Nick Bosa, the NFL draft's best prospect, is itching to return to the field

All access: Nick Bosa gets brother's advice ahead of NFL draft (3:22)

Get an all-access look as former Ohio State DE Nick Bosa spends time with his family in Florida as he prepares for the NFL draft. Watch episodes of "Draft Academy" exclusively on ESPN+. (3:22)

NICK BOSA, WHO happens to be built like a baby rhinoceros, is chasing me.

I'm moving as fast as my 41-year-old legs can churn through the uneven sand. We're on a private beach in South Florida, and there is a prop football in my hands, a detail that seems irrelevant at the moment because there is a hint of malice in Bosa's eyes. It's like a predator about to run down its prey.

In theory, Bosa is chasing me as part of a photo shoot for this magazine. Prior to this, we'd been tossing a football back and forth for 10 minutes, my creaky-but-capable dad arm lofting passes in the direction of his giant frame. But then, to spice things up, the photographer wondered if we might turn up the intensity a bit: How about Bosa comes flying at me and I'll try to evade him, like I'm a helpless Big Ten quarterback and he's, well, himself?

With a mixture of apprehension and adrenaline I agree, and now the chase begins (although calling it a chase is, at best, generous).

For the most part, Bosa has the temperament of a tiki bar happy hour regular -- mellow, bemused and carefree. But the look on his face has me wondering whether his football instincts are about to override reason.

It's been more than six months since Bosa knocked someone off his feet, laid him out like a human wrecking ball in a tangle of limbs and snot bubbles. He did it regularly at Ohio State before a painful core muscle injury last fall ended his junior year just as it was beginning. The Cardinals and 49ers, the teams with the first and second picks in the upcoming NFL draft, have spent the past several months examining whether Bosa has the right combination of speed, power and technique to be a game wrecker in the mold of Khalil Mack or Myles Garrett. All the while, Bosa's been missing the hell out of the sport that he feels he was born to dominate.

As Bosa comes at me, I can hear his feet thudding through the sand, all 266 pounds of muscle and bone picking up speed, and a thought flashes through my head: Holy s---, I'm about to get pile-driven into a dune -- and possibly two Wednesdays from now -- by the NFL's next great defensive end.

And then, right before the collision, Bosa pulls up. I stumble in the sand, limbs flailing in every direction, my body bracing for an impact that might have triggered my life insurance policy.

We exchange eye contact, and Bosa laughs. "I was actually thinking about tackling you there," he says.

Despite his laconic Florida drawl, I can tell he's serious by the expression on his face. There is a fury inside Nick Bosa. And he is itching to unleash it again.

THERE HAS BEEN a trend in recent years in college football, and whether you hate it or love it, it's not going away. Players are waking up to the reality that their bodies have substantial economic value. They no longer see their college careers and NFL careers as two separate chapters in their lives. They have decided it's completely reasonable to protect their bodies once their earning potential becomes apparent, even if an actual payday hasn't arrived.

It started with standouts like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipping meaningless bowl games to preserve their draft stock and guard against injury. Even though traditionalists howled their disappointment, even though fan bases decried their logic as selfish, the trend only grew from there. Last season the number of star players skipping the postseason to preserve their health grew to nearly 20. No one wanted to be Jake Butt, a Michigan tight end projected to be an early-round pick until he tore his ACL in the 2016 Orange Bowl, his final college game. He fell to the fifth round, losing millions in the process.

When Bosa withdrew from Ohio State last fall after his injury, the decision seemed-on the surface-like a logical and practical extension of that trend.

He'd begun his junior year at Ohio State with enormous expectations. After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore, he was convinced he was about to emerge as the most dominant defensive player in college football. He was going to rack up 20 sacks and help his team win a national championship. He had been bulking up in the weight room and honing his technique to the point where the game was starting to feel easy. Then, after one awkward stumble on a pass rush against TCU in Ohio State's third game of the year, all those dreams were dead.

"It was the worst pain I've felt," Bosa says. "It was like a couple of pops in my groin. I knew right away that it was really bad."

The Cliffs Notes version of what happened next: Bosa had surgery and ultimately decided to withdraw from school. Fans and pundits-including many at ESPN-did not hold back their criticism. Former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow gushed over Bosa's work ethic and character but said Bosa was "seeing dollar bills in front of him" and would one day regret missing out on the "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to potentially play for a CFP title.

The longer version of what happened to Bosa is a lot more complicated than Tebow or anyone else understood at the time. If you were under the impression that Bosa's decision to withdraw from Ohio State was easy, or that it didn't come with an emotional cost, he would like to set the record straight.

It just about broke him, he says.

