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The cause that hits home for Ohio State's star center Pat Elflein

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Big brother stood behind little brother during the first workout together at the gym, lifted off the bar with five-pound weights on either end and passed down the inspiration that would stick with him along with it.

Pat Elflein dreamed of playing football at Ohio State. Matt Elflein was going to do everything he could to help him get there.

"I saw it in him, the drive, and I remember the very first time at Metro Fitness in Pickerington [Ohio]," Matt, now 27, said. "I told him, 'Hey, if you want to play at Ohio State, it starts right now.' That stuck with him ever since, and I tried to ingrain that work ethic in his head.

"Our relationship is one of a kind. We click. Ever since he got into playing some sports, I was just trying to be the older brother to look out after him."

That early influence on the younger brother clearly worked. Pat Elflein is a senior captain of the Buckeyes, the rock of the offensive line at center, an Outland Trophy semifinalist and a surefire NFL draft pick when the time comes.

But eventually, the roles shifted in the family. Little brother was the one standing behind big brother, and the weight that was holding him down was brutal drug addiction that threatened to destroy their bond.

And this time the message had far greater stakes.


Blessed with the same athletic genes and the work ethic the family passed on as well, Matt Elflein turned himself into a college football player first. And that's where the trouble started.

He had dealt with his share of bumps and bruises as any linebacker would, dating to high school. And while dabbling in rugby, he'd once had somebody fall on his head, breaking his eye socket and needing a plate put in his face. His mom didn't sign the paperwork for rugby again, turning him into a one-sport star on the way to a career at Ohio Dominican.

A torn labrum during his sophomore year came with surgery and a bottle of pills that wound up doing far more damage than the hit that injured him.

"That's when the whirlwind started," Matt said. "I was introduced to pain pills. I was in my dorm, living on my own and didn't really have anyone to hold me accountable. Don't get me wrong, I was an adrenaline seeker. I loved the adrenaline rush, an opium rush, any of that. Anything that made me feel good, I liked.

"Thinking back to when I was younger, I had this addictive personality. Anything that made me feel good, I wanted more of. That started with the gym, really. That was my first addiction. I was working out before practice, before school, during football, after football."

Eventually that effect would wear off for him. By the time he was physically ready to get back on the practice field or in the gym, Matt was already focused on chasing a different high.

What started as a recovery process instead spiraled violently the other way. And for a while he was able to continue functioning, making it through some classes, passing some qualification tests and holding down a couple of jobs, but the addiction was taking hold.

"Well, you know, everyone's rock bottom is different," Matt said. "Rock bottom is when you quit digging. For me, it was bouncing between those two jobs and sleeping in my car. Sleeping at the drug house, sleeping on the floor there -- it was bad. I mean, I couldn't go home. They heated the house with a stove. There were mice and everything. It was terrible, dirty, [like the kind of] place you see on TV you would never think you would be."

"There I was. I was f------ there. Sleeping on the floor, scraping change to get a dollar to get a cheeseburger. And I lost my family. They didn't want anything to do with me, they still cared, but it was from a distance."


That mission that started in the Metro Fitness had been accomplished. Pat Elflein had just arrived at Ohio State, was battling for a job on the offensive line and ready to achieve everything he'd talked about with Matt over the years.

But he was distracted, hurting and trying to figure out how to help a brother he barely recognized anymore.

"It was one of the worst things I've ever been through," Pat said. "Going from someone who was so close to you and you looked up to so much, goes through this disease and it just changes who that person is. This person is now lying to you, stealing from you and is doing whatever they can to get that fix. They're a totally different person, and they don't have control over that.

"It's tough not knowing if he's coming home that night, where he's at, where he's sleeping because he's not sleeping at home. It's really a tough situation."

That was certainly obvious to those around the Buckeyes, who could see that Pat's mind was often elsewhere.

The young offensive lineman had his own future and career about which to worry. And while he wanted to be around to support Matt, that's not always possible for somebody in the middle of a football season.

"Yeah, it was awful," coach Urban Meyer said. "Pat is like a family member, and my wife Shelley is very close with him. She deals with addiction -- that's her career, she's a psychiatric nurse and she's incredible. She's helped other players and players' families, so we actually got all together. I love Pat, there's nothing I won't do for him.

"If someone you love is dealing with a hard time, his reaction didn't surprise me. And how he ended up dealing with it didn't surprise me. He's an All-American center, but he's also an all-American person, which is even more important. I didn't want him to go through this by himself."


