INDIANAPOLIS — He had wept before the game. Michael Bennett couldn’t help it, sitting there in the Ohio State locker room, looking down at the No. 53 jersey he had decided to wear. The jersey he wanted the whole world to see.
Kosta Karageorge’s number.
Three days before, Bennett had been one of his pallbearers. This was the week of light and darkness for the Buckeyes, who buried a teammate and won a championship.
“Before the game, it hit me,” he was saying in the locker room, after Ohio State had folded, spindled and mutilated the Wisconsin Badgers. “Every time I made a play, I wanted people to know this was for Kosta.”
Bennett made a lot of them Saturday night. Two sacks, four tackles for loss, two fumbles forced. All part of an absolutely stunning dismantling of the Badgers.
“I don’t even know what’s going on right now,” he said. “We go out and beat a team 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game, it doesn’t feel real.”
What had gotten into the Buckeyes?
Well, they wanted to win a conference title, and make an offer that the playoff selection committee couldn’t refuse. That was plenty for motive. But there was something else, too. Few things would glue a team together more than the pain they had endured when Karageorge’s body was found last weekend near campus. The former Buckeye’s wrestler remembered for his pleasant toughness had apparently took his own life.
No one knows why. No one may never know why. But what Bennett understood is that “you’ve got to keep moving.’’ And he would he be carrying the memory of his teammate with him when he moved against the Wisconsin offense.
“I play every game with a lot of emotion and a lot of anger. But I never felt like I did today,” Bennett said. “The look in the guys’ eyes were different. The things you heard out of guys’ mouths was different. The way we played was different.”
Different, and devastating. “Our team played out of our minds today,” he said. And part of it could well have been the unity of a team that has endured a lot this season. A starting quarterback lost. Then another. The mystery of Karageorge’s disappearance. And then this week, when they had to break from Wisconsin preparations to attend a funeral together.
“I hate to say there’s a good thing to come from something like that,” Bennett said. “But this team has been through so much.”
He is a college senior. Who at that age is supposed to be serving as a pallbearer, big game week, or any other week?
“Life is funny that way,” he said. “It’s going to make you experience something you’re not ready for. I’m not the one who lost the most in this. Every time I think about it, it kills me, thinking about the wrestlers and his family that have been around him forever. I was around him for four months and I loved the hell out of the guy. I can’t imagine how the people who were around him all the time felt.”
The moment he heard Karageorge’s body had been found, Bennett knew he would not be wearing the customary No. 63 at defensive tackle Saturday night. Only No. 53 would do.
“As a team we rallied together and we were able to focus and honor him,” Bennett said. “I hope he saw this one.”
Before the game, the Buckeyes had a moment of silence and said a prayer for Karageorge and his family. “We’ll never forget out teammate,” Urban Meyer said.
Bennett fought tears, gazed once more at his jersey and then he and the Buckeyes took the field. Wisconsin never had a chance.