WEST MANSFIELD, Ohio – The tears are quickly welling up in Ron Thompson’s eyes.
These same eyes are watching his great-grandson Gabe Powers, the same kid he’s watched grow into the top-ranked player in the state of Ohio, answer a question he’s been asking for more than a decade. These same eyes once looked at Powers, as far back as when he was 4 or 5 years old, and would tell him, One of these days I’m gonna see you run out of that tunnel at Ohio Stadium.
That’s how long Powers remembers Grandpa Ron asking him, “Are you gonna play for Ohio State one day?”
Powers and his two brothers, Mikey and Colton, have all grown up in football, and their family’s history with the sport is well-documented. Their great-grandpa on their dad’s side was a linebacker who had the opportunity to play for the Green Bay Packers, and their dad, Mike, was an All-American at the position at the University of Findlay. And that’s just two branches of the deep-rooted football family tree that sprouted from the community of Marysville.
After a try-out with the Dallas Cowboys, Mike eventually moved on to the world of coaching high school football, where his career took him to the sidelines at the high schools of Xenia, Hilliard Darby and eventually Marysville. During his early coaching days, when the boys were little, Erin would pack all three of them into the car and go out to practices, and they would all eat lunch together afterward to keep the family dynamic intact as Mike kept his football passion alive.
On Friday nights, she would be at the games, basically on the sidelines herself – Mikey and Gabe running around near her, Colton tied up around her chest or her back in a baby carrier – as they watched Mike coach and then run around on the field after the games with dad throwing them touchdown passes.
Erin’s dad coached at Groveport High School in the ’90s with current Buckeye recruiting assistant Ed Terwilliger, so Erin always told herself, “I’ll never marry a football coach,” she jokes. That obviously didn’t happen. Erin loves the game too much herself to have stayed away for too long.
“We’re a football family,” she says. “You learn so much from football. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, when you lose what did you learn from it?”
The football bloodlines don’t stop with just these five, though. Thompson has forever been just as passionate about the sport. Thompson is one of the biggest Buckeye fans in Columbus, having traveled to every single Ohio State football game – home or away – over a 30-plus-year span.
Well … almost.
“He’s only missed one game,” Powers says.
Unless something crazy happened, Thompson wasn’t going to miss seeing the Buckeyes in person. That’s why he would wake up with the sun, put all the windows up in his house and start playing “Across the Field” bright and early before heading to The Shoe’s parking lots. There, he would often stand up, high above everyone else, and lead the chant…
Before him, his friends and family would go into the stadium. One time, many years ago, he even somehow worked his way down to field level and snuck his way onto the turf with the band before returning to his seat.
Thompson’s love for Buckeye football stayed strong as he watched his great grandkids get raised by Mike and Erin into football lifers as well, all three becoming gridiron standouts. When they were kids and then continued to grow up, up, up, Thompson had always joked – sort of, but not really – that he wanted one of them to suit up at The Shoe.
So here is Thompson, sitting inches away from Powers as he makes the official call. He’s FaceTiming with Al Washington, the Ohio State linebackers coach who’s about to hear the news:
“So I just wanted to say that I’m committing to the Ohio State University,” Powers tells him.
Another pretty cool thing: Sitting next to Gabe in this video is his great-grandfather, Ron Thompson, who has been one of the biggest Buckeye fans in Columbus for decades.— Zack Carpenter (@Zack_Carp) August 1, 2020
He just got to watch his great grandson commit to the Buckeyes with Gabe putting on Thompsons own OSU hat.
The room erupts as Washington lets out a scream, and a two-minute conversation ensues, with Washington telling him, “You just made my whole doggone week.”
Powers doesn’t look over to his left, but unbeknownst to him, he might have just made Thompson’s whole doggone decade, as he is getting choked up, eyes filling with tears as the news becomes official.
His great-grandson is now a Buckeye.
Less than an hour later, Powers is going to make his commitment public. He’s going to become the second player in the modern era (since 1999) out of Marysville High School to play football at Ohio State – joining former walk-on Ben Steele, who earned a scholarship during his senior season in Columbus in 2002 – and he’s going to let everyone know by donning his great grandfather’s Ohio State hat onto his head. The same head that, two hours earlier, Thompson grabbed the back of in a warm hug as he told Powers just how special this entire night truly is.
“He just looked at me and said he was so proud of me and he was so happy to be here and so happy I’m getting the opportunity,” Powers says. “He’s always loved the Buckeyes. His one wish was to see one of his grandkids run out of the tunnel.
“This is everything he’s ever talked about is seeing me commit there and see me coming out of the tunnel. For me to do that for him was very special. He’s always said it. That was just jokes when we were little, but now that it’s actually come true, it’s incredible.”
When asked how it was going to feel to watch Powers commit, Thompson couldn’t do much other than smile, shake his head, laugh and talk about the pride he felt for Powers. Almost as if he was living in a dream world.
“It means a lot,” Powers said. “Knowing that he’s a big Ohio State fan, that’s his one wish. That’s why I kind of got choked up when I saw him. Just the look in his eyes, just seeing that joy in his eyes. It got me kind of choked up because when I saw him, I remember who I’m doing this for. Myself also, but also for all these others around me.”
That’s what this entire night is all about.
