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November 8, 2013

The quarterback that almost...

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - Justin Zwick leans back in his chair at the local coffee shop; a sense of frustration begins to appear on his bearded face. He takes a deep breath. He exhales.

It's an October morning in Grandview, the bustling Columbus suburb where Zwick resides. Eight years have passed since The Drop, but it's not getting any easier for the former Ohio State quarterback, now 30, to reflect on the most devastating play of his career.

"Ahh," Zwick groans. "I can still picture it."

Flash back to Sept. 10, 2005, Zwick's junior season, and the Buckeyes are playing in the biggest non-conference game Columbus has seen in decades. Texas, led by Vince Young, has come to town, the lights bused in for a night game--a rare occurrence at Ohio Stadium--and 105,565 people (then a school record) are there to witness the first ever clash between the two programs.

With Ohio State leading, 19-16, in the third quarter, and the ball on Texas' 9-yard line, Zwick finds Ryan Hamby wide open in the middle of the end zone. He fires a perfect pass, hitting the tight end square in the hands. Hamby bobbles the ball, it flies up into the air, and Texas defenders close in, sandwiching him.

The ball falls to the turf, and, in a sense, so too, does Zwick's career.

The recruitment and the lie

Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. seats just 52,000 people. There are no national championship teams honored on the concrete facades; no Heisman trophies displayed in any of the atriums. It was on that field, though, where Zwick first imagined himself playing college football.

"I'll never forget going to Indiana's recruiting camp as a sophomore at Orrville (High School), and thinking to myself, 'It would be really cool to get a scholarship to play at Indiana,'" Zwick told BuckeyeGrove.com.

Fast-forward to his senior season at Massillon High School in 2001, and Zwick had a a scholarship offer from nearly every school in the country. He was a consensus All-Ohio selection, the Associated Press Co-Offensive Player of the Year. Everyone wanted him, but Ohio State got him.

"He was really a smart player," former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel told BuckeyeGrove.com "He loved the game. He had a really quick release."

While recruiting Zwick, Ohio State's coaches told the quarterback, ranked No. 3 in his class by Rivals.com, that he was the only player at his position the Buckeyes were going to take.

"They actually said they weren't going to (take another quarterback)," Zwick recalled.

They lied.

A few months after Zwick committed, Ohio State offered, and got a pledge, from Troy Smith, a quarterback out of Glenville High School in Cleveland.

"We took Troy really late," said Tressel, who described the signing as an "emergency."

When Zwick heard of Smith's commitment, he called the Buckeyes' assistants that had been recruiting him. They had told him one thing, but done another. The coaches proceeded to tell Zwick not to worry; the plan was to make Smith a "hybrid" type of player.

"Even when Troy came on, even though he was a quarterback," Zwick said, "I was told he was going to be an athlete."

Braxton and Kenny they were not

The horn sounds, the last of the day, and Ohio State's practice is over. Buckeye players make their way from the outside fields at the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility into the indoor complex, heading toward the locker room.

Side by side, Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton jog together. Guiton says something to Miller, who laughs. Miller playfully jabs at Guiton, who smiles. Both are quarterbacks, competitors, but they describe each other as "brothers, best friends."

Zwick and Smith's relationship was different.

"There was just that quiet competitiveness. It wasn't anything where we tried to put hands on each other or anything like that. We didn't hang out outside of the Woody (Hayes Athletic Center)," Zwick said.

Smith spent his first season at Ohio State as an athlete, like Zwick was told.

"He was a hybrid type of player," Tressel said. "A running back, a return man. He was never really in the quarterback room."

By Smith and Zwick's sophomore season-both redshirted-Smith had turned into a quarterback and the two were fighting for the starting spot. Zwick won the job, and was the man for the first six games. An injury against Iowa forced him to sit, Smith took over, and his electric playing style kept him in the starting position for the rest of the regular season.

The back-and-forth battling took its toll on both players.

"Early on, it was rough. Well, I shouldn't say rough. We battled," Zwick said. "We knew we were competing for a spot. We didn't necessarily handle it the best we could have."

