Even as a high school wrestler at Pickerington North, Pat Eflein knew he wanted nothing to do with Kosta Karageorge on the mat.
“I remember he was wrestling, like, the district finals match,” Ohio State’s redshirt-sophomore offensive lineman said Monday. “And I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t wanna wrestle that guy.’”
Elflein said he was a high school freshman at the time, but six years later, he’s the Buckeyes’ starting right guard. Karageorge, on the other hand, walked on to the football team in August after wrestling for three seasons at OSU.
Last Wednesday, Karageorge was reported missing by his family, and on Sunday his body was discovered near his Columbus apartment. Police said the cause of death appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a coroner said Karageorge might have died on Friday.
The players learned of their teammate’s death after practice on Sunday, and Elflein said it was hard to believe.
“He was a great person, you know, it’s really shocking to hear that news,” he said. “Our prayers are with his family and with him. The kid just, every day, came out with the same attitude. No matter what the circumstance was.”
Ahead of coach Urban Meyer’s Monday press conference, an OSU spokesman said the school could not comment on the ongoing investigation surrounding Karageorge’s death or the player’s medical history.
During the press conference, Meyer said the loss of life was an “incredible tragedy.”
While Elflein said he had only known Karageorge personally since he joined the team, some other OSU players had known him longer. Junior offensive lineman Taylor Decker said he met Karageorge two years ago through mutual friends, and stressed the important role he played for the team.
After hearing the news of his teammate’s death, Decker said he spent Sunday night hoping it wasn’t true.
“I know I was thinking about it all night, and you just kind of wake up and hope it was all a nightmare,” Decker said Monday. “Just for somebody that you’ve been with every day for months and months, just, it’s sad, it’s sad.”
Decker described Karageorge as a badass, and said the wrestler-turned-defensive lineman knew that.
“He’s a badass, definitely. He was a badass,” Decker said. “Heavyweight wrestler, come on the football team, strong as can be. And I think he liked that, he knew he was a badass.”
Decker added that Karageorge was a “blue-collar American guy,” and said he was always positive. Decker said the two hit it off because they had a lot in common — like their interest in tattoos — and said Karageorge had talked about wanting to be a WWE wrestler.
Decker said he had talked to Karageorge about joining the football team for “a significant amount of time” before the former wrestler decided to try out. He said Karageorge’s fondness for physicality likely drew him to football.
“He just likes hitting people,” Decker said. “He always loved coming out to practice because he liked physical sports.”
Elflein said Karageorge’s take-what-you-can mentality helped him thrive after he decided to play football this season.
“We needed linemen. (Karageorge) saw an opportunity and just, that was his attitude and his mentality is to see an opportunity and go take it,” Elflein said. “And he was taking full advantage of it too while he was here.”
While the physicality of the sport likely drew Karageorge to football, Elflein said his wrestling background was what allowed him to be a contributing member of the team in practice.
“(Karageorge) was a good player,” Elflein said. “He was big, strong, had leverage form the wrestling background. Knew how to control his body and control other people and he gave a great look, getting me ready to go against guys from different teams.”
Decker and Elflein — who both matched up across the line from Karageorge as offensive linemen — both stressed the Thomas Worthington High School product’s positive attitude.
Karageorge’s position mate — senior Michael Bennett — said his late teammate always came to practice with a smile on his face, saying “how thankful he is to be a part of the football team and to be able to go practice with us.”
Bennett added that Karageorge was a spark plug before practice started, and that he enjoyed some of the perks that come with being a varsity athlete at OSU.
“He always loved how much free food we got and stuff like that,” Bennett said Monday during a teleconference. “And he would always just — right before practice — start yelling ‘yeah baby,’ and just be pumped up and it would make everybody else excited for practice.
“Even when you just thought, ‘you know, I could be doing something better.’ He made every day enjoyable.”
The positive attitude Karageorge possessed might make it that much more surprising that he might have taken his own life.
Decker said he last saw Karageorge on Tuesday night, just hours before he disappeared. From what Decker could tell, everything was normal and Karageorge “seemed fine.”
“It’s amazing what some people can bottle up inside,” Decker said.
With his positive attitude in mind, many might ask why Karageorge went down the path he did.
Multiple reports said Karageorge’s family was concerned that he could have been disoriented when he went missing because of a history of concussions. He reportedly sent his mother a text shortly before disappearing saying: “Sorry if I am an embarrassment, but these concussions have my head all f—– up.”
Bennett said some players were aware that Karageorge had a history of concussions, but added that never seemed to be affecting his mood.
“A few of us knew that he had a lot of concussions, but we never knew that he was depressed or anything like that,” Bennett said. “I think he was the most positive out of everybody, which goes to show you can’t tell unless someone speaks up. There’s no way to notice it, and Kosta was always positive, always thankful, so appreciative of everything that football gave him and that everybody in his life gave him.”
Bennett said Karageorge didn’t report his concussion symptoms, despite teammates encouraging him to sit out if he needed.
Decker said he’s aware of the dangers playing football involves, especially when it comes to head injuries.
“It is scary, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about things like that before,” he said. “But it’s real, and you have to realize that when you put that helmet on and go out there and play.”
Elflein agreed that he’s aware of the risks, but stressed that the OSU coaching and medical staff do everything necessary to keep players safe.
“Coach would always say, ‘take care of your body,’” Elflein said. “And we have different ways of taking care of your body. And you gotta make sure you stay up on all of that, if you have any signs or symptoms our medical staff is the best in the country.”
Elflein said he’d never heard Karageorge talk about concussion-related issues.
Concussions aside, the Buckeyes will have to move on without one of their friends and teammates. With that in mind, Elflein, Decker and Bennett all said the 2014 team is the tightest group they’d ever been around.
“Without a doubt this is like the closest team that I’ve been on,” Decker said. “Closer to a family than any other team I’ve been on. It’s just sad that he — things ended up the way they did.”
After the high of beating rival Michigan on Saturday was coupled with the low of learning of a teammate’s death on Sunday, the Buckeyes have a matter of days before they are set to return to the field. And when they do return to the field, a Big Ten Championship will be on the line.
OSU is scheduled to play Wisconsin on Saturday in the conference title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Kickoff is set for 8:17 p.m.
Even after Karageorge’s death, Elflein stressed that the Buckeyes are looking forward to taking on the Badgers.
“Definitely, yeah. Playing for a Big Ten championship, so definitely want to go play that one,” he said.
Elflein added that Karageorge’s death puts football in perspective, and adds more focus to what is happening off the field. He said that makes him consider more than he might have before when thinking about the remainder of the season.
“It just makes me think of Kosta and what he would want,” Elflein said. “And I already told you what kind of guy he was, and thinking about that he wouldn’t want us to go downhill from this. Kosta wants us to win that game, and beat them and win a ring. And get Kosta a ring, he deserves it because he’s put in the work to deserve that.
“I just kind of think of ‘what would Kosta want?’ He wants a championship, so we’re gonna get it.”