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Meet Kenton Stufflebeam, the Buckeyes' secret recruiting weapon

Kenton Stufflebeam's designs help bring some of the nation's best recruits to Ohio State, but those designs -- and a friend in Poland -- helped save his life, one that has seen more highs and lows than most 19-year-olds. @CoachHessler/Twitter

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Before Kenton Stufflebeam could go to work on his next recruiting pitch, he had to sit through one himself.

The talented, 19-year-old graphic artist was in the middle of a heated battle for his services, and after two years at Ohio State, he was ready to accept an offer from new Texas coach Tom Herman for a prominent role that also included a hefty raise.

At least until he was called into Urban Meyer's office for a chat about the future.

"Texas reached out to me, and I talked with Herman, talked with a bunch of guys down there," Stufflebeam said. "Ton of money, big-time school: It was a great opportunity. That's basically like a designer's dream.

"I was expecting Coach Meyer to say that he appreciated all the work, it's been fun and he wished me the best. I kind of went in there with the mindset that he was going to tell me that, but he didn't. It was basically like a whole recruiting pitch. I'm a graphic guy, I don't know how big of a pull I would make. But it ended up turning into like a recruiting battle between Texas and Ohio State."

The Buckeyes may have had the deck already stacked in their favor thanks to Stufflebeam's lifelong fandom. But Meyer's willingness to both try to match the salary and carve out time to help mentor another budding superstar certainly didn't hurt. And with Meyer spotting another promising future, and after already seeing a couple of people with Ohio State ties heading to the Lone Star State, that wasn't an asset he was interested in losing as Herman tried to beef up his support staff at Texas.

"To sit down with him, and really encourage him, and help him, and have a plan for him, for his long-term success, shows how valuable Kenton is in Coach Meyer's eyes," said Mark Pantoni, Ohio State's director of player personnel. "To want to keep him here like that? Most people, if he doesn't think they're vitally important, he'll just wish them the best of luck and move on.

"You can't really get mad at Kenton if he's being paid three times as much money, you know? But coach knows how important this is."

As the social media battles in the recruiting wars have escalated every season, somebody with Stufflebeam's ability to translate ideas, messages or Ohio State-centric designs for mailers or Twitter-friendly images is incredibly useful, as the methods of reaching out to recruits have evolved. While Stufflebeam doesn't communicate directly with the players like the rest of the coaching staff does, his work is often on the front line, as the program reaches out to start relationships with the stars of the future.

Stufflebeam has established himself as a star in his own right. He makes his mark behind the scenes, not on the football field, where the rest of Meyer's youthful prodigies do their work. Stufflebeam's touch as an artist has become an invaluable secret weapon in Ohio State's recruiting arsenal -- and it's also the thing that helped save his life.

'I lost myself in design'

The details are the key.

And Stufflebeam tries to find his edge by paying attention to every single one of them when he sits down to work.

"I would like to think the greatest part of my work is it's very, very detailed," Stufflebeam said. "There's a recruit mailer we put out this past year of 'The Journey.' Starts out with the kid in an Ohio State uniform, goes to him winning the Heisman, to holding the national championship trophy, to being drafted, to holding the Lombardi Trophy, to being inducted into the Hall of Fame -- all in one graphic. There's the kid's name engraved on the Heisman Trophy. I include a custom Hall of Fame bust.

"I think the difference between me and every other designer in this industry is I would prefer to spend that extra half-hour putting in that detail, because that's what sells it."

Stufflebeam learned that lesson at an early age, showing off his eye for detail as a fifth-grader growing up in Michigan.

A trip to Washington, D.C., and a tour of the Smithsonian gave Stufflebeam an early glimpse at just how much impact even a subtle mistake can have. After pointing out an error on a display involving prehistoric time that incorrectly labeled the Precambrian as an era, a young Stufflebeam became a minor overnight celebrity when the Smithsonian sent him a letter of appreciation for pointing out the mistake, earning him spots on national television shows and features in major newspapers around the country.

"I have the newspapers framed, and the stuff that the Smithsonian sent me, I've got that framed, and it's up in my apartment," Stufflebeam said. "I think somebody in Hawaii sent me a letter about it. Very cool stuff, for sure.

"It was kind of a big deal. If you Google my name, that's the first thing that pops up. That's what everyone sees. But to be honest, I hate talking about it. In my childhood, there are very high highs and very, very low lows. Not much in the middle."

The attention and 15 minutes of fame were an obvious high. But just about any positive memory is likely to trigger a negative one for Stufflebeam.

Stuck in the middle of a difficult home life as kid, Stufflebeam simply refers to growing up as "hell." By the time he got to high school, he was considering suicide and desperately searching for some sort of outlet and inspiration.

"My sophomore year is when things kind of changed," Stufflebeam said. "I was going to kill myself, and I'm not shy to say it. I was. At that point, it was either kill yourself or find something you want to do that you can lose yourself in. I think at points like that, some people lose themselves in drugs, some people lose themselves in alcohol, whatever it is.

"I lost myself in design."

And thousands of miles away, Stufflebeam also found somebody who could help him find himself in the process.

'He saved my life'

As Stufflebeam started spending more hours locked up in his room on the computer and finding some early success with his art, his work was earning him some followers on social media.

He decided to reach out to one of the industry's leaders for a few tips and wound up connecting with a kindred spirit.

In Gdansk, Poland.