Smith was suspended for Ohio State's bowl that year for breaking an undisclosed team rule. Zwick started in his place, and led the Buckeyes to a dominant 33-7 victory against Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

"We only had one quarterback going into the game, so we created a package for Teddy Ginn as a precaution," Tressel said. "In the first quarter, Justin pulled his hamstring. The coaches all looked at each other, and we thought. 'Oh my god.' The next series, Justin came up to me, and said, 'I'm ready to go.' I was like, 'What?'"

The Texas game

When Buckeye fans, wanting to reminisce, approach Zwick, the conversation seems to always center on the Texas game.

"It comes up all the time," Zwick said.

Smith's suspension from the season prior carried over to the first game of the 2005 season, so Zwick started the opener. Heading into the bout against the Longhorns, Tressel had to pick a quarterback.

"It was different. I had never been in that situation," Zwick said. "By Thursday, (Tressel) said, 'Justin, you're going to start the game.'"

Zwick started, and played the game's first two series. Smith then took over, and played the rest of the half. Feeling that the team needed a spark, Tressel re-plugged Zwick into the action in the second half. He played a few series, and led Ohio State on a drive that could have sealed the win. But Hamby dropped the pass.

"I didn't sleep much (that) night," Hamby said.

It was impossible for him to realize it at the time, but the ill fated throw, ultimately, ended Zwick's playing career at Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost the game, and Smith became the team's starting quarterback for the rest of the two player's time in Columbus.

In the spot he won over Zwick, Smith led Ohio State to the National Championship game their senior season. He won the Heisman, was a first-team all-American, and quarterbacked an offense gushing with NFL talent.

Zwick pondered transferring from Ohio State after his junior season, once he realized that, barring an injury, he wasn't going to be starting any games.

"I thought about it and just thought, you go somewhere, who knows what's going to happen," Zwick said.

The back-up mentality

Guiton jogs out to the huddle in front of California's end zone in Memorial Stadium; Ohio State's offense ready to begin its first drive of the game. Playing in place of an injured Miller, Guitonfinds junior wide receiver Devin Smith for a long touchdown, the longest in Buckeye history, on the team's second play from scrimmage. The back-up celebrates by gliding down the field like a 10-year-old does when he pretends to fly. Arms spread out, weaving from one hash mark to the other.

Back in Columbus, Zwick, watching the game as he always does, smiles.

"They actually said they weren't going to (take another quarterback)."

He doesn't consider himself a "back-up quarterback." One of the best high school quarterbacks in Ohio history can't have that mindset. But it was a role he played for almost two years. So he feels a connection with Guiton, and roots for him when he gets to play.

"It's cool to see someone stick around for five years, work hard, work their tail off, and get a chance to go out and show that they can play," Zwick said. "That's the thing people don't realize. There's a ton of great athletes on Ohio State's team, but at quarterback, only one can play."

Life outside The Horseshoe

Zwick's moved on from his playing days. He had a stint in the Carolina Panthers' training camp after graduating from Ohio State, and played a few seasons of semi-pro ball in Columbus.

"I think it was (Maurice) Clarett that I heard say, 'You never give up football. Football gives up you.' I would still play to this day if I could. At some point in time, there's no more opportunities," Zwick said.

With a bachelor's degree from Ohio State's Fisher College of Business, Zwick landed a job as the director of marketing and client relations for a home health company in Columbus. He's engaged to be married in January, and met his fiancé at a country concert through the connection of his brother, Jared, who played at Youngstown State under Tressel. He has a few dogs, and plans on having kids sometime in the near future.

Zwick has stayed close to the game through various media gigs with Columbus' 10TV and a sports website, HuddlePass.com. Every once in a while, he'll think about his playing days and wonder what could have been if a few things had gone differently. Then he'll snap back. What happened, happened, Zwick says, there's nothing to regret.

But if Hamby had caught that pass…

"Yeah," sighs Zwick. "Yeah."

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