It’s never easy for a mom to see her kids leave and move off to college. That doesn’t change when your son heads to Ohio State to play football.
For Jeny Borland, redshirt freshman linebacker Tuf Borland’s mother, her son moving off to college meant the end of their pregame meals at Jimmy John’s.
Gwen Wade, freshman cornerback Shaun Wade’s mom, missed sneaking off to eat and shop with Shaun, who she described as a “mama’s boy.”
For others, like Tyronda Whitaker, the mother of redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis, she missed just having her son around to talk to.
As the mother of a college football player at an elite program, life can be easier or more difficult than that of a mom of an average student. But it’s always different.
“Mommy, who has possession?”
When Lewis was five or six years old, he asked his mother if he could play football. Her answer was simple: No.
She was worried he would get hurt. Not until Lewis entered seventh grade did his mother allow him to play the contact sport.
“He’s always been bigger than everyone else,” Whitaker said. “But the main reason was because he really wanted to. He showed a true interest in it and I’m one of those parents that whatever my kids are interested in, I try to support.”
Whitaker didn’t understand football when Lewis began playing. A single mother of four boys, she relied on her then-8-year-old son, Kenai, to teach her the sport.
“He asked me, ‘Mommy who has possession?’ I’m like, ‘Possession of what?’ He’s like, ‘Mommy, who has possession of the football?’ Then, I realized my football IQ was way too low,” Whitaker said.
By the time Lewis was an upperclassman in high school, he had grown to be 6-foot-4. OSU and many other schools around the country came calling, recruiting the four-star defensive lineman from Tarboro, North Carolina.
But his mother worried about her son attending a school like OSU that would require a 10-hour drive. Whitaker and Lewis each made top-10 lists. Hers was so detailed that she included the exact distance in miles from her driveway to the each school’s doorstep. It wasn’t until the duo visited OSU that she was convinced it was his best option. She said she literally couldn’t find anything wrong with it.
Even still, when Lewis eventually enrolled at OSU in the spring semester of 2013, Whitaker was distraught. She missed her oldest son who she had become so used to having around the house.
“I’m going to get the boys from daycare and when I walk in the house, the boys are home from daycare, the house is pretty much clean to a standard that all I’d ever have to do is go to the kitchen to make dinner, if he didn’t make dinner himself,” Whitaker said. “He plays such an intricate role in all of our lives.”
She could no longer call him whenever she wanted. He was too busy with practice, tutoring, workouts, homework and meetings to be as available as she would have liked. It’s better now, as the two text often and talk on the phone once every few days. She said she needs the calls, even if they’re just two minutes.
Whitaker understands the massive time commitment is necessary, but she has had to work to help Lewis’ three brothers understand why the family can’t see the 2016 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year as much as the group would like.
In the fall, Whitaker’s family travels to home games on Fridays, and is able to see Lewis for 10-30 minutes before he reports to the Blackwell Inn with the rest of his team. Then, on Saturdays, Whitaker can get dinner with her son if the game isn’t a night game. And on Sundays, they begin the long trek back to North Carolina in the morning.
“We have to talk to ourselves and say, this is your son and he’s in a primetime position,” Whitaker said. “So we have to share him with the rest of the world and you just have to remember that no matter what, you love him and he loves you.”
Without a father in the house, Lewis has acted as a role model, even a father figure at times, to his three brothers according to Whitaker. She said they look up to him.
“It gives them someone to look up to, someone that they can strive to be like, and any time that they have a question about what it takes to get to that point in life or what that journey will entail, they can call him,” Whitaker said.
She said she leads by example. She understands that children pattern the behavior of their parents, so she has tried to live her life in an upbeat, positive way. She worked to instill empathy in Lewis and his brothers.
Even still, she understood, as a woman, that there were some things she couldn’t teach her sons. So, she assembled a team of men, including former coaches and family members, to serve as positive role models and mentors.
“With me being a single mom, my thing was I never wanted them to feel the void of not having both parents in the house so, I’ve done whatever has needed to be done to make sure that they never felt that,” Whitaker said.
“I’m in a totally different zone – the Justin zone”
Though his brother C.J. Hilliard left the state to play football for Iowa, redshirt sophomore linebacker Justin Hilliard never wanted to go far away for college. The Cincinnati native and former St. Xavier High School standout was a five-star prospect with offers from schools spanning the country.
But despite Justin eventually deciding to stay in his home state to play college football, his mom, Diane Hilliard, wasn’t prepared for him to leave.
