By BOB ETTINGER
In introducing Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, former St. John football coach Paul Kopko relayed the feeling every Ashtabulan felt on Saturday afternoons as they turned on the latest Buckeyes’ game.
“It was always nice on a Saturday afternoon, to turn on the nationally televised Ohio State game and eventually they would put up a map of Ohio and right up there was Ashtabula,” Kopko said. “I’d like to thank Urban for putting us back on the map.”
Meyer made a return to his hometown to be the keynote speaker in front of a capacity crowd at the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club’s annual awards dinner Monday evening at Mount Carmel Community Center.
“I’m just very appreciative to be back,” Meyer said. “The further I’m removed the more I realize how great it was growing up here. I’m thrilled to be able to share with the young student-athletes.”
Meyer kept his address light at first, engaging the crowd with a joke and a couple of funny stories from his early days as a college coach.
Then he got serious .
Meyer related how the Buckeyes were struggling at the onset of the season.
“We just didn’t play well,” he confessed. “Something just wasn’t right. I could feel it. I didn’t feel comfortable with it at all. I just didn’t feel good about it.”
A common question Meyer is asked is at what moment the Buckeyes’ season turned for the better.
“There are two guys I’ve coached that are just different,” Meyer said. “Tim Tebow and Jon Simon. They’re just different.
“After the game with Cal-Berkeley, Jon Simon had a bad shoulder, it was bad enough that most human beings couldn’t operate. We were giving out game balls and I called Jon up.
“He lost it. He’s a man’s man. To this day, I’m shocked at what I saw. There was so much emotion coming out. He’s not a talker or speech guy. He gave a speech and it was not so much what he said, but that he said it with such emotion. The whole team changed that day.”
Including Meyer himself.
“That night I was laying in bed and I said to my wife, ‘Here’s a 22-year-old guy and he gives everything to the team, why can’t we?’
“I’m glad she’s a calmer person than I am. I was about to call a staff meeting at 2 a.m. I waited until 6 a.m. We’re coach friendly. The coaches got an extra four hours sleep.”
He went on to tell of how former Buckeye Butler By’note addressed the team at chapel the very next day and, completely on his own, correlated the Simon outburst to being a Christian, a husband, a father and a teammate.
Meyer then took it a bit further with the crowd Monday night. He told the young athletes that there are three things involved in making that happen — choice, sacrifice and time.
The youngsters took that hook, line and sinker.
“It got me thinking about love for my team,” Grand Valley basketball player Jessica Vormelker said. “Sports all relate. They all pretty much go along the same lines. It was just great to hear what he had to say coming back to Ashtabula, where he came from.”
“What he said was really inspirational,” Jefferson volleyball and softball player Bailey Beckwith said. “What he said about Jon Simon breaking down and love of the team, I thought was really touching.
“You can take what he said and use it your entire life.”
Meyer was more than happy to come home and inspire the young athletes of his hometown.
“A lot of people had a real positive influence on me and I’m proud to give back,” he said. “I’m humbled by this. I remember Vince Dooley (the former Georgia coach) spoke at mine.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.