The look of maize and blue and scarlet and gray across from one another has graced the final weekend of college football for numerous decades. Thousands of players have traveled through the gauntlets of Columbus and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some of the rivalry’s biggest names made their final statement in their final game in their home stadium.
On Saturday against No. 3 Michigan, when the four Buckeye captains walk uniformly to midfield for the coin toss, Ohio State redshirt seniors center Pat Elflein and linebacker Joe Burger will be the only two captains at the coin toss who are definitively playing their final game in Ohio Stadium.
Elflein and Burger are both natives of Ohio, so the rivalry means more to them, naturally. Elflein grew up in the Columbus suburb, Pickerington, and Burger in Cincinnati.
The first time Elflein played in “The Game” was one of the more memorable ones in 2013. At the start of the third quarter, OSU then-freshman H-back Dontre Wilson was tackled following a kickoff and surrounded by several Michigan players. From there, flags flew, punches were thrown and the sidelines had nearly emptied. Starting offensive lineman Marcus Hall was one of three players ejected, and when he exited the field, he saluted the crowd with a double bird. Enter then-redshirt freshman Elflein.
“I saw a fight break out. Someone told me that Marcus just threw a punch. I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ Then they started naming off numbers that were ejected, then I heard No. 79 and was like, ‘Alright, I’m in,’” Elflein said.
Having not played in any games other than when the outcome was completely out of reach, Elflein filled Hall’s role admirably on a day OSU ran for over 400 yards. The Buckeyes put up 42 points in Ann Arbor and its championship dreams — at least at the moment — were saved by Tyvis Powell who intercepted a go-ahead two-point conversion by Michigan.
“I’ll never forget that. We talk about it, especially around Thanksgiving, because it’s always getting ready to play that game,” he said. “Everything happened so fast, and I just remember the end of the game.”
Elflein could have left with what felt like the majority of the team after last season. He was projected as a high-round pick. He already accomplished a national championship. What more could he have wanted?
Elflein’s decision to come back to Columbus for his final season shocked a few, but not necessarily his teammates. When Elflein agreed to make the switch from guard to center this summer, that was evident of who he is. Redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis specifically remembers how Elflein treated him when Lewis arrived on campus as a freshman.
Being from North Carolina, Columbus was brand new to Lewis. As a true freshman, he didn’t really know anyone in the program other than maybe a couple guys he went on recruiting visits with. One of the first teammates to approach Lewis was Elflein. He offered Lewis, fellow freshman defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle and others a ride to practice as early as 5:30 in the morning.
“He was always there to pick me up when I was down. Pat’s a tremendous leader,” Lewis said. “We all love him. For this to be his last go round, this is tough.”
Elflein has been a starter on the offensive line for three years now, this being his only at center. He is one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, which is given to the nation’s most outstanding interior lineman. Redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett has been behind the line for the majority of those three years and has a great appreciation for not only what Elflein has accomplished on the field, but the person he is outside of cleats and shoulder pads.
“He means a lot to me. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had and that’s just solely because he cares about the people,” Barrett said. “I think at times, especially when you’re at a top-tier university, you get caught up on doing well in your own individual success. He had himself together, but he always seeked out to see how you were doing, how someone else was doing … That’s why he came back is to be with us. I think that’s selfless and not a lot of people come around like that.”
Losing Elflein won’t be easy for coach Urban Meyer, either.
“I can’t give an adjective to over emphasize his value to our program, and I’ve done this 29 years,” Meyer said on Monday. “He’s as good a player, person, leader as I’ve ever been around. We have senior tackle on Thursday. That will be a tough one.”
Being one of the Ohio’s top recruits in his recruiting class, Elflein probably expected his day in the sun. For Burger, his status as a Buckeye was a little more up in the air.
Burger played his high school ball at LaSalle High School in Cincinnati, where he was a Division-I first team All-Ohio football player and won a state title in not just football, but basketball as well. He had multiple offers from Mid-American Conference Schools, such as Bowling Green and Miami University, but Burger had greater aspirations.
He decided to take a preferred walk-on role at OSU as a member of the 2012 class. He redshirted his first year in Columbus and then increasingly saw more playing time. He started one game in 2013 and saw time in every game in 2014 on the team’s way to a national title. By the time 2016 rolled around, it was determined by Meyer that Burger had paid his dues.
The former walk-on earned his scholarship for his fifth and final season of Buckeye football. And not only did he receive a scholarship, but he was named a team captain along with fellow former walk-on and roommate senior linebacker Craig Fada.
“If I have any more children, I’m going to name him Burger Fada. That’s how much I love those guys,” Meyer said. “Two of the most selfless guys I’ve ever been around, and I’m so proud to be able to put them on scholarship. They’ll be Buckeyes the rest of their life.”
Burger’s family is a lineage of walk-ons.
His father was a walk-on player at Notre Dame before earning a scholarship. His brother Bob, too, walked on at Notre Dame after leaving Dayton where he was playing on scholarship.
Unlike Elflein, Burger isn’t going to be drafted and get the opportunity to play in the NFL. However, being able to play in his final game at the ‘Shoe against Michigan with so many national implications, Burger considers it an honor to take part in the historic edition of the rivalry.
“It’s really a dream come true,” he said. “Ten years ago, you remember watching it (No. 1 OSU vs. No. 2 Michigan) and to play in a game like this is surely something special.”
It’s 10-1 OSU versus 10-1 Michigan with a shot at getting into the College Football Playoff on the line. For Burger, it’s even more than that.
As a captain and one of 21 Buckeyes being recognized on Senior Day, the Cincinnati native will run out of the tunnel one final time. The colors of maize and blue and scarlet and gray decorating the stadium and the field, the feel of one team united against another and to be a captain in one of the most anticipated installments of the rivalry, Burger doesn’t know how he’ll handle his emotions.
“It’s hard to think about right now. I don’t know if the reality has really set in,” Burger said on Monday. “This thing has been built up all year long. At some point on Saturday, it may hit me. I don’t know if I can describe it until I get in the tunnel for one last time, hug my parents. I’m sure it will be a special moment for me.”
Elflein and Burger will join elite company with five wins over Michigan if OSU wins on Saturday.