“That’s my entire life for 18 years. So when C.J. left, that was OK because I still had Justin the whole year to myself. And when Justin left, I had no idea what to do,” Diane said. “It was really difficult. That empty nest was really difficult.”
His first year away, she had to talk to him on the phone at least twice a day and FaceTime him three times every week. But Justin understood. He would make time for her, returning on the weekends to study, do laundry and watch their favorite show,” Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.
It wasn’t long into Justin’s career at OSU that he had to overcome his first bout of adversity. As a freshman, he tore his left meniscus during the season then tore his right lateral biceps tendon, forcing him to miss spring practice. A year later, as fall began, he inexplicably tore his left bicep.
Unlike many people in his situation, he was prepared for it. Diane said she instilled perseverance in her kids when they began playing, knowing it would eventually pay off.
“When they started playing football and ice hockey, I would be talking to them like that. And then when it finally happened – he had the surgery – I just came up like, you know, you’ll come back. It’s OK. It’s painful now, but it’s going to get better,” Diane said.
She said she worked to find examples of people who dealt with similar injuries as Justin’s, such as NFL linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, and sent texts of their stories to the linebacker, hoping to inspire him.
“One injury can’t end all of it,” Diane said. “(Justin and his brother have) seen stories where that happened and I just didn’t want them to ever feel consumed or (feel like) this is what I am, this is who I am.”
One injury didn’t end it. Nor did his second or his third.
On April 15, he suited up with with his teammates in the 2017 spring game and led both teams with seven tackles, earning praise from OSU coach Urban Meyer after the game.
Diane was thrilled to see him back on the field. She even had a special name for how she watched the game.
“If Justin’s on the field, I’m locked in on Justin. I’m in a totally different zone – the Justin zone. That’s where I am. I’m not really focused on anything else, I’m just focused on Justin,” Diane said.
“It’s something that we all love”
Football comes naturally for Tuf Borland.
“He’s always dreamed of playing in the Big Ten,” Jeny said. “He’s kind of unique. He’s one of those kids who was really serious. He was years ahead of his peers.”
It makes sense. The sport is in his blood.
His father, Kyle Borland, played football for Wisconsin. Jeny’s father and Kyle’s father each coached football teams. Jeny believes the game brings the Borland family closer together.
“It’s something that we all love,” Jeny said. “All the way from when my husband was growing up to when I was growing up, it’s been a big part of our family.”
Considering Kyle’s legacy playing for the Badgers and the school offering Tuf a scholarship, many recruiting analysts expected the linebacker to commit to Wisconsin. But Jeny said she and her husband made it a priority not to pressure their son to attend any particular school.
When Tuf and his mom were in Columbus for a group visit during his junior year, former linebackers coach Luke Fickell, who is now the head coach at Cincinnati, pulled the Borlands aside and took them into his office, telling them he’d been trying to talk to him all day. It shocked Jeny.
“We didn’t even know that Ohio State, like, knew of him because we’re down in Illinois,” she said. “Tuf didn’t go to any camps or anything.”
Tuf committed to OSU before his senior year of high school began. His first year in Columbus, he redshirted.
It was difficult for Tuf because he had previously never been forced to watch his team from the sidelines. But, Jeny said, early in the season, redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard and a few other starters pulled Tuf aside and told him they understood the year was tough. But they also told him he had been doing a great job and to keep doing what he was doing.
“It’s hard because you know what your son wants and you want it for him. But at the same time, it’s good because he going to have that extra year,” Jeny said. “I think it’s good for him mentally to not have everything come easy. For him to really have to work hard, I think that’s good for him as personal growth.”
Though Tuf has yet to suit up in uniform for a game in the fall, he’s played in two spring games and took part in pregame festivities as a freshman, including Jeny’s favorite, the team’s walk from the Blackwell Inn to Ohio Stadium.
“The fans, family and friends line the path for the players and Tuf will stop and give me a hug as he passes by,” Jeny said.
Though she enjoyed attending games during his first year as a Buckeye, Tuf’s mother is eager to watch him suit up in scarlet and gray and play in the fall.
“I just look forward to him being on the field so that his hard work that he’s been putting in since the day he decided he wanted to play in the Big Ten when he was 8, all that work that he’s put forth comes to maturity and he’s able to really get out there and compete and show people what he has to be successful,” Jeny said.
“The next logical step was football”
Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton’s career in sports didn’t begin on the football field. Instead, it began on the soccer pitch at the age of 5. But it lasted just one season.
