last season on the Ohio State bench, Mu±oz now has gained a new perspective and respect for her collegiate career and has taken an approach as a leader on the 2003-04 Buckeye squad in just her sophomore season.

What it is like being back on the court after sitting out last season?
“It’s great. It’s exciting. You really don’t realize how much you miss the game until it is taken away from you. Especially with my surgery last year, it took me away from the game altogether. I could not play in games and I could not even practice. I’m just really glad and excited to be back playing again this season.”

Can you explain how it felt to be out of action last season and the steps you had to take to adjust to that experience?
“It was hard because not only could I not play because of the transfer rules, but also because I was not physically capable of being out there. I wanted to help my team on the court. That was what was the most frustrating part. I could not help them. I had to exercise other skills, like offering encouragement and letting everyone know what I was seeing from the bench and what I thought might help the team. I had a different role and I think I learned a lot from it, but I am definitely glad to be back out there now.”

Did the experience as an observer and an encourager turn you into more of a leader on the team this season?
“I think so. I think the experience of being down and not able to play has helped me in a leadership role. I think it made me stronger. I was able to see what we needed on this team from a bit of an outside perspective from the bench. It also made me respect the game more.”

Did the transition season away from the court help you adapt to the change in settings from Tennessee to Ohio State?
“I think it was a good year to handle that. I think there were a lot of things I had to work through from my freshman year. The year out of action helped me make those adjustments. I would have liked to have been able to practice, but it was a really good adjustment period overall.”

What do you like most about your decision to play at Ohio State?
“There is just something about playing for your home state. It is special. The people here are great. Being in this environment with Coach (Jim) Foster and the coaching staff is something I really enjoy. It is a winning environment and I feed off that.”

You grew up in quite an athletic family, what influence did that have upon you during your time maturing as an athlete?
“It all has been positive. Even though there always were sports going on around our house, I never felt any pressure athletically from my family. It was something I enjoyed doing. Now, being older, I am able to enjoy watching my brother play football. I wish I would have known more about football when I was younger so I could have appreciated my dad’s career more, but the older I get, the more I am able to look back and realize how much hard work he put into his career and what it takes to succeed at a higher level of athletics. It is encouraging to know people in your family have done what you are doing and they can understand the ups and downs involved.”

Do you use your father’s career as an example to follow for yourself? Do you use your brother’s career the same way?
“Definitely. There were always people telling my dad he could not make it. He couldn’t do this or couldn’t do that. Sometimes I feel that way as well, but to know someone so close to you has persevered and succeeded is very encouraging. My father and my brother have been great examples of just knowing in your heart you can do something and keeping focus on those goals is the most important aspect in reaching them. It has been great to have them there during all the good times and the hard times.”

What is your first memory of your father’s professional career?
“Ever since I was young, I remember that Sundays were the days that daddy went to go play. We used to always get excited because we got to watch him play. I never was a big fan of going to the games. I used to stay at home with my babysitter and make him banners for when he came home. I used to get more excited to see my dad on TV than anything else.”

Were you old enough to remember your father playing in the Super Bowl?
“I remember the 1989 Super Bowl. I did not really know what was going on. I just liked going to the vacation spots (laughing). I do remember we would go to Hawai’i every year for the Pro Bowl and my brother and I though that was what every kid did. It was fun to be able to experience that with my family.”

What are your fondest memories of your father’s career?
“I remember when he retired and the big ceremony they had for him. People were sharing what they thought about him and that really made me appreciate him more at that time. I realized how special a player he was and how much what he did meant to so many people. His induction to the hall of fame was an eye-opening experience for me because I was 13 and was amazed at the whole thing. I was old enough then to appreciate what he had done. I watched clips of him playing and really could understand the magnitude of it more than when I was younger. I was not born when he started his career and was just 9 when he retired, so the moment at the ceremony was when it all hit me about how special a player he was. I knew him as my dad and what kind of person he was and was amazed at how that carried onto the field.”

Along those same lines, what is the fondest memory of your career?
“I have a lot so far, but being here has been great and having that chance to step back on the court is a great feeling. Just to look around when I am on the court and look at all the people. At first it was kind of overwhelming, but I then realized what a privilege it is to be here and do what I do.”

Have you been able to see any of your brother’s games and is he able to see any of yours?
“Usually, I can see the first four games of the season. We have not started school and we are in preseason training during that time, so I usually have the weekends off and am able to see him play. He and his wife were able to come up for the Michigan State game. He tries to come up and see me play as much as he can during his time off as well.”

You now have a handful of Big Ten games under your belt. Have you noticed a difference in play and style between the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference?
“I think there definitely is a difference, but I think there is a difference in every team you play regardless of what conference they are in. Some are going to be bigger and stronger, while some are going to be quicker and faster and play more up tempo. I enjoy playing in the Big Ten. It is such a strong conference. There are a lot of good teams and it seems like everywhere you turn on your schedule you play a great basketball team every night. Every game is a challenge, which has made it a great experience for me so far.”

You also played volleyball in high school and had great success, were you able to make it over to St. John Arena to see former teammate D’wan Shackleford play for the volleyball team this past season?
“Oh yeah, definitely. We would go over there and cheer for her. It was really exciting to see her play and see one of your teammates compete and do well in another sport is really fun. I thought she did a really good job playing volleyball. It was fun because, as a former volleyball player, I knew what was going on when I was watching her play. ‘Shack’ did a good job. On top of that is Emily (Haynam), who plays soccer in the fall. It is amazing to me how she is able to expand her abilities in two sports. That sounds like so much fun to me.”

If the opportunity posed itself for you to exercise the option D’wan had last season with volleyball at the end of your basketball career at Ohio State, would you consider doing what she did and play a year of volleyball?
“I think that would be a great opportunity because as an athlete and a competitor you want to keep doing things that are challenging and fun. That would be something I would love to give a shot. Any athlete would love to have the opportunity to extend their athletic career. I don’t know if that is something I could do, but I think volleyball is a great sport and it would be a great opportunity.”

Are there any other sports you played when you were growing up that you really enjoyed in addition to basketball and volleyball?
“I played a lot of different sports growing up from soccer to softball to tennis. Plus, I swam. I think once I started playing basketball and volleyball seriously they just became a year-round commitment. I really did not have the time to play other sports.”

Which one of those sports do you miss the most?
“I miss volleyball. I really do. I played during my first couple years of high school, but I hurt my ankle at the beginning of my junior season and I already had committed (to play basketball at Tennessee) and I wanted to be careful and make sure I did not hurt myself. If I had to do it all over again, I wish I would have played my last two years of high school.”