As the leader of Ohio State's offensive line from his left tackle position, Taylor Decker is used to fending off the biggest, baddest dudes in college football. The 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior usually wins those attacks, which is why he's an All-America candidate and a likely first-round NFL draft pick.
There's one thing, however, that can reduce Decker to a giant teddy bear in mere moments: the sight of an animal. The more exotic the species, the better. Especially big cats.
Decker's fascination with them began as a young boy, when he'd rewatch "The Lion King" nearly every day and take his beloved stuffed lion everywhere. He'd sit through hours of "Animal Planet" on TV and become engrossed in documentaries about lion researchers in Africa.
The subject became more than just a hobby for Decker. He is earning his degree in animal sciences at Ohio State and has interned the past two summers at the Columbus Zoo, where he's interacted with tigers, leopards, cougars, cheetahs and all sorts of other creatures.
"They're just cool to be around," Decker said. "A lot of these animals you don't really see in the wild anymore, so they're so rare to find. It was an awesome experience, and it just confirmed my interest and my decision to major in the field."
Decker spent the past two summers in the zoo's animal programs department. That's what the zoo uses for outreach and education, taking all manner of birds and beasts out to schools and libraries or showing them off to visiting tour groups. The animals trained there are the same ones that zoo emeritus director Jack Hanna made famous during his many appearances over the past 30 years on David Letterman's late-night TV shows.
Decker's internships didn't involve anything as glamorous as yukking it up with talk-show hosts. He would clean cages in the mornings and afternoon, feed and give medicine to the animals and help with visits. He'd speak to kids and tour groups about the animals' natural habitats and conservation efforts. He preferred not to mention that he was a star player on the national-champion Buckeyes the rest of the year.
"He didn't really want the attention on him," said Suzi Rapp, vice president and animal programs director at the Columbus Zoo. "He definitely wanted the attention on the animals."
Rapp found out how serious Decker was about animals before she offered him his first internship. When they first met, Decker had long hair and a scruffy beard, part of his image as the leader of the "Slobs" -- the nickname of Ohio State's offensive line. Rapp told him he'd have to cut his hair and shave to represent the zoo. A couple of days later, Decker texted her a picture of him looking as clean-cut as an Army recruit.
Decker also proved himself through the way he bonded with some of the animals. Take, for example, Anchovy. Like many African black-footed penguins, she can be a bit moody and picky about her handlers. Anchovy would refuse food from others and flat-out ignore Rapp. But she would calmly waddle toward Decker and eat from his hands.
"She was kind of my penguin friend," Decker said.
Decker gets excited while recalling how he worked this summer with Chewy, the Amur tiger who was born in April. Chewy now is on display to the public at the zoo and weighs more than 100 pounds ("Taylor is probably the only one who could hold him down," Rapp jokes). Decker also marvels at how lucky he was to receive hands-on experience with a 150-pound cheetah, and to get up close with an endangered species like the zoo's snow leopard.
"His heart was really into it, and that surprised me," Rapp said. "I thought he was just one of these athletes who was coming in to do his time. But he absolutely loved and embraced it, and you could totally tell.
"He was wonderful to work with. I always tell Taylor, 'If football's not your thing, you can always come back here and you'll have a job.' I think football's his thing, though."
That's for sure. Decker has already tamed plenty of Wolverines, Golden Gophers, Nittany Lions, Badgers, Ducks and even elephants during his standout career, which has spanned 39 straight starts. Ohio State's offensive line has yet to consistently play at the elite level it reached during last year's run to the national title, though Decker insists the group will "peak at the right time." Now would be a good place to start, as the Buckeyes open their toughest stretch of the season this week against Michigan State and the Spartans' deep, talented defensive front.
Decker has done his part so far. He earned ESPN.com midseason All-America honors and is contending for several major individual awards. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer calls his blind-side protector "a guy I count on quite heavily for leadership. He's going to have a long NFL career if he stays healthy because he is obviously that talented."
Understandably, Meyer said he needed details when he learned the anchor of his offense would spend his summers with some of Mother Nature's most feared predators. A coach can live with losing his left tackle to sprained knee. Maybe not a tiger bite.
But Decker said he never encountered much danger at the zoo.
"You'd get scratched, nipped at, nibbled on," Decker says. "But it wasn't anything that was going to be really detrimental to your health. You can't be intimidated by animals or fear an animal. Because they'll catch on to that."
Teammates are always curious about Decker's unusual field of study. He said he gave behind-the-scenes zoo tours this summer to safety Vonn Bell, receiver Braxton Miller and offensive lineman Joel Hale, among others.
"He would have pictures with like, a baby leopard or something, and I'm like, 'What are you doing?'" senior linebacker Joshua Perry said. "Everybody has got their little different thing, but I think it's pretty cool. You see a guy that big just really enjoying what he does.
"Taylor could probably fight a lion. He would be all right. I don't think anybody really gets nervous about it. It's like he's a lion whisperer of sorts."
Decker would love to work with exotic animals again after his football career is over, maybe in a zoo or in some other capacity. First, though, he hopes to lead Ohio State to another Big Ten title and national title. For that to happen, the Buckeyes will need their left tackle to play like a lion.
There's no one better suited for the job.