ONE IS a scholar and a smart-ass, as outspoken as his coach is bland. The other is a wild man with a big grin whose mother says of him, "That boy could have fun at a funeral—and he has." They are Ohio State senior tri-captain Kirk Barton and junior Alex Boone, respectively, and they are the finest pair of tackles in the nation, as valuable as they are voluble. While less technically polished than his counterpart on the right side, "I think I'm a lot dirtier," says Boone, making it clear that in his mind that's a good thing. ¶ The Buckeyes are in the BCS title game—a Jan. 7 meeting with LSU at the Superdome in New Orleans—for the second straight year not just because a bunch of teams ranked above them played like the New York Mets down the stretch. There is junior quarterback Todd Boeckman, who until his final two games of the regular season (a loss to Illinois and a win over Michigan) played lights out for a first-year starter. And there is sophomore Chris (Beanie) Wells, who emerged as one of the nation's elite power backs. But neither of those players excels without the contributions of Barton and Boone, future pros whose clock-punching ethos pervades Ohio State's balanced, blue-collar offense.
Both linemen are history majors. ("You know Vlad Tepes was Vlad the Impaler," Barton offered during a car ride with a reporter. "Now that guy was a nut. He makes the Saw movies look soft.") Both realize that if they play as poorly against an LSU front anchored by consensus All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey as they played against Florida last Jan. 8, history will repeat itself.
BARTON AND BOONE weren't the only goats in that 41--14 blowout loss to the Gators—not by a long shot. They're just the ones everyone remembers. They made Florida defensive ends Jarvis Moss (two sacks) and Derrick Harvey (three sacks, a forced fumble) look like Reggie White and Deacon Jones in their primes. True, the tackles weren't responsible for all of quarterback Troy Smith's lumps. Tight ends and backs whiffed on blocks as well, and center Doug Datish made a few strange line calls. For nearly a year the Buckeyes have lived with their embarrassment from that long night in the Arizona desert. Says Barton, "I'll do whatever it takes to get away from that feeling."
Blessed with great wheels for his size, the 6'5" 312-pounder has yet to outrun the grief that descended on him in the summer of 1998. Twelve years ago Barton's father, Kirk Sr., ran a thriving landscaping business, and the family lived in a spacious house on a 10-acre spread in Naples, Fla. "We had the nicest house on the block, a pool in the backyard," Barton recalls. "Life was good." That changed on Valentine's Day 1996, when Kirk Sr. was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare throat cancer.
He would live another 2 1/2 years and endure more than 20 operations, including one to have a large tube inserted into his throat to keep open his damaged trachea. To speak, "he had to put his finger on it," says Barton. "He was the greatest guy in the world, but when you have something like that, everybody looks. Everybody stares. It got to him." From the pain in his voice, it's clear that it got to Kirk as well.
Three months after losing her husband, Brigette Barton moved Kirk and his younger sister, Kasey, to Massillon, Ohio, to be closer to her family. She bought a house down the street from Calvary Cemetery, where Kirk Sr., an Ohio native, is buried. "He was so upset about his dad," remembers Brigette of the son she still calls, in unguarded moments, Kirkie. "He wanted to destroy our home movies."
Barton made few friends as a seventh-grader at his new school—"The cliques, the groups, they were kind of set," he recalls—but he gradually gained acceptance as an athlete. Cut after tryouts for the basketball team that year, he vowed never to be cut again, in any sport. He went on long runs through the cemetery and sprinted up the staircase from the basement, making the house shudder. He went out for football in eighth grade and made the team but rode the bench. "Size doesn't mean anything," he says, "if you don't know what you're doing."
As his rangy frame filled out, Barton began to grasp the game's finer points. By the time he was a junior at Massillon Perry High—lining up at tight end and defensive end—he started to overpower opponents. Even in this football-addled pocket of the country, Barton stood out for his intensity. Upset with himself after a close loss to North Canton--Hoover, he walked the 2 1/2 miles home, feeling he didn't deserve a ride.
Barton was not a high-profile recruit. Ohio State slow-played him, not offering a scholarship until after his senior season. With the Buckeyes struggling in the first half of 2004, coach Jim Tressel shook things up, putting Smith at quarterback in place of fellow sophomore Justin Zwick and, in a move that made fewer waves, redshirt freshman Barton at right tackle for sophomore Tim Schafer.
Three years and 37 starts later, the kid who failed to make his all-county team in high school is nearly everyone's All-America. A two-time All--Big Ten selection, Barton is one of only three players in the 116-year history of Ohio State football to make four starts against Michigan and win all four.