"We video-chatted a couple times, then we played NHL on PlayStation, but there was too much trash talk," Dariusz Ejkiewicz said with a laugh. "Actually, the real reason we stopped that is one of us finished with the 12-month subscription so we couldn't play anymore. We were being too cheap.

"It wasn't like on some Tuesday one of us decided I wanted to meet this guy or that guy. We kind of started talking, and he was doing good stuff, and I liked his approach to everything. Then on the other hand, we had a similar sense of humor."

"My sophomore year is when things kind of changed. I was going to kill myself, and I'm not shy to say it. I was. At that point, it was either kill yourself or find something you want to do that you can lose yourself in. I think at points like that, some people lose themselves in drugs, some people lose themselves in alcohol, whatever it is. I lost myself in design."

Ohio State graphic designer Kenton Stufflebeam

They also had both gone through some troubled times with their parents, and the now-30-year-old Polish freelancer had life and artistic advice he was willing to share with his new online friend in the States.

The two shared jokes and chatted about the NBA. There were tips about the rules of graphic design, and away from shop talk, Ejkiewicz would talk about the power of forgiveness. And they also found ways to motivate each other, with one Will Smith speech about building a wall one brick at a time particularly resonating after it was shared across the globe.

"It wasn't like I looked for a guy that I could save or something," Ejkiewicz said. "He wasn't my counseling project of the month. We just talked about life, and the serious stuff just kind of pours in between.

"Maybe [our relationship] saved him, I don't know. Maybe each one of those days was one of those bricks that saved him from something that should not have happened."

Stufflebeam leaves less doubt.

"You could look at it, some high schooler messaging a dude from Poland, and think it's weird," he said. "Obviously, it is. But look, I owe everything I have today to him. He saved my life."

And the wall Stufflebeam was building personally helped another one come down.

'It's crazy awesome'

The motor home was pointed south toward Columbus. Final destination: Norman, Oklahoma.

Kevin Stufflebeam grew up in Columbus, a son of a former Ohio State professor, a diehard fan of the Scarlet and Gray who spent his formative years a couple of houses down from a former defensive coordinator who served under Woody Hayes.

And now Kevin was on his way to pick up his son for a road trip to watch his favorite team, which just so happened to employ his boy.

"Oh, it's hard to describe," Kevin Stufflebeam said. "It's not like a dream come true or anything, because you couldn't have even seen this coming. I've been a Buckeye all my life. And I don't think he even realizes, but he took me and his sisters through a tour of the practice facility there, and it was one of those things, I was so in awe that I want to go back because I was there, but I couldn't comprehend it.

"It's crazy awesome."

Kenton has the keys to that kingdom and an office just down the hall from Meyer, which is obviously a source of pride for both son and father. Kenton recalls numerous conversations growing up where he was told he wouldn't graduate high school, wouldn't go to college, would never get a full-time job like the one he has now.

His dad talks fondly of his son's famed eye for detail and says he could always see the potential. But there were hurdles on the way, and a few years back, it might have been difficult to imagine so many invitations and free tickets down at the Horseshoe.

"You know, I don't want to get into a whole lot of it," Kevin said. "But there was an awful lot of negativity there, and he got caught in the middle of it."

But he has at least emerged from his trials and tribulations with a relationship with his father.

"My dad obviously wasn't perfect," Kenton said. "But at the end of the day, he just wanted what was best for us.

"Looking back, I can see that now."

Now, all he's trying to do is look forward.

'That was a lifetime goal. ... What am I supposed to do after that?'

It's a Friday at the Woody Hayes Center, so Stufflebeam is wearing a scarlet tie over his black dress shirt, sleeves rolled up to show off his tattoo that prominently features a few of Meyer's trademark phrases.

So much for a casual day.

Out of polo shirts during his first work week at Ohio State two years ago, Stufflebeam flipped through his options, decided to throw on a tie -- and instantly earned a reputation as the intern who dressed for his success and started a tradition.

Of course, his work is really what speaks for itself. And while a recruit generally would have to repost his designs for the general public to see them, Stufflebeam's contributions to a growing social media wing of Meyer's recruiting machine have been exceedingly well received.

"To be able to be distinct and separate yourself from all the other major schools that are recruiting these kids, you have to do something different," Pantoni said. "Kenton has got great vision. He's up to speed on the latest trends, hip-hop world, sports, and he uses his vision to be able to put a kid's face on certain things and creating edits to appeal to them.

"That's critical, to be able to separate and differentiate yourself from what other schools are doing to get that little edge and maybe make a kid more interested in Ohio State because of it."

And beyond his obvious skills on the computer, nobody is better equipped to sell the Buckeyes than a diehard fan. It obviously doesn't hurt that he's also roughly the same age as the kids he's trying to pitch on coming to Ohio State.

Perhaps not by coincidence, it's also why Meyer probably didn't have to work quite as hard as normal when Stufflebeam came into the office with another committable offer on the table.

"I was told that usually it could take anywhere from a year or three years for Coach Meyer to learn a person's name, and it took probably three months with me," Stufflebeam said. "Coach Meyer actually loves it; he loves my work. I thought that was pretty awesome.

"I mean, I come from a crazy background. I'm just trying to make the most of it. Let's be honest, I have no clue where I can take this. I'm 19. Coming out of high school, my dream was to get here eventually. That was a lifetime goal. I graduate high school, and a month later I'm here. What am I supposed to do after that?"

Stufflebeam has plenty of time now to figure that out, and the hard part appears to be in the past.

Now he can simply take life one recruiting pitch at a time.