From Here ... to the Heisman?

Glenville graduates Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr.  put the motor in the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes' offense.  Both are on the short list of Heisman Trophy candidates, but they're playing for something even bigger: All the future Troys and T

“See the Promised Land? It’s over there, just look hard for it. Squint if you have to… it’s there. It’s past Glenville, past St. Aloysius, past St. Edward, past Morning Star Baptist Church. See that? Ah, yes … that’s the Promised Land. You’ve got your ticket. Hold onto that and nothing can stop you.”

The voice Troy Smith hears is familiar. Though the tone has evolved as he’s matured, the message hasn’t changed a whit.

Anytime he needs Ted Ginn Sr., Smith can hear him: “Be the best you can be. Keep your eyes on the Promised Land.” He can feel the warm imprint of the hand on his shoulder … not exactly heavy, but meaty, secure. He’s aware of the shadow of the big man behind him, not so close as to invade his privacy, but near enough that Smith is aware of its constant presence.

Ginn Sr. is large, happy and quick with a handshake. To learn what he’s about, just ask him about his jewelry. The thick chain around his neck holds a gold pendant in the shape of Louisiana. New Orleans, where he was raised, cradles a ruby. A diamond marks Franklinton, his birthplace. Other diamonds spell out “Ted.”

The stones, removed from the ring of his late grandfather, create a wearable memory of Seymour Burton. “I think about him every day,” Ted Sr. says. “This is very, very precious to me.”

You see, Ginn Sr. is working on some gems of his own — young men from the inner city who might become aimless, trying to catch them before they do. Discovering, setting, cutting, polishing.

He’s been a constant in the lives of many young men, including Ohio State’s current jewels: Smith and his son, Ted Ginn Jr., who are both on the short list of candidates for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest individual honor, and who are both on the brink of the NFL.

In the past two seasons, 3,528 yards have passed below their feet. They have reached the end zone 28 times in those three seasons for the scarlet and gray; and Smith, a quarterback, has thrown for 22 more. If all goes as planned this season, the dynamic duo will give the Buckeyes a shot at a second national championship in five seasons.

This is their year. Ginn planted that seed in the ear of Smith at the earliest possible moment — just after the Buckeyes closed out the 2005 season with a 34-20 victory over Notre Dame … their fourth consecutive bowl victory and third in the Fiesta Bowl. This season’s national championship will be decided at the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 8, 2007, and the significance hasn’t been lost on the Buckeyes: This is their year, their bowl, their national championship to earn.

“Can’t wait ’til next year, baby!” Ginn shouted over the din of the 2005 Fiesta Bowl celebration. “No one can stop us!”

But to fully understand the importance of that statement and all the trials of life that preceded that moment requires more than just understanding that these are two teammates who want to win it all.

“I didn’t tell him that because he’s my quarterback,” Ginn remembers. “We go back a long way; we came from a long, hard struggle together. I said it because he’s Troy.”

The lobby of the Woody Hayes Center holds an impressive array of Buckeyes football memorabilia, from Hayes’ legendary whistle to the school’s six Heisman Trophies to the centerpiece of the room — the 2002 National Championship trophy, which prominently features a gorgeous crystal football.

Large and impressive, each Heisman is housed on its own pedestal and encased in a thick square of glass. Two of them belong to Archie Griffin, the only player ever to win the coveted statue twice. The most recent Ohio State Heisman belongs to running back Eddie George, who rushed for a school-record 1,927 yards and 24 touchdowns in 1995.

Who gets the next square glass box?


Photo courtesy of David Richard

“Ted Ginn Jr., all the way,” Smith says without hesitation.

And why not? Ginn Jr. burst onto the college football scene like a tornado two years ago, setting a Big Ten single-season record with four punt returns for touchdowns. But for someone who makes success look so easy, he’s encountered setbacks throughout his life. He was plagued by a learning disability in elementary school, for instance, and Ginn Jr. suffered a challenging sophomore season — some called it a “slump” — but still averaged 139 all-purpose yards per game, including 260 all-purpose yards against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

For his part, Ginn Jr. claims Smith deserves the game’s ultimate hardware. Although he’s made some splashy public mistakes, Smith proved he was a versatile talent in 2005: 2,282 passing yards and 611 on the ground. And his 408 total yards in the Fiesta Bowl has people expecting even more this season.

