Coming out of Cleveland St. Ignatius High School, Kevin Woidke had opportunities to play college football on a full scholarship at several Division I schools. But he chose to walk on at Ohio State, and Woidke remembers exactly when he knew he’d made the right decision.
“We were in mat drills early one morning in February and Coach Mick came over and introduced Coach Meyer to me,” said Woidke. “He told him about the good things I was doing. Honestly, I’m not sure that Coach Meyer knew who I was at that point. But it showed me the culture here was one where a guy like me could thrive.”
Woidke’s story isn’t unique. Ohio State’s 124-man roster includes walk-ons who play an integral role in helping shape – and enhance – the Buckeyes’ winning culture. Ohio State’s opponent this week, Nebraska, made its walk-on program famous in the 1990s, helping it to win three national championships. The Buckeyes, however, take a back seat to nobody when it comes to identifying and producing quality walk-ons. Three of them on this year’s team – Woidke, Mitch Rossi and Xavier Johnson – have earned the opportunity to be part of the team’s 74-man travel roster.
For Woidke, his decision to come to Ohio State came down to one factor: winning. After playing four years under head coach Chuck Kyle at St. Ignatius, which has won 11 state championships and is one of the most successful programs in the Midwest, Woidke wasn’t ready to sacrifice winning for a chance to be on scholarship at another program.
“Losing at Ignatius wasn’t an option,” said Woidke. “I wanted to keep winning and go somewhere that gave me that opportunity. Everything about this program has been what I’ve expected in that regard.”
Woidke has steadily risen to become a dependable and consistent contributor for the Buckeyes. His hard work, which led him to become a starter on special teams, earned Woidke a scholarship in the spring of 2019. A four-time academic All-Big Ten honoree and two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection who will graduate in December with his degree in real estate and urban analysis, Woidke has played in 29 games over the last three-plus years.
“When I got here, everyone was on a level playing field,” said Woidke. “Coach Mick treats us all the same. The key is just to put your head down and go. It’s all about work ethic and doing as much as you can for the team.”
Rossi, one of Woidke’s counterparts on special teams, has a similar story. His initial connection to Ohio State, however, came via a high school teammate: redshirt freshman Max Wray.
Wray and Rossi both attended Franklin High School in Tennessee. When Wray was being recruited by the Buckeyes, Rossi, whose parents are both Ohio natives, tagged along with him for a visit. It was then that he discovered he’d found himself a future home as well.
“Because of my parents, I had grown up a huge Ohio State fan,” said Rossi. “I came up here with Max and when I got the offer to join as a preferred walk-on, there was no thought process. I immediately said yes.”
One reason that Rossi, a sport industry major who was also named academic All-Big Ten last year, was so convinced that Ohio State was the right place for him was because there was a template for what players like him could accomplish. That came in the form of Craig Fada and Joe Burger – guys who excelled on special team and in the case of Burger, eventually became a team captain.
“I looked up to those guys in high school because I saw myself as the same type of player,” said Rossi, who is a key member of the Buckeyes’ special teams and has played both running back and tight end over the past two seasons. “I don’t really have any position body type or specific skill set. I fit special teams well because of how I’m built. I try to make an impression in whatever I’m doing and make it impossible for the coaches not to see me.”
Johnson, a sophomore from Cincinnati who played at Summit Country Day, had a unique recruiting path that eventually led him to Ohio State as a walk-on. A versatile athlete, Johnson played running back, wide receiver and defensive back in high school. He had opportunities to play at FCS schools, but those programs couldn’t offer something that Ohio State could: the Fisher College of Business.
“I thought that the connections I could make at Fisher would put me further ahead even if football didn’t work out,” said Johnson, an OSU scholar-athlete who is exploring majors in management and industry. “I was also looking for the most competitive environment. Being in this program is like going to a job interview and you’re up against someone that graduated from Stanford, Harvard or any other Ivy League school. That’s the environment that we live in. There’s nothing better to prepare me than that.”
On the field, Johnson has used his athleticism to help the Buckeyes at wide receiver, running back and defensive back. Like Rossi, he’s a key part of Ohio State’s special teams, working his way onto the punt block unit. Last week, he recovered Sevyn Banks’ second-quarter blocked punt.
“This whole decision to come here was one of grit,” said Johnson. “My parents and I prayed about it and felt as if it was the right move. All the things I’ve seen my parents go through – they’re the toughest people I’ve ever seen – is what led me to be tough and fight for what I want. The coaches see someone who is willing to work and do whatever is asked of me.”
What Woidke, Rossi and Johnson don’t deny is that being a walk-on – just like it can be for anyone on the roster – is hard at times. But is it worth it? That’s a resounding “yes.”
“The walk-on brotherhood is really strong and it comes from the older guys down,” said Rossi. “When you come in, you just have to keep your head down. At first, everything is moving really fast and it’s hard. It’s the same way for every freshman. But if you keep working hard, people will notice.”