The pain in his groin, and all through his abdomen, was excruciating. It lingered for months in every activity. Even something as simple as using the bathroom hurt. The cloud that hung over him, though, was even worse.

"I was super depressed," he says. "That first week, I was all alone in my apartment and I just started calling people I care about, just to talk. I called my high school coach, I called my dad, my mom, my brother [Pro Bowler Joey Bosa]. It was pretty rough. My entire year had been stripped away."

Bosa wanted to return to Ohio State, if it was possible, his sights still set on a national championship. But he suspected almost right away that he wasn't going to be able to play in college again. "My dad is always looking out for what's best for me," Bosa says. "He immediately started talking to Joey's agent, and they found me the best core surgeon in the country. As soon as we saw the MRI, we knew."

After Bosa underwent surgery to repair the torn core muscle on both his left side and his right side, his surgeon told him that he could probably rehab the injury in 12 weeks but that there was almost no chance his groin would be strong enough to play football at a high level that same season. He wouldn't even get evaluated until late November. "It was obvious," Bosa says. "There was no chance."

That's not, however, how it was publicly framed by Ohio State. Then-Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer mentioned several times that he was hoping Bosa would be able to return, perhaps even in the regular season. It put Bosa in an uncomfortable spot when a few weeks came and went and there was no sign of his return. "I love Coach Meyer, but I think his mind was on winning a national championship," Bosa says.

Bosa's status turned into a minor soap opera in Columbus, and as the tension mounted, fans and some media speculated he was quitting on his team. Bosa didn't want to respond and potentially make it worse, but his father, John, couldn't resist telling the media that the negative comments about his son were "absurd."

"Some of the media put it out there that I'd be back in a few weeks," Nick says. "It's funny how people would even fathom that. They obviously didn't know the injury. Then it looked like it was just me saying 'F--- it' and leaving, when that wasn't the case at all."

Bosa says he realized early on that standing on the sideline, watching practice, was not how he needed to be spending his time. The athletic training staff had its hands full with the rest of the team -- it's not as if the trainers could singularly focus on his rehab. About a month later, after mulling it over with his parents and his brother, he decided it was best to leave school. He would move to California and live with Joey. There was a rehab facility just 10 minutes from Joey's condo. "It was the worst time that I can remember as a dad," John says. "Seeing what could've been and thinking about what could've been, and the path he was on. It was pretty difficult."

When Nick went to tell the Buckeyes' coaching staff, he was fighting back tears.

"He's got a big heart," says Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson. "He loves people. I know the day that he left to walk out of this building, there wasn't a dry eye in my office. We cried together. One thing he said was, 'Coach, I'm sorry I let you down.' I said, 'No, you didn't let me down.' He felt so bad that he had to make that decision."

Meyer obviously wanted Bosa back on the field, but it went deeper than that. "When Nick Bosa went down, that changed our team," he told reporters after the season. "I know he's a great player, but he was more than that. He was a rock."

What Bosa is not interested in, even now, is being anyone's symbol. He does not appreciate being seen as a model for college athletes gaining agency in a sport in which their economic value can quickly outpace their compensation. In a December essay for The Players' Tribune, he tried to make his side of the story clear, expressing how much Ohio State, Meyer and Buckeyes fans meant to him. The suggestion that he had a choice in the matter, let alone a stand to take, rankles him.

"I think it's dumb," Bosa says. "I had a season-ending injury. If I could have played, I would have played and given it everything I had. It's not like I was trying to set a trend or I'd planned on skipping a year. ... It was terrible the way it got taken away from me."

Still, there are those who disparaged Bosa as selfish for not hanging around his team for the rest of the year, not mentoring his replacement. For another player, the questions surrounding where he'd go in the draft might have included coded language about his "priorities." But those criticisms have been superseded -- or at least drowned out -- by Bosa's talent. Before he was injured, Bosa got pressure on the quarterback 21.2 percent of the time in 2018, second best in the FBS. His four sacks led the Big Ten for almost half the season, even as he sat out.

At the NFL combine in Indianapolis, before Bosa sat for interviews or ran a 4.79 40-yard dash, I asked one NFL executive how his team was viewing Bosa's decision to leave Ohio State in the middle of the season. Was anyone going to hold it against him?

"Nope," the executive said. "When you're as good as he is, it doesn't matter."

ON THE DINING room wall of Cheryl Bosa's Fort Lauderdale home, there is a giant metal fork and spoon hanging next to the dinner table. The decorative utensils are nearly the size of the door that opens up to her back patio, which is right on the water. There is an obvious joke to be made here: When you raise two boys who grow up to be giants, it helps to have silverware the size of a snow shovel on hand to feed them. (The boys' nicknames in the family are Big Bear and Smaller Bear -- the 6-foot-4, 266-pound Nick's Twitter account is @nbsmallerbear.) But the truth is, Cheryl just loves to cook, almost as much as she loved being the rock in her sons' lives. "I spent my life cooking for these guys," she says. "Sometimes I'll go to the fish market and get literally a 4-pound slab of sushi grade salmon and sashimi it, and they'll just sit there and eat it, the entire slab."

