As a fifth-year senior on the Ohio State football team, Robert Landers has had to get used to feeling old.
“I think it hit last year,” he said this week. “When I hit the front row (in meetings) on a consistent basis, it's like, ‘Oh, I've been here a little too long.’”
» LOOKING BACK: Landers leading on and off the field for Buckeyes
Not only does he look around and see hardly anyone left who arrived in Columbus the same time he did, he also feels the wear and tear on his body of playing defensive line.
After sitting out most of spring practice to nurse what he termed a “knee ding,” he is happy to be back in the action with his guys during preseason camp.
“Oh, man, it feels amazing,” he said. "You know, just being around the guys, being around Coach (Larry Johnson), it's something that it's like my happy place, it's like tranquility for me. Being out for spring ball and just trying to get my body together — kind of being away from the guys — that was a little tough.
“I'm used to seeing them every day, clowning with them every day, sitting in meetings, coming out the practice, grindin’ with ‘em, and I couldn't do that. So to be back in there with them and sitting up watching film and going through day-to-day ways to get better, critiquing the little things in everyone's game and not only being a player, but being a coach, man, I love it. It's refreshing.”
Johnson bragged this week about being able to go three deep at both defensive tackle spots, including Davon Hamilton and Tommy Togiai with Landers as nose, but confirmed Landers brings something different.
“Great guy inside, great leadership skills and he’s a veteran,” Johnson said. “He understands how to play the game, so that’s really good for the younger guys to watch him play.”
It was not surprising to hear Landers gush about returning to the field.
To make it to the highest level of college football at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds requires a certain love of the game, and Landers’ bubbly personality makes his affection for his teammates palpable, too.
That he would take the lead in discussions following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and his hometown of Dayton was also to be expected.
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Such horrific events represent the crossroads of two social phenomenons that have marked Landers’ life for several years: Gun violence and mental health issues.
Landers lost his father, Robert Landers Sr., to an unsolved shooting in 2006.
While his mother, Tracy Mathews, worked hard to raise three boys, he still felt as the oldest he had to assume the role of man of the house.
Robert Landers Jr. was only 10 years old at the time.
“That started it all, to be honest with you,” he said of battles with depression he previously discussed with the Dayton Daily News in December. “That was like the beginning of me starting to have issues that I was having, struggling the way I was struggling at a young age.
“You’re 10 years old, and you got to be the man of the house, but what exactly does that look like? What does being a man look like? And my mom, she's phenomenal. She is the bomb dot come, couldn't ask for a better not only person to raise me but woman to raise me, but at the same time there's only so much a woman can teach a man as far as becoming a man, you know what I mean? So I had to go through a lot of trial and error because I still had to teach my brothers.”
Trey and Tallice Landers followed in their brother’s footsteps as athletes at Wayne, though as basketball players. After helping the Warriors to a state championship in 2015, Trey has been a major contributor for the University of Dayton the past two seasons. Tallice averaged 10.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game for the Warriors as a senior last season.
“It was very stressful because I looked at it as I'd rather go through it, butt my head, burn my hand, fall on my butt, find the right way before I teach it,” Robert Landers said.
“And at that time that put a lot of pressure on my plate, but I'd rather me do it than them having to do it or figure it out on their own. You know what I mean? So it was one of those things where at times, I've put more pressure on myself because I felt like I had to do more than what I probably should have, but I wouldn't change it. Somebody had to do it.”
Along the way, he found he was developing his own issues he had to deal with, but he avoided doing so.
Afraid admitting any issues would look weak or compromise him as a leader or a role model for his brothers, Landers suffered in silence before finally opening up after getting comfortable at Ohio State.
“When I was younger, yeah, I knew about it, but at the same time you kind of just try to ignore because at the time, like I said, me having a young, ignorant mind that was more of a sign of weakness, not so much as a sign of suffering I'm actually going through,” he said. “Once I got here, I kind of got more of a handle on it and started to understand exactly what it was.”
He credits football with providing relief in two ways.
While members of the coaching staff and training staff can be great sources of counsel, putting on the helmet and shoulder pads and hitting the field is a major release for Landers, too.
“It helps me clear my head and not think about nothing else,” he said. “Once I cross that red line, it's all football. It's all this play, that play, this scheme, that scheme. What I'm gonna see this play. What's the next period we're going to? What drill? How bad is he gonna kill us in period seven with bag drills? You know what I mean?
“It’s like, ‘Okay, everything on the outside, I don't even think about it. It's all football,’ and same thing on game day. I run out of the tunnel, it's tunnel vision. I don't hear the crowd, don't see the crowd. I see the field. It helps. It puts me in a in a tranquil place, in a tranquil state of mind to where I'm good. Like I could be dog-tired after a game, but whatever issues I had before the game started. I'm actually to the point where my mental (state) is good enough to where if I've gotta deal with it, I'll deal with it.”
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