Most players still embrace bowl games


COLUMBUS – Maybe the last time I saw someone truly excited about going to the Rose Bowl was 25 years ago.

Ohio State was playing in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego in 1993 and while walking along the ocean one day I ran into some Wisconsin fans, who had decided to spend a few days there before heading up to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.

The 1993 season was the first great season in the football resurgence Barry Alvarez orchestrated at Wisconsin. Its trip to the Rose Bowl was its first since the 1962 season, its first since the Badgers fans I was talking to were nine or 10 years old.

Ohio State fans might have been almost that excited in 1996 when the Buckeyes finally got to Pasadena for the first time since 1968. But OSU was coming off a third bitterly disappointing loss to Michigan in four years, so there wasn’t quite the same giddiness as those Wisconsin fans felt.

Before the College Football Playoff and its predecessors like the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the Rose Bowl might have been the biggest postseason destination in college football. And for decades it was the only possible bowl destination for a Big Ten team.

With so much focus placed on the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl and all the other non-playoff bowls do not create the kind of excitement they once did.

One of the newest indicators of the de-emphasis of bowl games is the number of players choosing to skip them to protect themselves against injuries which could affect their future in the NFL.

A dozen or more top players will not play in this season’s bowl games, including three from Michigan – linebacker Devin Bush, defensive lineman Rashan Gary and running back Karan Higdon.

So far, this trend has not caught on at Ohio State. Other than Denzel Ward last year, no Buckeye has removed himself from a bowl game.

Defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones and running back Mike Weber have already decided to pass up their senior seasons and have declared for the NFL draft. It would be a huge shock if quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a third-year sophomore, does not follow them, though teammates say the way he is leaning has changed several times.

“People always (cite) the stigma of injuries, but I feel like you can get injured doing anything,” Jones said. “You can get injured walking outside, I can get injured driving home in my car. I can get injured doing anything so injuries are going to be there. Can’t really avoid that, so I’m going to play.

“I love the game of football, so I’m going to play,” he said. “I kind of want to finish what I started.”

Weber said, “I thought it was going to be a great experience to say I played in the Rose Bowl and to experience the bowl game and the trip to California. I’m excited.”

Either way – play in a bowl game or don’t play in it – the thing to remember is that the athlete is doing what he thinks is best for him.

If his decision is to not risk life-changing money, that’s his choice.

Maybe traditionalists should be reassured by the fact 99.9 percent of players on bowl eligible teams continue to play instead of being dismayed that a few opt out.

Sports Illustrated recently contacted Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith and Denver Broncos tight end Jake Butt, who both suffered major injuries in bowl games that cost them a lot of NFL money.

What they said probably would surprise a lot of people.

Smith, a Notre Dame linebacker, who tore both his ACL and MCL in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State after the 2015 season, says he would make the same decision to play in a bowl. Butt, a Michigan tight end who tore his ACL for the second time in the Orange Bowl against Florida State after the 2016 season, also says he would decide to play again.

Jim Naveau

Staff columnist

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