Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
At the end of arm workouts, the Ohio State football players do bicep curls until their arms, already exhausted from hours of pushing, pulling and lifting heavy amounts of weight, physically cannot lift anymore.
Senior fullback Zach Boren is like most players: he grabs 50-pound dumbbells and cranks out as many reps as he can.
Then Boren looks over at fellow senior, defensive end John Simon.
Simon, who has the 80-pound dumbbells, is blowing through reps at a furious rate and shows no signs of stopping.
“John will give out a big yell, call us some names and pull out the 80’s and start rubbing it in our faces,” Boren said.
Even among a group of elite Division I athletes, the hulking senior defensive lineman stands out.
That has always been the narrative when it comes to Simon. He has developed a reputation for being one of, if not the strongest, players in the Big Ten, a conference known for strength above all else.
Perhaps the only thing more freakish than Simon’s strength though, is the work ethic he has used to accomplish it.
No days off
A group of four or five reporters was peppering Simon with questions at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in late July.
Having been around the OSU program and the constant media attention that surrounds it for more than three years now, Simon seemed comfortable and confident in his responses.
But there was one question Simon could not answer.
The conversation had turned to Simon’s workout habits and the defensive lineman was describing his daily routine. Simon explained how he gets up at 4:30 a.m. every morning – Saturday and Sunday included – so he can be at the gym by 6 a.m. and work out for more than two hours before going to class. Before day’s end, Simon returns to the workout facility at least twice to work out, watch film and lead the defensive linemen in team drills. Finally, after some homework in the evening, Simon sneaks into bed around 11 p.m. for less than six hours of sleep.
Then came the question Simon could not answer.
“Do you remember the last time you’ve taken a day off?” one reporter asked.
“Uhh,” Simon said as he paused, trying to remember. “I don’t.”
“Not even Christmas?” another reporter said.
“Actually no,” Simon said. “It’s a tradition in my family if I’m home for Christmas, my father and I will get up around 5 a.m. and get (a workout) in before the family wakes up.”
An iron past
When asked where Simon gets his workout habits, his teammates and coaches all point to the same man – his dad.
“His dad texts him every morning like, ‘Great arm workout,’ so I know where he gets it now, because his dad is out of his mind like he is,” coach Urban Meyer said. “Great family.”
“Have you seen his dad?” Boren said. “Right. I mean, when you see his dad, I’m surprised he didn’t start lifting in second grade.”
Boren wasn’t far off.
In elementary school, Simon followed his dad, also named John, around the gym, begging every step of the way to join in.
When Simon was in the fourth grade, his dad finally gave in and eased him into lifting.
“I think I bugged him enough times where he just couldn’t take it anymore,” Simon said.
Simon’s dad watched as he played three sports growing up. He was quarterback of the football team, a pitcher and first baseman on the baseball team and also a wrestler.
Simon said baseball might have been his best sport but football was always his passion.
That passion, coupled with his love for weight lifting, made him 240 pounds entering his sophomore year at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. Now too big for a quarterback, Simon moved to the defensive line and never looked back.
Soon he was being recruited by Notre Dame, Nebraska, Pittsburgh and OSU.
But Simon grew up rooting for the Buckeyes and packed his bags for Columbus after high school.
When Meyer arrived at OSU, he began getting reports on every player to gauge where his team was academically and physically.
Less than a year into the job, Meyer does not get reports on Simon anymore because he already knows what they will say.
Simon is on a very short list of the hardest workers Meyer has ever coached.
“He’s No. 1 and 1a. The other guy’s a lefty,” Meyer said, referring to former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
Meyer has chosen Simon as one of the most trusted leaders on his team as he tries to set the tone for the years to come at OSU.
But Simon could be bitter.
When players come to an elite program like OSU, they expect some stability, but Simon’s experience as a Buckeye has been anything but stable.
He is playing for his third head coach in less than three years and was named in the Sports Illustrated article that accused him and many of his teammates of receiving free tattoos in exchange for football memorabilia, part of a scandal that eventually cost former head coach Jim Tressel his job.
Simon said being named in that article was the low point of his career and still adamantly denies being part of the scandal.
The NCAA sanctions in response to the scandal make OSU ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game and a bowl game at the end of Simon’s senior season.
But Simon’s focus is aligned with his coach’s, who said he has seen a change in his star defensive lineman.
Meyer recognized Simon’s work ethic almost immediately after he took the job, but wanted Simon to push other guys to his level.
“John Simon can go in there every day and lift with (strength coach) Mickey Marotti, and that serves no purpose. And that’s what he used to do here: come in every day and lift with the strength coach,” Meyer said. “He’s going to lift anyway.”
So now, when Simon walks into the weight room hours before sunrise, he brings some of his teammates to train right alongside him.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Meyer said.
Simon’s teammates have noticed the change as he was named just the seventh two-time captain in OSU history Sunday.
“He’s a great leader as far as taking younger guys under his wing,” said redshirt senior linebacker Etienne Sabino.
Simon even took in highly-touted freshman defensive end Noah Spence for one of his 6 a.m. Sunday workouts, which is an off day for most players on the team.
“He really prides himself on being that leader in the weight room, going above and beyond each and every day and going extra on Saturdays and Sundays and working out because that’s what he loves to do,” Boren said. “But he also loves to send that message to other guys like, ‘Hey, follow me.'”
This is the fifth and final installment in The Lantern’s five-part Buckeyes’ Captains Chronicles series. Visit thelantern.com to read all five feature stories on OSU’s senior captains.