J.T. Barrett sat inside the locker room at Michigan Stadium on the final Saturday of November and let his fellow Ohio State quarterbacks know it wasn’t going to happen again. Barrett decided he wasn’t going to let another leg injury keep him out of another championship run in his final season of college football.
The fifth-year senior was a little more than 12 hours away from arthroscopic surgery and a little more than a week from helping his eighth-ranked Buckeyes beat No. 4 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. But at that moment, he wasn’t able to keep his right leg completely straight.
“How’s the knee?” asked redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins, who had just led a comeback win against the Wolverines in Barrett’s place after the starter needed to be helped to the locker room in the third quarter.
“I’ll be back next week,” Barrett replied.
Barrett didn’t know surgery was necessary until later that night when the team bus pulled back into Columbus, Ohio, and an MRI revealed that the cartilage around his knee could use some pruning. His parents, Stacy and Joe, had already decided they wouldn’t return home to Texas until they knew J.T. was in solid shape.
They knew about Barrett’s high pain threshold and his determination to play better than anyone. The night before an ACL surgery cut short his senior season at Rider High School, Barrett dragged one of his good friends out to the practice field well past sunset to try to prove to his dad that his torn ligament was strong enough to make it through the rest of the fall. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and Barrett watched his team make it to the state semifinals from the sideline.
Had Barrett been allowed to walk on the ankle he broke as a freshman in the 2014 game against Michigan, he likely would’ve tried to play through that too. Instead, he watched his Buckeyes win a national championship with Cardale Jones under center.
“It’s not like he’s superhuman. Our thing was make sure you’re OK,” Stacy Barrett said about her son's plan to play in last week's championship game. “If he couldn’t get to where he was able to play, he wasn’t going to play.”
The MRI that Saturday offered some hope, though. It appeared that a minimally invasive scope would be enough to fix the problem and eliminate the risk of making things worse by playing on it. Returning to the field in six days would be an intense, rarely completed recovery. But it was possible.
“There was a sliver of light that I could go out there,” said Barrett, who less than an hour after hoisting the Big Ten trophy added: “Last time I got us to the party, but I wasn’t let in. So this time, there was opportunity for me to play in this game. I was going to do whatever it takes.”
The Nov. 26 surgery went off without a hitch. The enemy now was swelling. If they could keep the knee from swelling, Barrett could stay active enough to return to action.
Haskins walked into the training room that Sunday afternoon and learned for the first time Barrett had needed a knee scope. He said he didn’t assume then that he would be taking over at quarterback. Barrett had told him the day before that he intended to play, and two years of experience taught Haskins to believe what Barrett says.
Barrett spent Sunday night sleeping at the house of Ohio State athletic trainer Adam Stewart. The sleepover gave Stewart the chance to continue cold treatments overnight during the crucial first 24 hours after surgery, when swelling was most likely to start him down the path of a setback.
On Monday, Barrett ditched his crutches and his limp was gone. When he asked his parents for the keys to his white pickup truck, they figured J.T. was healthy enough for them to return to their jobs in Texas. They left the next morning.
By Tuesday, Barrett had his own designated corner of the training room. Stewart set him up with a place to watch film and study the game plan. He could do both while completing small exercises to keep his quad muscles strong. When Barrett needed to join the other quarterbacks in their meeting room, Stewart came along to monitor the ice and other treatments that were keeping the blood from gathering around the joint.
Barrett joined his teammates on the practice field that night, and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson told reporters that he was expecting he would have a healthy Barrett on the field against Wisconsin.
Wednesday’s practice was Barrett’s first chance to throw again. Haskins took all of Barrett’s reps with the offense, and the veteran helped the rookie get ready for a worst-case scenario. Haskins said he tried to get to the team facility as early as possible during the week in case he was needed on Saturday, but no matter when he showed up, there already was a white pickup truck in the parking lot.
“I’ve never seen a kid work so hard to want to play in a game,” Wilson said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys and had experience with guys that take three, four, five, sometimes six weeks [to heal from a knee scope]. To come back after six days and play against the No. 1 defense in the country, that’s a lot of heart.”
On Thursday, Barrett ran with the team and took about half of the offensive reps in practice. On Friday, he planted and cut on his right leg before boarding the bus to Indianapolis. On Saturday morning, Barrett took control of the team’s game-day walk-through as he has done more than 40 times in his college career. That’s when his teammates and coaches officially learned that Barrett would be on the field for the first snaps at Lucas Oil Stadium with a conference championship at stake.
“From the moment the procedure was done right up until game time,” Buckeyes quarterbacks coach Ryan Day said, “there wasn’t a minute wasted.”
Day watched Barrett in pregame stretches and asked how comfortable the quarterback felt carrying the ball.
“You can call whatever play you want to,” Barrett said.
Barrett ran the ball a team-high 18 times and threw for 211 yards to help his team beat previously unbeaten Wisconsin, 27-21. On one of his final carries of the game, Barrett kept the ball on a fourth-down quarterback sneak from inside the red zone.
He was bounced backward by a pair of Badgers tacklers but regained his balance before lunging for just enough distance to pick up an important first down.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said his faith in Barrett’s ability to make a play never wavered.
“It never does,” Meyer said. “I’ve had [Tim] Tebow, and this kid’s a lot like him. How you keep him out of a game, I just don’t know how it happens.”
Barrett found his parents in the front row of the stands after celebrating the first championship he had participated in during his illustrious college career. He hugged his mom and thanked her. Barrett had a puffy eye from a scrape in the first quarter and a sore shoulder, but she said his knee had no pain.
When the celebration finally died down well past midnight, the Barretts grabbed their bags from the hotel and drove straight to the airport. They were afraid they would sleep through the alarm if they waited. It had been only a week since they had to reschedule a flight back to Texas, making for an exhausting week.
Before she left, Stacy Barrett had one more reminder for her son: Don’t forget to ice your knee.