COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It started the night before, at the Ohio State men's basketball game. As 20 seniors joined head football coach Urban Meyer for a a halftime speech on the eve of the Buckeyes' biggest game of the season, fans were left wondering where the 21st senior in this year's class was.
John Simon, the team's captain and starting strong-side defensive end was nowhere to be found, as fellow captains Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren addressed the Schottenstein Center crowd. By the next morning, rumors of a Simon knee injury filled message boards and Twitter timelines, and by the time most media members covering the game settled into the press box, the senior was officially declared a game-time decision.
Just minutes before senior day festivities began prior to Ohio State's matchup with Michigan, the television network covering the game reported that Simon would not be taking part in it. But it wasn't until the crowd of 105,899 people gathered inside of Ohio Stadium saw the 6-foot-2, 263-pound senior donning a stocking cap and sweatpants along with his No. 54 jersey standing in the back of the line for senior day introductions that anybody really believed that he wouldn't be playing in what was supposed to be the final game of his college career.
"Our heart and soul of who we are as the 2012 football team, it's John Simon," Meyer said after the game.
The first indication that the OSU coach had that the Youngstown, Ohio native wouldn't be able to go against the Wolverines came earlier in the week, after Simon suffered an injury in the Buckeyes' 21-14 win over Wisconsin. Due to a bursa sac that formed on his right knee, Simon experienced constant swelling, which kept him out of the team's preparations for its final game of the season.
Meyer said that the captain did everything he could to play on Saturday afternoon, but ultimately, it wasn't enough.
"I had a bad feeling early," Meyer said. "My man was in the training room early in the morning until late at night doing everything they could."
Given all that Simon meant the 2012 Buckeyes as both a leader and a player, it would have been easy for OSU players to take the loss of the Big Ten leader in sacks as an emotional blow, and use it as a crutch in what was a contest between two evenly matched teams. But that's not what Meyer saw from his players when they were delivered with the news that Simon would be missing just the second game of his college career.
"When they DQ'd him, it was like a possessed group on defense," Meyer said. "I know why. Because our brother was down."
What Meyer saw in the locker room carried over onto the field, where the Buckeyes held Michigan to 279 yards of offense -- including just 60 in the second half -- en route to a 26-21 victory over the Wolverines. The win capped off a perfect season for the Buckeyes, their sixth in program history, and the game ball for their final contest was presented to a player who didn't even take the field on Saturday.
"It hurt to lose him. He's the heart and soul of the team. He puts it all on the line for himself and his teammates every day, so it was tough when we found out he couldn't play," Sabino said. "We got through it though. I'm proud of our guys."
Even on the offensive side of the ball, Ohio State found inspiration from their fallen captain, who will leave OSU as its No. 7 all-time leader in both sacks with 20, and tackles for loss with 43.
"He's the leader of our team, to see him go down," OSU right tackle Reid Fragel said. "I know it really hurt him to not be out there with us today. We did everything we could to get him that game ball at the end there and to see him with a big smile on his face at the end of the game was awesome."
With Simon's legacy in place -- Meyer had already compared his leadership skills to former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and joked that he wanted to name his unborn child after him -- the OSU coach said that he will do everything in his power to make sure that not only will the captain, but the class that he helped lead will be forever remembered in Buckeyes' lore.
"I want to make sure they're properly recognized as one of the great groups of seniors in the history of this program, however we're going to do that," Meyer said. "I'm going to see to it when you walk into that Woody Hayes facility this team will never be forgotten, because they deserve that."