But really, it’s all the same if either of them wins. “If Troy Smith wins the Heisman, then Ted Ginn Jr. wins the Heisman,” Ginn Jr. says. “And if I win, it’s like him winning it. We need each other to have a great season. We know that. We need each other on the field. We need each other off the field. We need each other for everything. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember.”

Complete this sentence … “We first needed each other …”

Without hesitation, Ted Ginn Jr. says, “to get through church.”

Morning Star Baptist Church takes up the corner between Shaker Boulevard and Buckeye Road at East 103rd Street in Cleveland. The entrance — a glassed-in foyer surrounded by flowers and over which hovers an elevated white cross — is exactly the same on both sides of what is otherwise a rather ordinary looking brick building with brown trim. The church serves free hot meals on Wednesday nights and has been presided over by the Rev. Earl Preston Jr. for nearly 30 years.

The church, with its red star dotting the i in Morning, has been a staple in the lives of these two young men, first shepherded there by the elder Ginn. At 8 or 9 years old, they sat near the back, and like most kids there, grew bored as the hours crawled on and the pews felt harder and harder. Neither remembers whose idea it first was, but both Smith, 22, and Ginn Jr., 21, remember the result of their restlessness. Back then, sneaking out of church seemed the right thing, the only thing to do to get through it.

“There was a basketball court inside the church, downstairs underneath, but there weren’t basketballs available during the services,” remembers Smith. “But we didn’t need the balls, we would always act like we were playing basketball anyway. Then after a while, we’d sneak back in.”

Ginn Sr. says the boys might be remembering the services as longer than they actually were. “It was, you know, a church service … an hour, a couple of hours sometimes,” he says. “Nothing as long as they make it sound. You know how young attention spans are.”

Smith is genuinely shocked when he finds out Ted’s dad has been onto them for years. “That’s funny that he told you about us sneaking out of church,” he says sheepishly. “Man, I didn’t know he knew.”

Junior’s not surprised, though. “Parents know everything,” he says.

Ginn Sr.’s not the only one who knows about the trouble Smith has seen in the last 10 years. Heck, everybody knows about it. “Everybody makes mistakes,” Smith says, “but sometimes your mistakes are public.”

“National” is what he called his last mistake: accepting $500 from a Buckeye booster, which resulted in a two-game suspension, including the 2004 Alamo Bowl and the first game of last season. His other public missteps have included being tossed from St. Edward High School after reportedly elbowing an opponent deliberately during a basketball game, and being cited on a disorderly conduct charge on the OSU campus in 2003.

Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith calls them Troy Smith’s “teachable moments.”

With the help of a very strong support circle — centered by Ginn Sr. — Smith has been able to overcome his errors and move on. Now he wants to use his mistakes for a higher purpose. “I think [my past] shows people that even though x, y and z has happened, when you decide to turn a new leaf at the drop of a dime, you can start,” he says. “It starts with your attitude, it starts with the things that you accept in your life that you want to change. It starts with you … you are the cornerstone to everything you want to accomplish. We have to let the kids out there know that.”


Photo courtesy of David Richard

Smith takes time every day to be consciously grateful for Ginn Sr., his mother, Tracy Smith, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel and others involved in his personal and athletic survival. “If I tried to say every name, word and detail, I’d be sitting there for about 30 to 45 minutes,” he says, and he doesn’t have that kind of time. Instead, he relies on one thing that sunk in before he snuck out of Morning Star’s pews.

“God knows who I’m talking about.”

As head football and track coach at Cleveland’s Glenville High School, Ted Ginn Sr. has made it his life’s work to spread a universal message about life through sports. The work is especially important because of where he does it — the difficult, dangerous streets in the Glenville neighborhood. There are so many ways to go wrong there — drugs, crime, gangs — and Ginn Sr. wants to show the kids there are some ways to go right, too.

“I teach core values,” he explains. “Love, passion, understanding. Life will teach you how to be perfect, and it will teach you to use core values and basic fundamentals. Love is right there. Passion is right there. It’s about understanding kids.”