Thompson is a massive highlight, but here at the Powers’ country home, there isn’t a shortage of people who impacted Powers and whom Powers has impacted. Loads of family and friends have stopped by to take part in this years-in-the-making celebration.
There’s Kim, Powers’ barber who has been cutting his hair for years – these days, a two-buzz on the sides blended with what Mike says is a “shag cut” up top – and who Powers jokes might’ve played a factor in where he decided to go to college. Can’t stray too far away from the person who keeps you looking sharp, after all.
There’s Brent Johnson, Powers’ head coach at Marysville who gets the kitchen laughing when he says, “I taught him everything he knows. I taught him how to be 6-foot-4!”
There’s Justin, John, Steven and Jamie, a group of cousins, a group of teammates and a litany of others who aren’t mentioned. It’s impossible to keep up with all the names being tossed around like the pounds of cheesy potatoes and watermelon aligned buffet style for the guests.
It’s a celebration of a big family – some blood related; some not – who all want to enjoy this moment together. That’s what is being captured tonight.
“You can see the love from the community with the amount of people that at least stopped in, and every single person had at least some touch on his life at some point,” Erin says. “Not every person who was here was blood family, but they’re our family. That’s the Marysville connection. They follow you and watch you from a youth all the way up and embrace you.”
And, objectively, Powers gives back to them. At worst, there are times he looks exhausted. But, really, those times seem to come when he’s answering the scalding-hot phone blowing up with hundreds of texts, tweets and Instagram DMs. When he puts his phone over on the charger and leaves it alone for 20-30 minutes, it’s almost like he escapes back into the arms of the group of family and friends here to celebrate him.
“It’s never about him, and you’ve seen that today,” Mike says. “It’s never about you. It’s bigger than you. You need to be there for these people. They wanna feel what you’re feeling. They wanna be a part of it.”
The clock has ticked to 12:02 a.m. Powers and his parents are settled into a small sunroom on the side of the house. Downstairs, the party still rages on with a handful of supporters. Upstairs, it’s as still as a glass of water.
Except for Titan, the family’s 115-pound English Mastiff, barging into the room to make his massive presence known. In the kitchen, Titan leaves behind Buddy – the approximately 10-year-old and 105-pound mutt who showed up one day in the Powers’ garage, with Mike and Erin eventually obliging Powers when he told them something along the lines of, “You’re not taking him to the pound.”
That was more than seven years ago.
Erin lets out a yawn. This whole weekend must have felt like seven years. She says she’s not tired – not with how much coffee she drinks on a daily basis – but it would be hard to blame her if she was. On Friday afternoon, Mike called her to tell her she needed to pick up a third pork butt to put on the smoker in preparation for Saturday’s party. There were going to be a few more arrivals.
Since 3 p.m., she’s been putting everything together to prepare for everyone descending on the house. It’s not unfamiliar territory.
“We do it a lot. We pull it together,” Erin says. “This was very last minute. Completely last minute. That’s the love, support and camaraderie. That’s Marysville. I knew when he said it was just a small get together with family exactly what that was gonna entail.”
With his size and his skill set and with his athletic ability, its rare. Theyre all looking at him as the hybrid, which they said is one of the hardest positions in college football to find.— Zack Carpenter (@Zack_Carp) August 2, 2020
More on what Gabe Powers commitment brings to Ohio State:https://t.co/9abp8yB87S
On Thursday night, the three of them sat down not far from these seats to discuss whether or not it was time for Powers to make the decision to commit to Ohio State.
Mike was pretty certain this was where he wanted Powers to go. Even though Washington is a former defensive lineman, Mike still saw a bit of a kindred spirit in the linebackers coach.
And Erin saw a lot of herself in Washington’s wife, Melissa, ever since the first time she saw Al and Melissa watch their two kids run all over the Woody Hayes Athletic Center after November’s game against Penn State.
“It was like a flashback,” Erin says. “I looked at her with her little kids, and I can remember when Mike was coaching, taking the carriers that you have to take on your back because all my boys are really close in age. Even when he coached, we were on the sidelines of every game whatever school it was. That's what we do.
“I met his wife, and she is a sweetheart. Down to earth. Just a great family. And it takes a lot. I don’t think people quite understand the football coaches’ wives and what they have to pull to keep the family together.”
She saw the closeness of the Washington family, and then she heard from her son the closeness of Ohio State’s players. Ever since he first started visiting, that’s been the No. 1 takeaway by Powers each time, and it’s something that reflects what he experiences in his hometown community.
“I just want him to have that support and have that brotherhood,” Erin says. “That’s what he felt at Ohio State, and that’s what you’ve got at Marysville.”
Powers now sits here, a bit slumped as he feels a mega weight lifted off his shoulders from the day’s festivities. He’s nothing less than grateful, but the recruiting process is now over and the day’s exhaustion is finally setting in.
He won’t get to all those iPhone notifications until the morning, but he’s about to go to bed knowing he’s going to the college that most of the people at this house throughout the day have wanted him to go to. Hours later, that feeling is starting to hit home that he’s staying home. Sort of.
“It’s starting to set in,” Powers says. “It’ll never truly set in for a while. I don’t feel like it really will set in until I’m there. It’s really cool and everything today, but until I actually go there, it won’t set in.”