Nobody can go through it alone.

Matt fought that message four times, leaving rehab stints early and believing he had the answers for the problem without the help. Eventually it started to sink in as the distance between his younger brother and the family continued to grow.

"I was just hard-headed and refused to listen to the people that have all these degrees hanging on their wall or 15 years sobriety -- I thought I was different, that I could do it on my own," Matt said. "Well, I couldn't. Finally my mom found me at work, like 5:30 in the morning, took me to McDonald's, got me a big orange juice and a steak-egg-and-cheese bagel, it was so good. Then we sat down and talked, cried, she came to me and she found me, but I was like, 'I need help. I need to go to rehab.'

"I went back to work, she called me about three hours later and said, 'So, you want to go to rehab? Your plane leaves at 6.' "

It arrived in Florida. After 47 days of inpatient treatment, the corner was turned. Three years later, he's sober, a project manager at work, a part-time firefighter, new dad -- and a rock again for his little brother.


Pat Elflein stood on a stage at his high school in Pickerington, flanked by a senator on one side and an Army general on the other.

His youth football coach, Wayne Campbell, who founded a nonprofit organization to fight drug usage called Tyler's Light and had organized the event for more than 600 students as part of the push for drug-free clubs across Ohio, was in the audience.

The Ohio State center was supposed to have 10 minutes to speak about his own experiences with his family, and Campbell was waving his hand to tell Elflein to wind it down.

"If someone you love is dealing with a hard time, his reaction didn't surprise me. And how he ended up dealing with it didn't surprise me. He's an All-American center, but he's also an all-American person, which is even more important. I didn't want him to go through this by himself." Urban Meyer on Ohio State's Pat Elflein

"He just put his head down and said, 'I've got another story to tell you,' " Campbell said. "I went, 'Oh no, he's going way over. Pat what are you doing?'

"Then he starts telling this story about his friend, I had never heard it because it just happened -- this place came to a standstill. You could hear a pin drop. Now I'm thinking, 'It was meant to be. I'm glad I didn't wave him off the stage and he got to say that part.' He's got it from a personal perspective, then his best friend."

Drugs had just stolen another relationship with Elflein, this time for good. And while in this case there was no sign of a battle with addiction, Zach Hemmila's death hit Elflein hard after his childhood friend died in his sleep with a toxic mix of prescription pills in his bloodstream.

The Arizona center had grown up down the street from him in Pickerington, best friends until a job took the Hemmila family to Phoenix -- where he would develop into another No. 65 on a Power 5 offensive line.

"Speaking to those kids kind of like fired off a rocket," Campbell said. "He's come to some awareness events before, and he'll get up on the stage and talk. This was a completely different deal -- and the thing is, it's away from football. We know you're popular over here, but look over here.

"He used that platform, and I think he really got excited about the feedback he got. Kids were just surrounding him. Pat, he's an All-American at Ohio State, but they wanted to talk about this. They didn't just want an autograph, they wanted to talk about this issue with him, which is really cool."


The phone buzzes around three times each day, one Elflein to another.

The fight never ends, but the older brother has a new habit for his addictive personality to chase -- staying sober. And when little brother needs a little motivation, he knows one easy way to find it.

"He's my rock, that's my man," Pat said. "If there's ever something I need, ups and downs, he calls me, I call him.

"We've been through it all together."

There was even another shoulder issue in the family to get through recently. And even though it was just a minor scope for Pat, there was another bottle of prescription pills around that couldn't help but give something of a scare to an otherwise imposing 6-foot-3, 300-pound lineman.

"Oh yeah, because I know how easy that stuff is to get addicted to," Pat Elflein said. "I had my mom hold on to it so she was giving it to me when I needed it. Right when I felt like I didn't need it anymore, we got rid of them. They were gone.

"As soon as I could tolerate the pain with just Ibuprofen or something over the counter relief, those things were gone."

That was one lesson among many learned the hard way.

And now it's a new message for the Elfleins to deliver when they stand behind somebody else needing a lift.

"It gives me chills to hear him speak," Matt said. "That's why I'm so open about it as well. Addiction is a vicious cycle, and I feel that pain.

"Oh man, this is just all about helping other people."

After having drugs splinter a one-of-a-kind bond, now the brothers can help tackle that problem together.