The pressure will always be palpable.
In a sense, Aaron Mawhirter can no longer live without it.
The 2013 Perkins graduate is a preferred walk-on as a member of the Ohio State football team. He is officially on the roster that gets to travel with the team, and goes through the same strenuous schedule during the week with classes and workouts.
Preferred walk-ons are generally the 20 extra players that fall within the NCAA-mandated 105-players roster limit, which can include a maximum of 85 scholarship players for Division I teams.
But at least for this season, the player one year removed from being one of the best in Ohio — and the top player in the Sandusky Bay Conference — doesn’t see the field on Saturdays.
“Those ‘freshman’ moments are pretty much every day,” Mawhirter said from the team’s hotel in Hollywood, Fla., located 10 miles from Sun Life Stadium. The No. 7-ranked Buckeyes (12-1) will play No. 12 Clemson (10-2) at 8:30 p.m. tonight in the Orange Bowl.
“In drills or practice, you look up and see these 6-foot-6, 300-pound guys coming at you, and I’m not one of the biggest guys out there anymore,” the 6-2, 220-pound Mawhirter added. “I’m just a fish in the pond, not a shark in the sea anymore.”
A lonely place
Reality often hits hard for a lot of kids who excelled in high school, then go off to college athletics, especially in Division I. The responsibilities of attending classes on your own, while dealing with a new setting away from home on top of balancing workouts isn’t easy. In some instances, kids struggle to adjust mentally to the fact that they aren't quite on the level as those in front of them to see significant playing time.
“Putting in all the work, yet not being rewarded with playing time is one of the hardest things to get adjusted to,” Mawhirter said. “But putting in the work and showing the coaches that you’re serious about what you’re doing, and will do anything to accomplish your goals, is the main thing that eventually gets you on the field.”
Perkins coach Jason Ziegler, who Mawhirter acknowledges that without him, he wouldn’t be in this position, got in touch with Ohio State assistant Greg Gillum, the director of high school relations for the Buckeyes. Gillum, a Plymouth native, watched a highlight tape of Mawhirter and invited him down to a spring practice.
From there, Mawhirter was told he had a spot on the team, but it was unclear if it was as part of the official 105-man roster or the scout team. But in late July, he got the call of a lifetime.
“When I got the call that I was on the 105, no questions asked, even though I had some offers for track, I was going,” Mawhirter said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little boy to play football at Ohio State.”
But even with the excitement of being on the Buckeye roster this season with a front row seat in iconic college football venues, it certainly hasn’t been all sunshine for Mawhirter since August.
In fact, there were some very low moments for him.
“Training camp as a whole was really rough, because I came in here not knowing any of the players, coaches or any of the interns or people who work around the program,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was a well-known recruit. Being in something by yourself, it’s one of hardest things you go through.
“During camp, I felt alone,” he added. “When that happens, you’re whole morale is \ completely depleted. It’s not a very good feeling.”
Everything proved worth it, however, when at the end of camp, Mawhirter had his black stripe removed from his helmet.
A tradition started upon head coach Urban Meyer’s arrival, each freshman sports a black strip of tape where the red stripe lies on a standard Ohio State helmet. While the black-striped freshmen are members of the team, having the stripe removed has quickly become an important rite of passage signifying that the player has earned the right to call himself a Buckeye through both his play on the field and his actions off of it.
“As a walk-on coming into camp, we don’t really gain that much attention from people,” Mawhirter said. “But if you can lose that black stripe, it’s a huge sign that you have gained respect from your teammates. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Examining the future
Mawhirter said the coolest part of wearing the scarlet and gray uniform on Saturdays isn’t the rush of running onto the field in front of 102,000-plus fans.
“It’s right before it,” he said. “Coming down the tunnel, you can hear it, but you can’t see it. The chills you get at that moment is indescribable.”
Just a few weeks ago, Mawhirter got word that the highlight of his Ohio State career could certainly involve more than running onto the field.
Mawhirter made the team as a linebacker, but will be making a switch with hopes of seeing the field sooner.
“I was always nervous if I got the boot during camp, so I came in with the idea that I could possibly long snap,” he said. “Our guy right now, George Makridis, is a senior and is leaving. Two weeks ago, they gave me the word I can snap and do field goals as long as everything goes as planned.
“So you can look at it and say moving from linebacker to long snapper is a step down, but I see it as a promotion,” he added. “I’m adding value by potentially getting on the field a lot.”
Redshirt sophomore Bryce Haynes is the only other long snapper listed on the roster. To earn a spot on the field, Mawhirter knows more work will need to be done.
Already, twice a week the freshmen wake up at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. weightlifting session, followed by classes that typically begin at 8 a.m. by 2 p.m., they report to the practice facility and go through meetings before practicing from 4-7 p.m.
“And after that, we’re required to do eight outs of study table during the week,” Mawhirter said. “You have to work your way to the top … you have to gain respect. It’s not given, so you better earn it with work ethic.”