COLUMBUS, Ohio — The best offensive lineman in the Big Ten this season is also a big softy.
That’s the impression Pat Elflein made in the moments following Ohio State’s 30-27 double-overtime win over Michigan last weekend. His eyes glossy partly due to exhaustion, but mostly because of emotion, the Buckeyes center attempted to articulate exactly what he felt before, during and after the final home game of his college career.
“It was very emotional,” Elflein said. “It was an emotional roller coaster this week from Senior Tackle to Thanksgiving to getting to speak at the pep rally today and walking out on Senior Day as the last one.”
Nothing, however, got to the Ohio State redshirt senior quite like the celebration that followed the Buckeyes’ momentous victory.
As 110,000 strong in scarlet and gray flooded the field, Elflein made a beeline for the Ohio State family section. There, he found his mother Lisa, father Ken, brother Matt and sister Heather and served as a one-man forklift, lowering each member of his immediate family onto the field.
“I literally physically grabbed them and they jumped over the fence and I pulled them down,” Elflein recalled. “To be able to celebrate with my family — that’s my motivation.
“It was just very, very exciting.”
It’s been an exciting year for Elflein, who was named the Big Ten’s Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year earlier this week. After opting to forgo the NFL draft and return to Ohio State for his senior season, the Pickerington, Ohio, native has only improved his stock, with Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller ranking Elflein as his No. 2 center.
But before looking ahead to the next level, Elflein has a college career to finish. For now, he’s still the heart and soul of a Buckeyes team that appears to be a lock to make the College Football Playoff.
“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” says Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett. “That’s just solely because he cares about the people.”
A starter on Ohio State’s 2014 national title team, Elflein could go down as one of the most decorated offensive linemen in school history should he add another championship to his resume.
But before his legacy ever began to take shape, Elflein was merely a backup facing the most unique of opportunities.
The first significant playing time of Pat Elflein’s Ohio State career came as the result of an on-field fight and two middle fingers.
As the Michigan kickoff unit swarmed Buckeyes running back Dontre Wilson in the 2013 edition of The Game, a scuffle ensued. And while such tiffs have long been commonplace in Ohio State’s rivalry with the Wolverines, this one wasn’t quick to slow down. Before you knew it, members of both teams had spilled onto the field — including Buckeyes starting right guard Marcus Hall.
Spotted throwing an apparent punch in the mini-melee, Hall was ejected from the game. That meant the Buckeyes would have to rely on their redshirt freshman utility offensive lineman.
With the rest of the sideline worked into a frenzy, Elflein prepped the first meaningful snaps of his college career.
“Someone told me that Marcus just threw a punch and I was like ‘Uh-oh,'” Elflein recalls. “Then they started naming off numbers that were ejected and I heard 79. So I was like, ‘All right, I’m in.’ Just going in there with those guys, you didn’t really have time to freak out.”
Playing alongside three future NFL starters in Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley and Andrew Norwell, Elflein — then all of 293 pounds — held his own. And when Urban Meyer opted to suspend Hall for the ensuing Big Ten title game after the starting right guard gave the Michigan Stadium crowd a double-fingered salute, Elflein received the first start of his college career.
In a game that brought their national title hopes to an end, the Buckeyes lost to Michigan State, which possessed one of the country’s top defensive lines. Nevertheless, Elflein left that night in Indianapolis confident he was capable of being an Ohio State-caliber offensive lineman.
“I know we lost, but personally I played to a higher level,” Elflein says. “After that game I was like, ‘I can do this. I can not only go in and play but play well.’ That’s when I came out a different man.”
On the field, Elflein’s college career has played out like a storybook. In 2014, he served as the starter on a national title team. The following year, he emerged as one of the best guards in all of college football. He could have entered the NFL draft last spring and made millions. Instead he came back to school and will make millions more this spring.
Off the field, though, Elflein’s life has been far from a fairy tale. During the early part of his college career, his older brother Matt, a former linebacker at Division III Ohio Dominican, dealt with drug addiction. He’s since, according to Pat, been sober for three years.
“He’s my rock, that’s my man,” a slightly choked up Elflein said in early-November. “I call him on the phone every day. We talk 2-3 times a day on the phone. And if there’s ever anytime I need something, the ups and downs, he calls me, I call him. We’ve been through it all together.”
Addiction, however, has been prevalent in Elflein’s life.
This past summer, Arizona offensive lineman Zach Hemmila died in his sleep. An autopsy ruled the death to be the result of an overdose of prescription medicine and pain pills, per The Arizona Daily Star.
Like Elflein, Hemmila wore No. 65 and was going to be his team’s starting center this fall. He also happened to be Elflein’s best childhood friend until his family moved to Arizona when they were in eighth grade.
“We were really good friends. He grew up in Pickerington, right down the street,” Elflein said. “We stayed in touch. He wore No. 65 like I was, he was going to be their starting center. He had a problem. And it got the best of him.”
Elflein admitted to carrying some of Hemmila’s death with him this season. But to the surprise of nobody who knows him, Elflein has tried to make the most of his sadness.
He regularly volunteers with his family friend’s drug awareness nonprofit named Tyler’s Light. This past fall, he spoke to a drug-free club at his high school alma mater, Pickerington North.
He received a standing ovation from the students in attendance.
It wouldn’t be the last he’d hear.
Back to the storybook.
On Saturday, Elflein played in the final home game of his college career. He shared the captains’ coin toss at midfield with high school teammate-turned-rival-but-still-good-friend Jake Butt.
Hours earlier at the Ohio State Skull Session, Elflein addressed a jam-packed contingent of scarlet and gray faithful.
“We’re going to win this damn game together,” Elflein told the raucous crowd.
Each Senior Day, Meyer allows a hint of sentimentality, picking which player will be announced last during the pregame celebration. That player typically resonates as the emotional leader of that Buckeyes’ squad. In 2012, it was John Simon. In 2014, it was Jeff Heuerman. On Saturday, it was Elflein.
“I can’t give an adjective to overemphasize his value to our program,” Meyer said. “And I’ve done this 29 years. He’s as good a player, person, leader as I’ve ever been around. We have Senior Tackle on Thursday. That will be a tough one.”
As for the game itself, it was the type where an offensive lineman shines, with the Buckeyes totaling 206 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Perhaps fittingly, on the game-winning play — a 15-yard Curtis Samuel touchdown scamper in the second overtime period — Elflein could be spotted high-stepping his way into the end zone and Ohio State lore.
Good night. Go Bucks. pic.twitter.com/Bt6A4ZsOJ3
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) November 27, 2016
After the game he grabbed his family, pulling each member into the 110,000-man mosh pit. There’s still a few pages left to write in his fairy-tale career, but no one soon will forget the Buckeyes’ gentle giant.