“He was bigger than all the other kids and he kind of bullied them. So, the next logical step was him playing football,” said Sabrina Hamilton, DaVon’s mother.
As someone who isn’t interested in football when her sons aren’t playing, Sabrina said she had him play the sport because it was just something to do. Every year, until middle school, she asked him whether he wanted to play, as she never wanted to force her son to play a sport he didn’t want to.
Over a decade after playing his first snap, DaVon starred on Pickerington Central’s defensive line as a senior. In the Tigers’ game against rival Pickerington North, Sabrina remembered she had to leave the stands and began pacing down below. While away, DaVon blocked a field goal.
“I didn’t really see it. But, when I heard about it, I was really excited. I had to look it up on Hudl and watch it,” Sabrina said.
That year, DaVon became a hot commodity in the world of recruiting. He committed to three schools – Ohio University, Pittsburgh and Kentucky – before flipping from the Wildcats to the Buckeyes less than two weeks before signing day in 2015.
“It was like the fastest year of my life and probably his dad’s life too,” Sabrina said. “He started his senior year and it was like hitting the ground running and it didn’t let up until he graduated.”
Two years and two months after DaVon committed to OSU, while on spring break vacation in Sandusky, Ohio, with their two other kids, Sabrina’s husband, Damian, received a call in late March from DaVon with bad news. DaVon needed surgery on a broken foot.
“I was thinking, why would you wait until we were out of town and not even able to get there right away?” Sabrina joked. “Definitely, like I said, not the best moment. But he said he was OK, so we got there as soon as we can and it all worked out good.”
She felt lucky that DaVon would be going through the healing process nearby, as the Hamilton family lives just a half-hour drive from campus. But moreso, she felt like she wouldn’t have to worry because she trusted the OSU coaching staff.
“I feel like his coaches – Larry Johnson, Urban Meyer – have always made sure that we knew that DaVon was an important part of the team so I had no reason to even doubt that when he got hurt that they would do everything that they could to make sure that he got back to 100 percent,” Sabrina said.
The doctors explained the break in his foot and called to let her know the surgery was a success and what to expect during the healing process, she said. Sabrina talked to her son on the phone three or four times per week to check in. He never complained.
Since DaVon has been in college, Sabrina’s favorite moment was when DaVon recovered a fumble on the 1-yard line in last year’s game against Michigan. She didn’t miss that play.
“I saw that one. I was right there, front and center for that one,” Sabrina said. “I haven’t had to leave the stadium. It’s a different experience since he’s in college.”
“You never call me!”
Gwen Wade, the mother of former five-star recruit and early-enrollee freshman cornerback Shaun Wade, remembers the first time she sat down and spoke with Meyer.
“When I first went there to sit down talking to coach Meyer in his office, he was just himself. He was just straight up,” said Gwen, an Alabama native and Crimson Tide fan. “He told (Shaun) what he would do, what he won’t do. And I appreciated that.”
Tired of she and her son wearing name tags during visits to colleges, Gwen enjoyed the personal touch she felt from OSU.
“They know who we are. They even know about our other kids and stuff. So it was more past football,” Wade said. “We sat down and we talked a little about education, Shaun doing what he needed to do as far as getting a degree and everything.”
Meyer isn’t the only coach who made an impact on Wade and her family during the recruiting process.
Kerry Coombs, the cornerbacks coach and special teams coordinator, visited the Wade family home to sit down, watch TV and chat. Gwen said her mom immediately fell in love with Coombs, who she said says some crazy things sometimes.
“He expects for him to graduate no matter what, even if in three years he’s going to the draft, he still expects for him to walk and to get his degree to have on the wall back home,” Gwen said.
Shaun committed to OSU on Jan. 12, 2015, the day of the Buckeyes’ 42-20 win over Oregon in the national championship.
Since then, because the OSU coaching staff no longer must stay in constant contact as it did while recruiting the Jacksonville teenager, Gwen said she communicates with the coaches less frequently.
One day during the spring, Shaun’s first semester on campus, Gwen got a call from a familiar person: Meyer.
“He was like, ‘You never call me!’ And I was like, “You’re busy! It’s getting time for football time, it’s time for football time. I’m not leaving you alone,’” Wade said.
Now, she sometimes texts Meyer, or he texts to ask how she’s doing. But she doesn’t want to bother him because, she said, she wants the team to get a ring.
When asked about what she is looking forward to in the fall, her son’s first season as a Buckeye, her answer was simple.