Because that's the other thing -- when it comes to drowning out criticism, a pedigree the size of Bosa's also comes in handy. You're probably already familiar with the family lineage: Nick's brother, Joey, was the third pick in the 2016 draft, now a star defensive end for the Chargers. His father, John Bosa, and his uncle, Eric Kumerow, each played three seasons for the Dolphins in the late 1980s. But Cheryl, Nick says, was just as important to his upbringing.

"My mom is amazing," he says. "She's always been there for me. She's always been the one driving me to practice, picking me up when I was sad. I've always been a mama's boy. I don't think she gets enough credit because she didn't play in the NFL, obviously. But I think she deserves all the credit because she's the one who kept everything together and got me and Joey to where we are."

Cheryl says she's often asked how much her boys are alike and how they're different. It's a difficult question for her to answer. At first glance, there are plenty of similarities: same position on defense, same jersey number in college, same prominent chin and nose. "But if you know them well, then you know that they're really different," she says. "Joey's definitely more cerebral. Joey's just quieter, in his head like that. Nick is a little more social. Nick's a little more outgoing, and Nick adapts to situations probably a little bit better."

If there was one small blessing attached to Nick's injury, it's that the Bosa boys got a chance to live with each other again while Nick rehabbed. Watching Joey play games on Sunday from the Chargers' suite was torture, Nick says, but at night it would be just the two of them in the condo, watching TV or playing video games. It was the most they'd been able to hang out together since they were teammates at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, when they played on the defensive line together for a season and won a state title. When Joey's NFL season ended in January, the brothers began training in earnest for Nick's combine performance, working out each morning in a gym Joey built in his garage, focusing more on flexibility than strength.

"He's so laser-focused right now, it's unbelievable," Joey says. "He understands the opportunity in front of him. He just needs to put all he has into this moment right now, which is what he's doing, and it's going to pay off for him."

Scouts aren't yet convinced Nick will be as explosive as his older brother, but they do think he might have better hand technique and more strength. "He's a little more of a stiff weight room guy when you watch him sometimes, especially in his hips," says one AFC talent evaluator. "Not sure he'll quite have the range of some other guys with that snap change of direction, but getting the corner and working to the quarterback, he knows how to do that."

Over the course of the season he spent rehabbing, Nick says, he grew to appreciate his older brother even more than he did when they were kids playing together. "He's just relentless," he says. "He's genuinely angry if he's not what he wants to be. And it's not about stats for him. Most people, even if they had a terrible game and two garbage sacks, they would probably be happy. Joey would be pissed off if he was getting blocked all game."

I asked Nick the same question reporters always ask Cheryl: How are the brothers different? Joey is more competitive, Nick reluctantly admits, and has interests outside of football. (He'll make his acting debut with a small role in the final season of Game of Thrones on HBO this spring.) Nick loves football more, he says-"I was full-on into it from the time I was 7. Joey, not as much." He's also more politically minded. Last year he seemed to delight in posting political takes, including his support for President Trump, on Twitter and needling dissenters. (He also caused a minor social media stir by criticizing Beyonce, Black Panther and Colin Kaepernick, all eventually deleted.) As the combine drew near, though, his online behavior grew increasingly bland. I asked why he seemed to abandon something he had previously embraced.

"I had to," he says. "There is a chance I might end up in San Francisco."

WHETHER HE ENDS up going No. 1 overall doesn't matter that much to Bosa, although he does believe the Cardinals would be making a "big mistake" if they don't take him. "It feels like my entire life has kind of been building up to this moment," he says, thinking back to hours spent playing with his dad, uncle and brother from grade school on.

Back then, the Bosa boys basically went to war every day, leaving a trail of broken pingpong paddles and video game controllers in their wake. "There were a lot of times my dad and Joey and I would go bowling or something, and it would end in a fight," Nick says.

They used to play a game on their trampoline that they dubbed "Kill the Man With the Ball," which was as simple and as brutal as it sounds. If you had the ball, you were in for a world of hurt. "It's funny how that became the object of our lives," Bosa says. "There is no other sport that's ever given me the kind of rush that football does."

It's not something Bosa can easily turn off, as I came close to discovering on the beach. That day, Nick Bosa didn't give in to the fury. An entire generation of NFL quarterbacks might not be quite so lucky.

Styling by Jason Rembert; Grooming by Alaina Debernardis; Production by Kim McEniry/Overflow Productions