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From gentle giant to OSU star

Once the toughness within him got going, there was no stopping Buckeyes' Vernon Gholston.

By Doug Harris

Staff Writer

Sunday, January 06, 2008

After talking Vernon Gholston into coming out for his high school football team, Detroit Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher had to talk one of his assistants into letting Gholston stay.

A gentle giant growing up, the Ohio State sack artist finally gave football a whirl as a 10th-grader and started out at linebacker. But he was far too passive for Cass Tech's longtime defensive coordinator, Charleston Fobbs.

"Vernon was such a big specimen and had such great potential, but he was so new to the game," Wilcher said. "Coach Fobbs was kind of (ticked) off because he wouldn't get aggressive, wouldn't get violent, wouldn't get serious on the field.

"Coach Fobbs told him, 'Get the hell out. You ain't no football player. You ain't never going to be a football player. Get off the field.' He quit because coach Fobbs was telling, 'Kill him, kill him, knock his head off, knock him out.' Vern was like, 'Coach I just want to make a tackle.' "

Ghoston walked off the field and went home, never intending to return.

"It was a new thing for me," Gholston said before a recent practice. "It was my first time with organized sports. I didn't know what to expect.

"Looking back at it, my heart really wasn't into football yet. It was just something I was trying. I knew it was time for me to leave."

But Wilcher interceded, coaxing Gholston back by promising he'd never have to deal with that crusty assistant again. And the future Big Ten defensive lineman of the year spent most of his first season in the sport languishing at offensive guard.

"At the end of the year, I just said, 'Forget this. Vern, go over there and play a couple plays on defense,' " Wilcher said. "Coach Fobbs got mad, but I didn't care. I just wanted him to do what he was going to do in the future."

Gholston's size, speed and athleticism were apparent the next season. And it didn't take long for Fobbs to come full circle.

When Wilcher wanted to give his rising star a trial at defensive end, Fobbs instead insisted on featuring Gholston at linebacker — and he thrived.

The Buckeyes won a recruiting battle with Michigan for the top-flight prospect, and the sculpted 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior has had a breakout year. Despite being slowed by an ankle injury at midseason, he's racked up 13 sacks, tying the school record set by Mike Vrabel in 1995 (with one game still to go).

But like the now-retired Fobbs, OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and others on the staff had wondered whether Gholston was driven enough to succeed.

"I remember one day I was at Ohio State watching spring practice," Wilcher said. "When I saw Vernon take that kid and drive him back into the quarterback, I was like, 'Oh, crap.' "

The memory of Gholston's freakish strength causes Wilcher to chuckle.

"But the (OSU) coach said, 'I just need Vernon to be a little tougher,' " Wilcher recalled. "I said, 'He may not ever get tougher. He's just going to do what you tell him to do. You tell him to move that mountain, he's going to move that mountain and crush that guy. He's not going to be snarling and cussing. He's just going to do his job and walk off the field and shake that guy's hand."

Gholston, whose father is deceased, gravitated to Wilcher. The two spent nights and weekends together fixing up Wilcher's rental properties — gutting out walls, putting down tile and hanging drywall.

But while he may have a future as a handyman, Gholston probably won't need to put those skills to work for a while.

Most NFL mock drafts project him as a first-round pick. And although Gholston has insisted he's still weighing his options, Wilcher believes his protege has already made a decision.

"I think he's going to go," Wilcher said. "I think he's got his agent and everybody. He's got everything down pat."

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2125 or at

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