Get in a debate among Ohio State fans about the accuracy of recruiting rankings and you’re sure to hear the name A.J. Hawk sooner or later.
More than 15 years later, the Centerville native is still a favorite example of those who like to say stars don’t matter (despite evidence to the contrary).
As it turns out, Hawk didn’t care then, and he doesn’t care now.
“Well, I mean, luckily at the time I was so young and naive I never really gave it any thought,” he said in an interview this week.
“I knew growing up all I wanted to do was find a way to play on the varsity team at Centerville. That’s like your whole goal as a kid. My two older brothers played before me, and I was able to play with Ryan for two years there, so that’s all I cared about when I was in elementary school, middle school.”
Two stars? Three stars? Four stars? Nah.
“All I cared about was doing whatever I needed to be able to play on Friday nights in Centerville,” he said, “to run out there on that field with my brothers.”
He did just that, playing on three league championship teams and two Elks squads that made the playoffs.
So, what next?
“When Ohio State offered it was a no-brainer for me,” Hawk said. “Coach (Jim) Tressel offered me and I tried to commit right on the spot. He wanted me to go home and talk to my parents and OK it, but I said trust me they know. They know it’s where I want to be.
“For me it was no question — growing up in Centerville I knew if I had a chance to play at Ohio State I was not going to turn it down. I didn’t give it much thought however many stars you get in high school and what kind of recruit you may be. I was just happy to be there.”
The lowest-rated of four linebackers Ohio State signed in 2002, Hawk ended up with as many All-Big Ten seasons as recruiting stars (three).
He made his presence known early in the season when he intercepted a pass from Kent State quarterback Josh Cribbs and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown in a 51-17 blowout, but his most important snaps came later in the year when he replaced an injured Cie Grant at linebacker at Wisconsin.
“He went down with an ankle injury right near the end of the first half so I got put into the game playing with all these guys I watched on TV,” Hawk said. “Matt Wilhelm was our middle linebacker, All-American. I’m playing next to him with a great D-line in front of me and we’re playing against some monsters from Wisconsin.
“I just remember how big and strong everybody was, their fullback and offensive line. But I played the whole second half. It was a battle and being in there and thrown into the lineup without any time to think about it really opened my eyes up. it gives you confidence to know, ‘OK I can do this.’”
He logged five tackles in a 19-14 win at Madison and started in place of Grant a week later when Penn State came to Columbus.
Hawk had five tackles, including a sack, and anther interception that day as Ohio State smothered the Nittany Lions, holding them to 179 total yards in a 13-7 win highlighted by Chris Gamble’s zig-zagging interception return for the game-winning score.
The Buckeyes outlasted Miami (Fla.) in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship that season, and Hawk became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup for the next three seasons.
He amassed 394 tackles, including 41 for loss and 15 sacks, while garnering All-America recognition twice, winning the Lombardi Award and being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
The Packers drafted him with the No. 5 overall pick in 2006, and he went on to a 11-year career that included a Super Bowl victory and a season with the Bengals.
Hawk retired after the 2016 season and is embracing a new career in sports media.
He is part of multiple shows on SiriusXM satellite radio and plans to call games for Stadium.com this fall, as he did last year.
He will also have to keep a Saturday open to be inducted into the OSU HOF.
“It was unexpected for sure so when they told me,” he said. ‘Obviously I know a lot of the great people in there already. It’s a huge honor.
“Being drafted by Green Bay, playing for Coach Tressel and everything, I was around some awesome people. I made it 11 years in the league which I never thought I would make it that long anyway. I feel very lucky. I’m 35 now and the older you get you think about things like that more.”
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