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Buckeye Business Bureau: 5 former OSU athletes trade athletics for entrepreneurship

Mitch Hooper

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When it comes to being an athlete on the football field, making it to the next level is more of a miracle than a rite of passage. Rosters can only hold 53 players by the time the regular season begins, and there’s a 5.8 percent chance that high school stand out will even make the cut. Even if they find success on the field, the odds of making into the league as an NCAA senior is one in 50, or 2 percent. And for anyone looking to take a different route and skip college, the odds of making it on an NFL roster are about the same as having a 150 IQ. In other words, athletes need a plan B, C, and Z.

But what happens after a successful life on the field? Here in Columbus, we’ve seen Heisman winners phase out of the league in a few short years as well as highly recruited players forced to make a position change just to have a shot. Names like Troy Smith come to mind, or Braxton Miller and Terrelle Pryor. For whatever the reason may be—didn’t have the physical attributes the coach was looking for, or just never got that chance to prove themselves—life goes on, and former Ohio State favorites have found ways to use their namesake and recognition to thrust themselves into a new career.

Photos: Rebecca Tien

Whether they took down the Big Ten foes in football or lead basketball squads to new heights, the super stardom of playing for the university creates household names and that alone can get you far if your professional career in athletics falls through. In a world where it’s who you know more than what you know, getting your foot in the door is a crucial step.

But how far can namesake get you? At the end of the day, it’s a lot like sports. You can be the five-star recruit set to blaze the country, but until you actually perform those skills on the field, you’re just another player on the team. Sure your name catches the coach’s attention, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed anything. Take Zach Justin, and Mike Boren of Boren Brothers Roll Off Dumpsters and Trash Removal Services. You might recognize them from the iconic image of Zach towering over a curled-up Devin Gardner, a former Michigan quarterback.

Justin, a 2011 graduate of OSU, earned First Team All Big Ten and Second Team All-American Honors and seemed primed for a life in the league. He made the leap to the NFL where he was bounced around from the Baltimore Ravens, the Detroit Lions, and the Denver Broncos. Due to lingering injuries, Justin’s NFL career prematurely ended after three seasons. Similarly, his brother Zach joined the Buckeyes in 2009 as Ohio’s Defensive Player of the Year. While playing with the Buckeyes, he found himself on both sides of the ball as fullback for the first three years and linebacker for his senior season where he served as a captain on the 2012 squad that never lost a game. Though he hasn’t fully given up on his dreams of playing on Sundays, his time in the league also lasted three seasons with a new team each year.

These setbacks might be enough to diminish confidence, but the Boren brothers chose to embrace the Buckeye work ethic.

“It’s kind of a running joke now, but the coaches talked about when we played,” Zach said. “If you go to Ohio State, especially as an athlete, and you do what’s expected of you, give back to the community, and take full advantage of that position you’re in at that time, Columbus will always treat you right.”

This name recognition has helped the brothers open doors and meet with people that might have never given them the time of day, Justin explained. But, to reiterate, that’s only half the battle.

“The connections get your foot in the door,” Justin said. “Once your foot is in the door and you have the opportunity, you have to perform. You have to run a legit business, do the right things, and focus on service, but it at least opens a lot of doors.”

This lesson parallels with performance on the field, and it’s those takeaways the two learned while at OSU that they apply to their business. The mantra is simple, but powerful: they treat every day like it’s a football game.

“You have to show up, you have to do your job, you have to perform,” Zach explained. “And if you don’t, you’re losing that day; you’re either winning or you’re losing.”

In the same vein as football, Justin said a lot of success boils down to the team around you. While the Boren brothers along with Mike, the father and a former stellar Wolverine (now fully converted to scarlet and gray) and Jacoby, the youngest former Buckeye of the three, are the face of the company, their staff is out doing the work on a day-to-day basis.

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This also holds true for The Pit BBQ on Cleveland Avenue, a smoked meats adventure started by former Buckeyes Chimid Chekwa and Bryant Browning as well as D’Andre Martin and Mike Johnson. After Chekwa and Browning tested the waters in the NFL, they found themselves much like the Boren brothers looking to move past a life in athletics. The question that rings in many former athletes’ head was looming: what’s next?

While Chekwa is originally from Clermont, Florida, Browning, Martin, and Johnson all grew up in Cleveland dining at barbeque joints which eventually came to influence how they do business in Columbus. They took their time to carefully scout how other places went about barbecue and eventually decided it was their turn to share the love. First, the idea was to create a franchise through The Pit BBQ, but the restrictions that came along with it steered the four away from it.

“Throughout Cleveland there’s a lot of Ma and Pa pop-up stops that Columbus was lacking at that time in the area so we wanted to take that style and that taste and bring it to the Columbus area,” Browning explained.

While the recognition was helpful for starting the business, Bryant explained that it also puts you under a microscope. At one point, you could’ve been known as an All- American cornerback, but if you serve bad barbecue, you’ll be remembered a guy with bad barbecue.

