Photo courtesy of MCT
James Laurinaitis wasn’t used to losing. Following his 43-8 career as a middle linebacker at Ohio State, the St. Louis Rams drafted Laurinaitis early in the second round last year.
The Rams finished the season 1-15, the worst record in the NFL.
“It was definitely different. It’s crazy frustrating losing that many games,” Laurinaitis said. “No one wants to be remembered for going 1-15, but I had the mindset that hopefully I can be a part of the solution and not the problem.”
In high school, Laurinaitis excelled in two sports. He was named Minnesota’s Defensive Mr. Football at Plymouth Wayzata High, where he recorded 193 tackles his senior year. He was also a star hockey player and was considered to be a second- or third-round pick in the NHL Draft had he chosen the sport.
After committing to the University of Minnesota, Laurinaitis changed his mind when he visited OSU. He loved talking with the coaches and looked forward to learning from standout Buckeye linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter.
Even so, nothing could prepare Laurinaitis for the Buckeye faithful.
“When I first got there, I didn’t understand truly the passion that people have for OSU football,” Laurinaitis said. “The whole O-H-I-O thing was weird to me.”
As a three-year starter at OSU, Laurinaitis racked up 375 tackles. Only six other players have had more. He led the team in tackles from 2006-08, becoming the fourth player in school history to do so for three consecutive years. He was also a two-time captain, an honor he shares with only six other Buckeyes.
Many in the program, including current Buckeye linebacker Ross Homan, saw how hard he worked both in practice and on game day.
“James was an unbelievable competitor on the field,” Homan said. “And off the field, he was a huge mentor to me. Watching how he studied film and how he worked out, he’s going to be an icon in OSU history for sure.”
Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said Laurinaitis’ work ethic made up for what he might have lacked in natural ability.
“He did a good job in our system. The kid was as competitive as they ever come, and he’s got a passion for the game of football,” Fickell said. “His work ethic, competitiveness, and passion to play football are what you look for in anybody.”
Laurinaitis said he misses the sense of community that comes with playing football in college.
“I try to tell people here in St. Louis about the cult that is OSU football,” Laurinaitis said. “When you’re in (the community), you’re just so used to it that you’re like, ‘These people are all crazy, but in a good way.’ Then you miss that community when you leave it.”
Laurinaitis missed the OSU community so much when he went to the NFL that he got excited whenever he saw a former Buckeye in St. Louis.
“I remember last year driving down the highway here in St. Louis going to Rams Park and seeing an OSU bumper sticker,” Laurinaitis said. “I just wanted to pull up next to them and be like, ‘Hey, I went to Ohio State too.'”
Though the NFL was certainly a possibility after leaving OSU, it wasn’t the only job offer he received. His father, Joseph Laurinaitis, was a former professional wrestler who competed as “Animal,” one half of the legendary “Legion of Doom” and “Road Warrior” tag teams.
The wrestling lineage, as well as the family’s connections to the business (his uncle John Laurinaitis still works for World Wrestling Entertainment) led Laurinaitis to meet Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE.
“One or two times when I was at OSU, he said to me, ‘You know, what do you think about coming into the family business?’ But to be honest, I hope this football deal works out long enough to where I don’t have to do any of that,” Laurinaitis said. “I know the beating my dad took from it. He had to have nine surgeries. He can’t even lift his right arm above his head anymore.”
Laurinaitis stuck with football and was projected to be a first-round pick throughout his junior year. By the end of his senior year, however, his stock had fallen. The Rams selected him with the third pick of the second round.
“I felt like I had a solid college career, and as a competitor I was obviously disappointed,” Laurinaitis said. “I try to keep the mindset going into every practice that I’m still trying to make the team.”
Laurinaitis said he learned early in his career how cutthroat the NFL can be.
“You’re constantly evaluated, and everyone is disposable,” Laurinaitis said. “No matter what your name is or how long you’ve been in the league, if you do something and can’t do it to the level that they want anymore, they won’t hesitate at all to get rid of you.”
Despite going 1-15 in his first season in the league, Laurinaitis led the team in tackles while starting at middle linebacker in his rookie season. The Sporting News named him to the All-Rookie team.
None of those accolades surprise Buckeye linebacker Brian Rolle, who said Laurinaitis taught him a lot.
“I tell people that he wasn’t the fastest guy or the most athletic guy, but I felt like he knew everything because he was always in the right spot,” Rolle said. “I never saw him make the same mistake twice. He has a desire to play football and to want to be great, and that’s something I feel like he has been carrying over into the NFL.”
This year, the Rams made it their goal to win the NFC West. Although that might have seemed laughable coming off a 1-15 season, they’re now tied atop the division with Seattle at 5-6.
The defense ranks 14th in points allowed, with 21 per game, and 13th in rushing yards allowed, with 103.4 per contest.
“I think we can (win the division), but we have a long way to go,” Laurinaitis said.
Wins aren’t his only concern. While recently playing the video game “Madden NFL 2011,” Laurinaitis saw something that disturbed him. He had the lowest swagger attribute rating of all the linebackers on his team. The rating determines the likelihood of a player to celebrate on the way to the end zone or after a touchdown.
“I understand that I didn’t have a lot of celebrations after sacks or picks last year, but to put me as the lowest on the squad really changed my whole mindset on everything that I wanted to do as far as celebrations,” he said.
After consulting with starting cornerback Ron Bartell, Laurinaitis decided to stick with his lineage. He caught an interception early in their game Oct. 31 against the Carolina Panthers and, after being tackled, he strutted in a pose that mimicked wrestling legend Ric Flair. He followed that up with a sack. After he got up from the turf, he started posing and flexing his biceps like Hulk Hogan.
“It was pretty funny and new for me. Coming from ‘Tresselville,’ you don’t really get to do celebrations like that,” Laurinaitis said. “I’m not too concerned with having a 100 for my swagger rating, but being the lowest on the team, that just can’t be OK. So I had to do something about it.”