Ginn even brings them into his home when he has to. He teaches troubled young men to cook, clean and worship. They must make their beds every day and live under the single Ginn household rule: Be the best you can be.

“That includes everything,” Ginn Sr. says. “Being the best you can be covers a lot of ground. Every kid who has ever lived with me — and there have been a few — has had to live by that one rule.”

St. Clair and 113th, the heart of the Glenville neighborhood, is rife with decaying buildings, abandoned businesses, broken windows or bars covering the ones still unbroken. The crime rate is high. But Ginn Sr. knows there are a lot of neighborhoods like Glenville.

“The program, teaching core values to kids, can live anywhere,” he says. “We need everybody to quit looking at the fact that it’s about a sport. This isn’t about a sport. Sport is just part of it, what we use to teach core values. It’s no magical dust. It’s fundamentals, core values of life.

How do you make people understand that?”

His son, Ted Jr., Smith and others — Pierre Woods and Donte Whitner, former Glenville students now in the NFL, come to mind — are doing their part to help him. They are direct products of his tutelage, and they understand their role in that legacy.

“One kid leads to 40 or 50 more kids,” says Ginn Jr. “It’s not just in Glenville. It didn’t start with me, but I’m a part of it. It won’t end with me either, and I’ll still be part of it. We have a responsibility to these kids.”

Smith says it would “mean everything in the world” to win the Heisman Trophy for the simple reason that he could take it back to the neighborhood to show kids what they can accomplish. He remembers “countless” athletes who had, he says, more talent than he did or than Ginn Jr. did, who didn’t have a teacher like Junior’s pop to help save them from their surroundings.

Now, he says, it’s their responsibility — his, Ginn Jr.’s, Woods’ and Whitner’s — to give back, to foster the notion that each child can be something, too. “I see a kid who is 7 or 8 years old and two times the size I was when I was that age,” Smith says. “Or he’s two times faster than I was.He’s looking at me like I’m the best thing since sliced bread. And I’m looking at him the same way, thinking, I don’t think you really understand — yet — what you possess or what you can possess. So as much as we can instill into their heads at an early age that they are the best, then they will be the best.”

To further the message, Ginn Sr. has started the Ginn Foundation, which will fund and support The Ginn Academy, a boys’ charter school he’s planning in Cleveland’s inner city. He has assisted more than 100 athletes — and not just ones from Glenville High — in attaining college scholarships, including more than 50 scholarship recipients in Division I. Some of these athletes earned their scholarships through the efforts of Ginn’s “Road to Opportunity” bus tour, which takes the athletes to the coaches when the coaches don’t make it to Cleveland to see them first.

“You just got to get them looked at,” Ginn Sr. says. “They deserve that.”

A s he had hoped, Ginn Sr.’s concern for the kids of Cleveland has also found root in Ted Jr. and in Smith. The two are prominently featured on billboards around town, urging kids to stay in school. Smith has already taken heed, graduating from Ohio State with a degree in communications. (He remains on campus to play out his last season of football eligibility.) “Kids might see that I’ve already graduated, and it might make some of them think school is a valuable thing,” Smith says.

Ginn Jr. has blatantly hinted that he’ll skip his senior year at OSU in order to turn pro after this season, but he says his message remains the same. “Being in school can get you a lot of places,” he says. “Stay a kid as long as you can. Never be afraid to ask questions. Work hard. Always believe in the Lord.”

Smith’s augments his “stay-in-school” message with this: “Watch the company you keep. Surround yourself with guys who want to do the same things you do and to make something of themselves.”

Ginn Sr. hears these things and realizes that, while his work here is never really done, he’s no longer doing it alone.

During an interview with Smith in Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Buckeye teammates stream by, some winking at Smith, some offering a friendly chuck, most high-fiving or clasping his hand.
A huge hulk of a man trots by, slaps Smith’s hand and says, “I love you,” taking great care to enunciate every word. Smith grins, chuckles and says, “Love you too, man.”

Then Smith looks at me and says, “That’s Alex Boone. He’s my offensive tackle.”

“Then you really do love him, don’t you?”

“Of course. Yeah.”

