Career Statistic Resume: Played Linebacker for Ohio State from 2014-15, 146 total tackles, 27 TFL, 11 sacks, 3 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recoveries, 3 defensive touchdowns, starter for the 2014 National Championship and Big Ten Champion Team.
Nickname: The Mad Dog
Fact: The cover image for this story is goofy, not particularly well done and esoteric at best.
Also a fact: That picture served as my Facebook profile background for more than two years from 2015-2017.
While I’ve always loved Ohio State football, my 8th and 9th grade years were what I call my Ohio State-obsessed phase. My love for the team reached unequivocal levels during the 2014 championship season and carried over into 2015. It came at the perfect time. I was old enough and had watched enough football to feel attached to the team and understand its growth, but I also wasn’t fully invested basketball or the NBA at this point. I found watching football far more entertaining, and my fandom to Ohio State was the most important thing in my sports watching life.
That helps explain the picture. Only someone with an irrational love for this team would willingly keep a picture of the team’s 10th-ish best player as a part of their social media persona for an extended period of time.
I’ll cut to the point—I would have died for Darron Lee back then. That nickname you see at the top of this piece, “Mad Dog,” is not an official nickname that anyone of relevance has ever given to him. It’s simply what my dad and I decided to call him after watching him for so many Saturdays.
My dad and I were first introduced to Mr. Lee when we traveled to Baltimore to watch Ohio State play Navy in the first game of the 2014 season. I expected to see Joey Bosa unleash havoc upon the overpowered Midshipmen. I expected to learn more about first-time starting quarterback J.T. Barrett. I even expected Ohio State to play down to their competition and let Navy get frisky. What I did not expect was for a redshirt freshman who was a 2-star recruit out of high school to explode onto the scene, lay one of the biggest hits of the year on the Navy quarterback and return a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown in a play that ultimately swung the game in the Buckeyes’ favor. I did not expect Darron Lee.
Think back to that Mad Dog nickname from earlier. How do you envision a mad dog? Probably with snarling teeth, big and hefty but a also capable of flying around at breakneck speed and always hoping to inflict pain. Well, that was Darron on the field. He would sprint sideline to sideline, wallop a weakling offensive player and begin pumping his fists and screaming as he backed away from the play. You could tell that he absolutely loved what he got to do—hit people.
And trust me, I’m not exaggerating about Darron’s speed. He ran a 4.4 second 40-yard dash at the combine a few years ago, an above average time for both wide receivers and running backs, let alone a linebacker. He leveraged his gifts with a no-holds-barred motor, consistently racing into the backfield and surprising quarterbacks and running backs with how fast he would close. Just watch his 2014 fumble return vs Navy, or his 2015 pick-six vs Northern Illinois—he looks more like a tall running back or a tight end, not a bruising defender.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you that Darron Lee is deserving of this rank. Sure, he was clearly a great player with some more than enjoyable physical capabilities, but why did I feel so attached to him to put him ahead of guys like Ted Ginn Jr., Michael Thomas, Joey Bosa and so many more.
It’s the swagger.
After every one of Darron’s big plays, he celebrated. But not with some dorky dance routine or a choreographed routine, but with the mentality of a crazed competitor. Take his exuberant scream after his 2014 touchdown against Michigan, holding his hands out in front of him (I’ll contend that Megan Rapinoe was in fact copying Lee during this past World Cup). Or watch him combine with Adolphus Washington for a sack of Marcus Mariota, bounce off the ground while simultaneously sending a small shove to the Oregon lineman, and back away pumping both his fists three straight times (go to 12:40 in the clip). If you really want to fully appreciate Darron, watch the entire condensed 2014 Ohio State-Alabama game, where his MVP-performance is highlighted by his annihilation of quarterback Blake Sims and the play where he literally got blocked below the waist and somehow dragged Amari Cooper to the ground while he was laying on his stomach. Those are two of the most impressive feats I’ve ever seen a football player accomplish, and Darron all but put a cherry on top of my excitement by energetically sprinting while flexing his arms after the whistle blew.
In truth, I felt like Darron Lee reminded me …. of me (wow, aren’t you humble Daniel). I know it sounds ridiculous. I’ve never played organized football. My 40-yard dash probably clocks in over five seconds. Instead of a 6’1″ and 218 machine of a body, I’m a 5-foot, 10 and 1/2 inch white boy who can’t jump to save his life.
But you’ll know what I mean if you watch my high school basketball highlights. After every deep three I hit, I’d give an enthusiastic fist pump and scream at the top of my lungs (usually shouting “2! 2!!!!!” to indicate what defense we were in). I did the same thing in practice. I’d even celebrate offensive three second calls on opposing big men in the same manner. I just can’t help but express incredible emotion when I make positive plays for my team. Watching Darron Lee do the same kind of things on Saturday made me feel special, like it was possible for people like me to make it at a level like that. Even if I’m still nowhere near the kind of athlete he is, I still feel that connection, the bond of loving sports and playing them with outward, joyous emotion. Darron Lee was everything I wanted in a football player, and one of my favorite Ohio State Buckeyes ever.