COLUMBUS — In helping his Ohio State team win a third straight Big Ten championship, captain C.J. Saunders took this approach: When life gives you lemons, make a speech.
That’s what the fifth-year senior did last Saturday night at halftime when, after being confined to the sideline season long due to his injured left knee, he’d watched his teammates fall behind 21-7 to Wisconsin.
“I think one of the biggest things at halftime was C.J. Saunders getting up in front of the whole team and just talking to us, and telling us that we’ve got it,” said quarterback Justin Fields, who went on to be named MVP of the comeback victory and eventually this week be named one of the four finalists for the Heisman Trophy along with teammate Chase Young. “So he definitely helped the team out a lot.”
For Saunders, originally a walk-on from Dublin Coffman High School who earned a scholarship and obvious respect of his teammates the past several years, it was a matter of doing what he could to help save what continues to be a special season for the College Football Playoff-bound Buckeyes.
“I had something on my heart, and I told the guys: ‘In 30 minutes the clock is going to hit zero, and we’re either going to be hanging our heads or the confetti is going to be coming down scarlet and gray,’” Saunders said. “That’s inevitable. One of those two things is going to happen.
“‘But the crazy thing is that whatever we believe is going to happen, that’s what’s going to happen. … If you don’t believe we’re about to win this game, with every part of you, every fiber in you, then don’t leave this locker room. Because we need everybody out there to fully believe that we’re about to go win this game.’ “
It was Rockne-Gipper-esque, obviously, because it touched Fields to the core. And he helped lead the charge.
But it was yet another bittersweet moment for Saunders. Elected one of seven captains in August, he suffered the knee injury in preseason camp, felt it improve enough by midseason to give it a go headed toward the game at Northwestern only to be set back for the rest of the year when it plinked again in practice.
“Getting the MRI results back, knowing I was going to need another [second] surgery, I had to take a few minutes just to break down,” Saunders said. “That’s not easy to take. … And then from there, just turn it on for my teammates and do whatever I can to keep them on the right track and motivated.
“But that was kind of the point where it was the lowest, but my teammates and coaches picked me up from there.”
Yet just watching has been a challenge, especially because of the preseason sense he had that the Buckeyes were going to be special.
“It’s been really tough, not what I would have expected,” Saunders said, tears welling in his eyes. “But I’m thankful I’m in this position, regardless; that God has put me in this position.
“Maybe it’s not catching touchdowns and doing something on the field, but is it motivating guys and helping us get to this point? So be it.”
Who knows, the twist his playing career took this season might have steered him onto a new career path, and that’s not meaning toward something like emulating Matt Foley, motivational speaker. It could be more like following in the footsteps of his father Tim Saunders, the long-time, state championship-winning baseball coach at Dublin Coffman. As C.J. Saunders said, he’s done what he could to help the Buckeyes in other ways.
“I’ve learned that from my dad, one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” Saunders said, laughing at the irony. “It’s kind of in my blood, to try to help people, motivate people and be involved with sports. I think that’s definitely an option – I don’t know exactly when or how, but it’s definitely something that I’m interested in.”
Whether his playing days at Ohio State are over isn’t clear. He has petitioned for a sixth year of eligibility based on the injury hardship.
“We’re trying to get the sixth, and it’s a tricky process, I don’t really know exactly the details with that,” Saunders said. “But we’re going through that process, the appeal, and whatever needs to be done. I think it’s clear, and I’ll be back in a uniform.
“But if it’s not, then we’ll see what life has next.”