Chris Booker had no intentions of playing football when he originally enrolled at Ohio State.
After starting his college football career at Dayton and redshirting his freshman year in 2016, Booker transferred to Ohio State just to be a regular student in 2017, believing it was time for him to move on with his life. But after playing flag football with his cousin and his friends during his first year at Ohio State, Booker realized he missed playing the sport.
So Booker joined Ohio State’s club football team in 2018, and immediately emerged as a star player for those Buckeyes. Booker caught 14 passes for 371 yards and seven touchdowns in just four games, earning first-team NCFA All-American honors, and more importantly, it rekindled his love for the sport he’s been playing since he was in elementary school.
“Playing at the club was so much fun, man,” Booker said. “It really just felt like high school again, and being able to go out there and play with my brothers. I made some lifelong friends on the club team, and I won’t forget my experiences there, and that really had me fall in love with the game again.”
Booker enjoyed the more laid-back atmosphere of club football, where the team only practices two or three days a week and has much more free time than the varsity Buckeyes do. But after the 2018 season, club football coach (and former Eleven Warriors writer) James Grega reached out to Ohio State assistant director of player personnel Justin Perez and executive director for football relations Tim Hinton to vouch for Booker as a player who could help the team as a walk-on, and last June, they called Booker in for a meeting to gauge his interest in joining the team.
Booker couldn’t say no to that.
“They really took a chance on me, and I really appreciate the opportunity,” Booker said. “I’m just blessed.”
In his first year on the team last season, Booker didn’t appear in any games. He spent last fall focusing on getting stronger, adding 10 pounds over the course of the season.
After putting on another 10 pounds this offseason, Booker started to turn heads with his performance both in the weight room and on the practice field. During his interview session with Ohio State reporters on Wednesday, Booker recalled moments this offseason when Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford and Ohio State director of sports performance Mickey Marotti both came up to him to praise his development.
“Coach Mick came up to me one day and it really meant so much to me, he came up to me one day after our practice and he was like, ‘If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna play,’” Booker said Wednesday. “And I really didn’t even know what to say, because not a lot of walk-ons play here. And I am new to the team too, and I haven’t been here as long as many other walk-ons. I was just patiently waiting for my time, but when he told me that, my mindset kind of changed. Like ‘OK, I can do this.’”
With a full year of development with Marotti and Ohio State’s strength and conditioning program under his belt, Booker feels both stronger and faster now than he ever has before, and now, he’s proven that he can make an impact for the Buckeyes. In Ohio State’s season opener against Nebraska on Saturday, Booker saw playing time on the kickoff coverage, kickoff return and punt block/return units, on which he recorded a tackle and also made a key block, which earned him special teams player of the game honors for his Ohio State debut.
Booker believes “hard work and effort” have been the keys to getting to this point.
“It means so much to me, just to be able to get the opportunity to play football again,” Booker said. “And they teach it here, you can always control your effort and your hard work and the work you put in, but you can’t control your circumstances and everything else. So that’s all I’ve tried to control.”
Ryan Day praised Booker’s work ethic on Tuesday, calling his journey to becoming a contributor for Ohio State an “unbelievable story.”
“What he’s done in the weight room with Mick, what Brian Hartline’s done in terms of turning him into a receiver and then his work on special teams with Matt Barnes, I can’t say enough,” Ryan Day said Tuesday. “I asked him in the team meeting, how many stars were you? He said zero. ‘I wasn’t recruited by anybody.’ It just goes to show you when somebody wants something enough and they have a big enough heart, anything’s possible. What an inspirational story, and that was really, really cool to see.”
“It means so much to me, just to be able to get the opportunity to play football again.” – Chris Booker
As a walk-on, Booker probably isn’t going to see much playing time at his primary position of wide receiver, where the Buckeyes are loaded with talented scholarship players. He said he’s spent time some practicing on defense, as well – he also played defensive back for the club football team and at St. Louis’ John Burroughs School, where he was teammates with Ezekiel Elliott – but it’s likely the vast majority of his playing time for the Buckeyes will come on special teams.
Considering he thought his football career was over just a few years ago, though, Booker is grateful just to be playing any role for one of the top college football teams in the country.
“At this level, you really can’t help but be grateful for everything that comes to you, because the competition here, it’s the first thing you think about when you come to a place like Ohio State,” Booker said. “You know you’re gonna have to work hard if you want to see the field at all. And just what I’ve been able to accomplish is nothing short of, it’s amazing. And the opportunities that they have given me is amazing as well. I’m just grateful, and I can’t say that enough.”