On the field, they love Smith because he’s a supremely talented football player. He’s 13-2 as the Buckeyes’ starter, including two victories over archrival Michigan and another over Notre Dame. Against Michigan two years ago, he set an Ohio State record for total offense with 386 yards, and he also scored three touchdowns.

Last year against the Wolverines, he willed the Buckeyes to victory, leading his team to two late fourth-quarter touchdowns, including one with just 24 seconds left that sealed the 25-21 win. Last year in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, he achieved a career-best 342 yards passing, including two touchdowns, and he rushed for 66 yards on 13 carries.

Such performances have opposing coaches in agreement that his best football might still be ahead of him. “And that’s a scary thought for the rest of us,” Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said after the bowl game.

What unsettles them, one coach said, are Smith’s weapons: his mobility and speed, his ever-improving arm strength. It’s also his heart and his head. In his two victories over Michigan, he’s been simply unwilling to lose, and that goes a long way with teammates who value such qualities in their leader.

“I think he’ll be a legend when he leaves Ohio State,” said former Buckeyes lineman Rob Sims of Smith last year. “He doesn’t give up. He keeps us going.”

When Ted Ginn Jr. is on his way to the end zone, he remembers something his dad has told him countless times: “Once you get the ball, use your shoes.”

It’s a thing of beauty. His pure speed and creativity are exhilarating. Quick cuts leave defenders gasping. He finds holes that, only a moment before, were nonexistent. “Sometimes [when Ginn gets the ball] you think, Where’s he going?” says Tressel. “Then you say, ‘Oh, there.’ ”

That’s not the way Ginn Jr. describes his bursts: “It’s like running from a dog.”

His dad says Junior has been frequently misjudged because he makes something very stressful seem so easy.

“In every step in life, Ted’s been a lot misunderstood,” Ginn Sr. says. “And I think that’s because he does things so smoothly. He looks like he doesn’t have to use much effort. But he’s working hard. He’s had it rough.”

The roughest, his father says, came when Ted was 11 or so, just entering sixth grade. He was attending St. Aloysius School and struggling to keep up. Ginn Sr. fought for his son to stay there, urging the teachers to work extra with his son. But Ted Jr. was, in his father’s words, “thrown out” of the school.

Testing revealed that Ginn Jr. had a learning disability, and with proper tutoring and teaching, he was able to succeed. “It was hard for me to convince him that he was a good kid and that these people were not really bad people, even though they seemed like bad people according to his standards at that time,” Ginn Sr. says. “That was a big lesson for him.”

And one that still serves him today. “What you have to do is keep asking questions,” Ginn Jr. says. “You have to say, ‘I can’t understand this, I can’t understand that.’ I’m not afraid to ask questions anymore. Back then I was, now I’m not.”

And now, everybody is listening. In his freshman season, he blew out the Wolverines with three touchdowns scored in three different ways — a reception, a rush and a punt return. Smith calls his boyhood friend “the fastest guy in cleats.”

There’s a giant quote on the wall in the lobby of the Woody Hayes Center. It came from the mouth of the venerable Hayes, and it’s a good thing to remember: “You win with people.”

If that is true (and one would think that the powers-that-be at Ohio State believe it is, just based on its prominence), then Coach Tressel is in good shape. Smith and Ginn Jr. are not the only good citizens on this Buckeye team, and the coach is known as a staid and solid core-values man himself.

While pumping Ginn Sr.’s hand and slapping him on the back, Tressel told a reporter: “Whatever this man says is the same thing I say. His word is mine, too. We were born under the same belief system. Whatever he says, I’m good for.”

It begins with teaching strong values to young men. A few of those athletes will find that they hold a ticket to the NFL, a Promised Land of sorts. Some will actually make it there and have it punched.

Odds are good that Smith and Ginn Jr. are in the latter few. But when the NFL calls, they’ll never forget from whence they came and the other Promised Land that beckons … the one Ginn Sr. points to, the one he wears around his neck.

“It’s about family,” he explains. “Core values, family, love, it’s all together. Family counts.”
The worst thing you can do, Smith says, is forget where you came from. “You got to remember and then give back something. That’s the whole thing right there.”

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