Hawk the unquestioned leader of Ohio State's defense

12/28/2005 - Ohio State Buckeyes

This is the part of being one of the most accomplished linebackers in Ohio State football history that A.J. Hawk hates: He's sitting in the audience at the Lombardi Award ceremonies, tugging uncomfortably on the collar of his rental tuxedo, listening to OSU assistant coach Luke Fickell say embarrassingly nice things about him, all the while wishing he could just be back in Columbus where his teammates began their preparations for the Jan. 2 kickoff against Notre Dame in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

"I hate to miss practice, for whatever reason," Hawk said. "Then, to hear coach Fickell say that stuff about me, it was kind of weird."

It's not that Hawk didn't appreciate being selected the nation's best interior lineman or linebacker, and it's not that he didn't have a place on his mantel for the 45-pound hunk of granite that goes to the Lombardi winner.

After all, two weeks before Hawk took home that honor, he suddenly found himself significantly lighter in the possessions department after thieves broke into the house he rents and lifted assorted electronic equipment and other personal items, including $3,000 cash from Hawk's room.

Which brings us back to that aspect of being one of the most accomplished linebackers in Ohio State football history that A.J. Hawk hates.

The notoriety.

Alarms went off among Buckeye Nation when police reports detailed how much money Hawk lost, sparking debate about how he could have accumulated such a windfall.

After all, it was just a year ago at this time that OSU quarterback Troy Smith was suspended from the MasterCard Alamo Bowl for taking $500 from a booster.

And Hawk was, after all, seen exchanging pleasantries with NFL super-agent Drew "Next Question" Rosenhaus after the Buckeyes' Oct. 29 victory at Minnesota.

"That was pretty unbelievable to me," Hawk said. "Everybody was jumping to conclusions about the money, but it was really no big deal. I mean, it was a lot of money, but I had nothing to hide. Every month, I make some money off my scholarship check after I pay my rent, which is about $400 a month. The leftover goes in my pocket. My parents have been good to pay for my food, my car and my gas. I pretty much save [the rest], and I was in the process of going to the bank with it."

The thieves got there first, which really rankled Hawk, because ever since he stepped into Ohio State's starting lineup as a sophomore, he's specialized in being there first, preventing anyone on the other side from getting away with anything.

That's why Hawk has led the Buckeyes in tackles the past three seasons to rank fifth in career stops at OSU with 382, including 37 tackles for loss.

Hawk saved his best for his final season, winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors and joining Heisman Trophy-winner Reggie Bush as the only unanimous selections on The Associated Press All-America team.

"He is an impressive-looking kid," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said of Hawk. "He handles himself very well and looks pretty good on tape. You don't win the Lombardi Award by not being a good player. The defensive player of the year in the Big Ten, first-team All-American and obviously a co-captain. He is the leader of their defense. He is a really good player. He is physical and can run. He shows up on a whole bunch of plays."

So many, that Hawk's teammates were stung to the point of irritation when other players won the three additional national awards for which Hawk was a finalist. He came up empty on the Lott Trophy and the Bednarik and Butkus awards, with none rankling Hawk's buddies more than the selection of Penn State's Paul Posluszny as the Butkus recipient as the nation's best linebacker.

"I don't understand how you give it to a guy who's had one [good] year," OSU middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel said. "[Posluszny] hasn't done what A.J. has done over his career here. To say he's a better linebacker than A.J. Hawk, I completely disagree."

Hawk's other running mate at linebacker, Bobby Carpenter, was similarly steamed.

"I'm not too sure how you can be Big Ten [Defensive] Player of the Year, a unanimous first-team All-American, and not win the Butkus or Lott or Bednarik," Carpenter said. "He should have won them all, in my opinion."

Which brings us back to that aspect of being one of the most accomplished linebackers in Ohio State history that Hawk hates.

"I appreciate Anthony and Bobby saying that, but really, it's no big deal to me," Hawk said. "It doesn't bother me that I didn't win those other awards. Winning the Butkus would have been nice, but Paul had a great year. All of those other guys did. I got the chance to meet them while I was traveling around to all the banquets and they're all good guys and great players."

That same description summarizes Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's feelings about Hawk, who came to OSU so unheralded at his position that rumors swirled about him being immediately shifted to fullback.

"I guess that says something about how much attention should be paid to recruiting rankings," Tressel said. "What's made A.J. so special is that he doesn't really pay attention to what anyone says about him, whether it's good or bad. He just goes about his business and works hard and tries to get better every day, and that's why you see the results from him over time that have made him one of the best to ever play here."

Heady company since Hawk's predecessors at linebacker include former Buckeyes Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, Pepper Johnson, Chris Spielman and Andy Katzenmoyer.

Each of those players made at least one Rose Bowl appearance during their careers, which used to be the gold standard for team performance at OSU. Times are different now in the Bowl Championship Series era, when finishing No. 1 is the be-all-end-all of everything in Division I-A.

Hawk checked that item off his list as a freshman contributor in the Buckeyes' 31-24 double-overtime triumph against Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

This return trip to Tempe and the matchup against Notre Dame is perhaps the most anticipated Ohio State game since then, rivaling the summer buildup to OSU's 25-22 loss to Texas on Sept. 10 in Ohio Stadium.

Hawk was breathtaking that night in the Horseshoe, finishing with 12 tackles, including three for loss and two quarterback sacks, one forced fumble and another which he recovered, plus an interception and 24-yard return to set up an OSU field goal.

His target Jan. 2 will be Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, which brings us back to that aspect of being one of the most accomplished linebackers in Ohio State history that Hawk hates.

That's because Hawk has been dating Quinn's oldest sister, Lauren, since the summer.

"Brady likes A.J. a lot," Lauren Quinn told Jay Crawford on ESPN's "Cold Pizza." "He respects him very much as a player. I think he's glad I'm with someone who's a good guy. He's fine with it."

A lot more fine with it than Hawk is with the additional notoriety the relationship is sure to bring to the Fiesta Bowl's buildup.

"I'm sure it makes for a good story," Hawk said. "I figured it would probably get out eventually. It's not going to change anything on the field, of course. Everything is going to be the same for him and for me. It will just make our moms a little more nervous."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 18 years and now hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.