James Laurinaitis’s father, Joe Laurinaitis, worked as a pro wrestler under the name “Animal” for years. His in-ring costume included football pads adorned with metal spikes and multi-colored face-paint. His son was apparently meant to wear a helmet on Saturdays (and soon, on Sundays), hitting people in the mouth for a living. So no one was really surprised after he won last year’s Bronko Nagurski award, given to the nation’s best defensive player, as a sophomore. In 2007, Laurinaitis leads the Ohio State Buckeyes on the march towards a BCS title. We recently spoke with him about what he eats, how he gets up for games, and, of course, his dad.
MF: If you were on offense, what position would you be playing?
Laurinaitis: If I was on offense, I’d probably be a tight end, h-back kind of deal. That’s what I played in high school.
Ever wish you could play offense and defense like the old days?
Nah, I try to be more of the attacking type. I’d rather be on defense attacking the blocks than on offense trying to set up for our running back.
So which games are circled on the OSU schedule this year?
I think everyone here focuses on the Michigan game, we know that’s the game, that caps off our season, and every game before that kind of trains us for that game, but you have to focus on everybody. You know, it’s cliché, but you have to focus on everybody.
So what’s on your grocery list?
Well, I get a bunch of chicken breasts. I make sure I’m always either grilling or baking chicken, trying to find plenty of different ways I can get it down. Breakfast usually consists of cereal or oatmeal: Wheaties, “Breakfast of Champions,” maybe some Special K with red berries, stuff like that.
I get a lot of eggs, maybe a big carton of egg-beaters. I always have vegetables, usually either canned or frozen, because I need to be able to have them for a while, and I don’t have the time to cook fresh veggies.
Fruit, bananas, grapes. I’m a big strawberry fan. It’s my favorite fruit.
I also get cottage cheese and a ton of different kinds of yogurt. I mix a scoop of Dannon vanilla with a cup of cottage cheese and some chopped fruit. I eat that all the time, right after workouts.
I like the Lean Cuisine Skillet Sensations, they’re good little dinners. I like to keep it healthy. My weakness is cinnamon raisin toast. That’s that, there’s really not much else.
In an average week, what do you spend?
I probably go grocery shopping every two weeks. If I stock up for two weeks, I’ll easily crack $100. I always go grocery shopping when I’m hungry though, that’s my biggest problem. [Laughs] The only thing I get that might be bad sometimes might be a frozen pizza here or there, but I think one or two cheat meals a week aren’t bad.
You were the defensive player of the year last season - what did it mean to you to have such great personal success in 2006?
It’s obviously an honor, but you need to realize it’s not anything individual. When we went over a tape of last year’s interceptions at camp this year, coaches pointed out why those interceptions happened. It was all because of great defensive-line pressure, so the quarterback felt rushed. Maybe if he had time to make a better throw he wouldn’t have gotten an interception. Really, I believe nobody’s truly that good or better than anyone else. It’s a total team effort. Individual awards and recognition comes from total team effort.
Last season didn’t end up like you guys might have liked. How did it weigh on you during this off-season?
I think you keep it fresh in your memory. You remember how bad you felt, but you realize we did a lot of good things, like being able to be outright Big-10 champs. We haven’t done that since like ’84. We’ve shared the title, but to be outright champs is something very special.
What running back, either in the Big-10 or nationwide, has been the toughest to tackle?
(Michigan’s) Mike Hart is a great running back, but I’d say Chris Wells, on our own team, one of the guys you go against every day in practice, is the hardest back I’ve ever had to face. He’s a tremendous player. There’s different styles of running backs. Tyrell Sutton from Northwestern is a shifty guy, and (Wisconsin’s) PJ Hill will be a whole new challenge this year. There are a lot of guys that are tough to play but I’d definitely say Chris Wells is the hardest I’ve faced.
What’s on your iPod before a big game?
