C.J. Saunders sat in black sweatpants with gray crutches in the Ohio State team locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium, having spectated as his team limped to a 21-7 deficit after 30 minutes of football.
An injury had the redshirt senior wide receiver sidelined, as it had the entire season, keeping the captain from assisting his team as it fell behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game Saturday.
He stood aside watching no more.
Saunders swept up his crutches, sprung atop a chair and spoke from his heart, telling the team it had a decision to make. Either walk out defeated, he said in the speech, lose, and return to the locker room in tears asking “What could have been?” Or come out firing in the second half, win the game, and have all its aspirations still in sight.
“He’s one of those guys that hadn’t played a game all year, but he’s the heart and soul of this team,” redshirt sophomore center Josh Myers said. “The type of person he is is the reason why we won this game.”
Entering Ohio State as a walk-on, Saunders earned a scholarship prior to the 2017 season and responded by catching 17 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown in that campaign, in addition to special teams contributions.
Saunders reeled in 10 passes for 73 yards the following season, but held enough of a leadership role that he was voted a captain by his teammates for 2019.
The Ohio native suffered an undisclosed season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his final year. But he said he stuck around to help lead his team.
“Something that’s kept me locked in is just, my brothers,” Saunders said. “Being out there every day, I can’t give up on them just because I’m not out catching touchdowns or passes. I’ve still gotta give them everything I can.”
There’s no better situation to be locked in for than a conference title game.
In the Ohio State locker room, as the third quarter neared its opening, Saunders said the time was right to help his team the best he could.
“I had something on my heart that I wanted to share with the team, and just felt it was the right time to say what I needed to say, and hopefully impact my team in a positive way,” Saunders said.
The determining factor, the choice Ohio State had to make, was belief, Saunders delineated through his talk. Scarlet and gray confetti was inevitable if the Buckeyes knew they would come back.
“I think my teammates know how much I care about them, how much I love them, that I’d do anything for them,” Saunders said. “Through that, through a lot of hard work — even though I haven’t played this year I’ve been with these guys for four years and workouts, games, last season, tough times, we’ve been through it all.”
Myers said Saunders’ story is one that’s inspired the team, on the field or not.
That’s what made his speech so impactful, the lineman said. He’s someone the team looks at and says “you can’t let that guy down.”
“He came here, he didn’t have a scholarship, he earned one,” Myers said. “He ended up being a captain. Everything he does — he can’t lose, no matter what he does in life. He’ll never lose. And that’s the type of people we have in this locker room.”
Ohio State rode into a 34-21 sunset victory, capturing its third-straight Big Ten title after winning the second half 27-0.
Senior safety Jordan Fuller, a fellow team captain who finished with four tackles Saturday, said Saunders’ commitment to the team is what gave his words and leadership credibility.
“To be that engaged and hyping us up for the second half — a lot of guys can be hurt be like, ‘I can’t even talk to the team, because I’m not a part of it.’ He’s totally a part of it,” Fuller said. “That’s why he’s a captain of our team.”
Ohio State has all but secured a playoff berth and awaits to find out whether it is seeded No. 1 or No. 2 Sunday at noon.
With leaders like Saunders both on and off the field, the Buckeyes need no crutches to stand tall.
“I’m just proud of my team, and to be a part of this thing,” Saunders said. “We truly have something special in this locker room.”