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COLUMBUS — An hour or two before kickoff on Saturday, James Laurinaitis will put on his headphones.
Other Ohio State players will prepare for battle with No. 1 Southern California with heavy metal and screaming vocals, or maybe bluesy bass and a mellow backbeat. But the Buckeyes’ co-captain, the top college linebacker in America according to most experts, goes with something understated, a bit of pop to prepare him for all the collisions and violence.
‘‘I can feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord. I’ve been waiting for this moment, all my life, Oh Lord. Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, Oh Lord, Oh Lord,’’ Phil Collins sings in the song ‘‘In the Air Tonight.’’
Then Laurinaitis will go about his business, knocking down opponents until he comes to one carrying a football. It’s a job he enjoys but which belies the larger part of a quiet, introspective life filled with studies and friends and laughter.
‘‘That’s a song that my high school listened to as a tradition before games,’’ Laurinaitis said.
The music soothes him, helps him focus on what’s ahead, helps him control his pent-up fury until it is time to unleash it.
‘‘I’ll usually be calm until I get out on the field, but when Malcolm (cornerback Jenkins) starts going crazy and Thaddeus (defensive end Gibson) starts talking, it’s just time to get going,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to get after it. It sort of builds as you get toward game time.’’
The alternate personality inside belongs to him then, does his bidding. That wasn’t always the case. Like Dr. Jekyll tinkering with the ingredients in his potion, Laurinaitis had to learn to moderate the football player within him.
‘‘I’ve learned to manage it a little better than my sophomore year,’’ he said, grinning. ‘‘I was about gassed out after warmups at Texas. I was so tired I had to get my inhaler out. I’ve learned to calm down a little bit.’’
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound fulcrum of No. 5 Ohio State’s defense grew up in Hamel, Minn. His was far from a normal childhood. How many other kids have fathers who paint their faces, cover their bodies in pseudo-shoulder pads with foot-long spikes and go by the name of Animal, pairing with a tag-team partner named Hawk in the Legion of Doom?
But life for James wasn’t much different from that of his friends except that James had some classic stories to tell in school about what HIS father did for a living. One can only imagine the children of accountants and construction workers sitting in rapt attention as James disclosed how his father used his signature move, the Doomsday Device, against Sting and Lex Luger.
James played hockey and football at Wayzata High School and was selected as Minnesota’s Defensive Mr. Football as a senior. He spurned coach the home-state Golden Gophers to go to Ohio State, the first scholarship player from Minnesota to join the Buckeyes since Hall of Famer Sid Gillman.
Laurinaitis was stuck behind three Ohio State standouts — A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel. Rather than sulk, Laurinaitis followed Hawk like a puppy dog, soaking up bits of wisdom and techniques that the senior had learned from others and from his years in the Big Ten.
Then when Carpenter broke his ankle the first play of the Michigan game, the freshman came on and played well. His only tackle of the game came on the final play, helping to preserve the Buckeyes’ 25-21 win in Ann Arbor. Laurinaitis then played all the Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
Almost three years later, he’s considered the top gun at the position, although USC has one of its own in the intimidating Rey Maualuga. The two will be fighting it out for most of the major individual awards.
They met at an preseason All-American gathering in Arizona. Maualuga was surprised to get to know the real Laurinaitis.
‘‘Down to earth, unselfish, he’s a complete, real person,’’ Maualuga said. ‘‘He’s got a great personality.’’
Laurinaitis, like Hawk before him, has the awards to prove he’s an elite player. A two-time All-American, he won the Butkus Award (top collegiate linebacker) last year and the Nagurski (top college defender) the year before.
He’s indisputably the leader of Ohio State’s defense. His teammates admire him because he’s more than just a battering ram.
‘‘I just think James’ knowledge of the game is what helps him the most,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘He’s always watching film, he knows the game a lot. He has a great knack for being around the ball. He makes plays when plays need to be made. That’s what makes him a little unique.’’
Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel calls him the best linebacker in the country but seldom trumpets the guy wearing No. 33. There’s no need. Laurinaitis is confident but not cocky. He needs little motivating or coaching. He knows his job and how to go about it. He said he won’t lose any sleep this week worrying about gaps, assignments and USC’s cupboard full of tailbacks.
‘‘You’ve got to believe,’’ he said. ‘‘Whether it’s a big game or not, you have to visualize yourself making plays. You have to visualize yourself doing the right thing. Think about yourself making that tackle. You can’t have doubts. When you have doubts, then maybe you don’t make that play.
‘‘I’ll sleep fine. Maybe if you don’t sleep well it’s because you’re worried you’re not prepared. But when you know you’re prepared and you know you’ve done all you can to watch film and think about what they might try to do, it makes it easier to sleep.’’
Later, the reassuring words will drift through his head via those headphones as he readies for another big game:
‘‘I’ve been waiting for this moment, all my life, Oh Lord.’’