I’ve been listening to Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight,” since my high school days. Our team back in Minnesota, we’d listen to that song, and the tradition, in the locker room right before we run on the field, it’s a get-your-goosebumps-going kind of song. It still gets mine going. Evanescence – Bring me to Life. There might be some Metallica, and there’s usually some rap on there, too. You can put any Lil’ Wayne on there, really. He’s got a great song called “Outstanding” that Dr. Dre produced. You’ve got to try to get that. Seriously, it’s unbelievable. He just explodes on tracks. Anything Lil’ Wayne and those two songs.
So we’ve got to ask about your dad, former “Road Warrior Animal.” Have you ever thought about painting your face like he used to before a big game?
No, no, I’ve never thought about that. I just don’t know if I want to sweat all that paint off. We do a little thing on the scoreboard here, every time you make a play you get a 5-second clip that comes up on the scoreboard. I thought about maybe putting his shoulder pads on one time, but that’s not going to happen. It would be kind of funny to do, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. My dad mentioned it would be kind of cool, though.
What’s it like being able to play on this huge stage in front of your dad?
He’s the Animal, but I’ve always known him as dad. He’s one of my best friends. He’s taught me the fundamentals of life and of football. He’s been my coach all the way from freshman year of high school. He instilled in me at a young age the fundamentals of staying low, hustling, striking and attacking that you still practice here at Ohio State, and I’m forever thankful for that.
Did you ever see any of the other wrestlers around and think that you wanted to get that big one day to play football, too?
When you meet guys like Hulk Hogan and The Rock, you want to be as big as them, you want to be just like them. When it comes down to it, I always wanted to be big and train like my dad, but when you realize you want to play football, you maybe don’t want to be 275 lbs playing linebacker, you know? Unless you’re (San Diego Chargers linebacker) Shawn Merriman, and can get away with it. He’s unbelievable.
Who are some linebackers, either in college or the pros, that you watch out for and keep an eye on?
I think (Chicago Bears LB) Brian Urlacher is obviously one of the best, if not the best, linebacker in the NFL. Just look at the way he runs to the ball and attacks. Also, I personally look at (Green Bay Packers LB) AJ Hawk, after playing with him here. He’s just a great role model, a great player, and he’s only going to get better as he gets older. I try and model myself after him, just because he’s from here and I know AJ, we still talk on a weekly basis. If you can model yourself after a true All-American, and one of the best linebackers to ever come through Ohio State, if not the best, you try and keep that relationship.
Do you keep in touch with any other alumni from OSU?
You see guys here and there. I talk to (former Ohio State linebacker) Chris Spielman once in a while, get tips on different things, and you know (former Heisman-trophy winner) Eddie George has his restaurant right down in campus, so you’ll see Eddie from time to time. (Wide receiver) Joey Galloway was in here working out this summer. It’s amazing to see guys that have played here. We had (cornerback) Will Allen back, we had (safety) Mike Doss back, (wide receiver) Drew Carter from the Panthers, you see these guys running with us, training with us, and you can really base yourself on how they train, and see that you’re training just as hard as these guys, so you just keep doing it.
How are your workouts going? How do they change before the season starts?
It’s going well. You don’t do as intense stuff and you may not do as much weight with hang cleans, and squats during the season, but you maintain with lighter weights and more reps. The linebackers here: myself, Marcus Freeman, Larry Grant, Curtis Terry, Austin Spittler, we’ll work out after practice. It’s not mandatory, it’s voluntary. We stay after and do some lifting, stretching and yoga in the morning a little bit, just to stretch out. The linebackers try and get one body part, maybe four different exercises for chest one day, then maybe four different exercises for shoulders, or back, switch it up each day as we go through, so we’re not doing too much to kill ourselves.
Who’s going to make it to the Super Bowl in 2008?
I see the New England Patriots in the AFC, but the NFC is so hard to predict. I think the Bears could still have it if they can get everything settled. That’s hard for me to say because I’m a Vikings fan in the NFC North, but I think it’ll be the Bears and Patriots, and the Patriots will take it all.