“The other side of that is having the opportunity to go back where you have some recognition and memories to provide not only good food, but also do good for the community,” Chekwa added.

Whether it’s crafting large quantities of meats and fixings for someone’s tailgate through the catering service, or simply helping the business rush sink their teeth into high quality cuts of brisket, it’s a complete and total team effort. On any given day, it’s no surprise to see the once All-American cornerback Chekwa in the back preparing the food for the day, or the former OSU captain Bryant manning the cash register. Just like football, it’s a complete team effort.

“If I’m working the cashier stand, people will come in and say, ‘Wow! You’re a big guy!’ ” said the 6-foot-4-inch, 325-pound offensive lineman Bryant. “With helmets on, and being many years ago, they might not recognize your face right away or who you are. But yeah, an All-American cornerback is back here working the grill.”

However the big lights may shine, the former Buckeyes never forget the lessons they learned on the field.

“To be successful we understand it’s work,” Browning said. “It wouldn’t be a surprise to see me driving around in a food truck to an area to sell food. We understand it’s going to take the same grind it took in football to be successful. That’s just in our DNA.”

To get in contact with the Boren Brothers for commercial waste removal, visit borenbrothers.com. For more information on hours and catering options, check out thepitcolumbus.com.

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Goodbye Yellow and Black? Columbus Crew could change name

614now Staff

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With the announcement of the new downtown stadium in the post-"Save the Crew" era, the future of Columbus Crew SC seemed secure.

Now, a report from The Dispatch is once against casting doubt on the club's continued existence—at least in its current form. According to "sources close to the Crew’s front office," management is giving serious thought to changing the team name, colors, and logo by the time the new stadium opens in the summer of 2021.

For commentary on the situation, including a statement from a team spokesperson, read the full rundown at The Dispatch.

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The Interview Issue: Arnold Sports Festival Co-Founder Jim Lorimer

Mike Thomas

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

As a trailblazer in sports promotion, Jim Lorimer has opened doors for countless athletes.

The unassuming exterior of the Arnold Classic Worldwide headquarters does nothing to betray the treasure trove of riches within. Inside the nondescript beige building in a Worthington office park are countless trophies and awards, depictions of Arnold Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding heydey rendered in both oil and bronze, and more than one sword from the 1980s big- screen adventure Conan the Barbarian.

More impressive than any of these material things is the history this place represents, the far-reaching impact of which could never be contained by four walls. It is where the keeper of that history can sometimes be found— the one who lived and shaped it, along with countless lives around the world and over many decades.

At 93 years of age, Arnold Sports Festival Co-Founder Jim Lorimer still works seven days a week. To say that he’s accomplished a lot in his time is a massive understatement.

“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities,” the effussive and humble Lorimer says of his many achievements. He’s the kind of person who you can speak with for an hour and still only scratch the surface of his story. Details that could serve as the focus for an entire profile—his having served as the mayor and vice mayor of Worthington for 52 years, for example—come and go almost as footnotes.

Among his varied accomplishments, a few stand out. A successful career in high school athletics as a champion of track and field and captain of the football team. A stint in the US Navy, then on to law school, followed by a role with the FBI. More than any of these things, one feat stands above the rest in Lorimer’s estimation.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“I’ve had an opportunity to do a number of things, and have enjoyed them all. But the most rewarding of all is what happened with the Arnold Sports Festival,” he said.

Featuring 22,000 athletes from 80 nations representing more than 80 sports, the Arnold Sports Classic is Columbus’ signature event— in athletics or otherwise—as well as the largest multi-sport event in the world. (For a sense of scale, around 14,000 athletes took part in the 2016 Summer Olympics and 2018 Winter Olympics combined).

While competitions at “The Arnold” showcase the best of sportsmanship and healthy competition, the event as we know it would never have happened if not for a war—the Cold War, to be exact. That, and an exceptional group of teenage girls.

“During my years in the FBI in the 1950s, I was involved in the intelligence field. In that period, the big challenge was the Soviet Union, and I was interviewing communists all the time,” Lorimer recalls. “The communists were reasonably intelligent people, but they would insist with me that the communist system was superior, and that we were going to be living

under that system in the future. Of course, I did not agree with them on that.”

Throughout this era with its highly- contentious geopolitical climate, sporting contests were just one of the many venues in which the USSR would attempt to showcase the supposed superiority of its way of life. In the 1950s, the communists began to recruit a strong body of athletic talent who were trained at a professional level in their various sports for the sole purpose of dominating the West in athletic competition.

In 1959, American athletes faced off against the elite talent of the Soviet Union at an event in Philadelphia. By then, Lorimer was out of the FBI and had moved on to an executive position at the Nationwide Insurance Company in Columbus. A lifelong sports fan and a curious observer of communist tactics, Lorimer travelled to Philly to watch the proceedings in person.

“The U.S. men, because of their great interscholastic program, managed to beat the Soviet track and field athletes, even though they had been training essentially as professionals for almost a decade,” Lorimer remembers of the event.

The women’s competition was another story.

“In the high jump, for instance, the woman representing the United States was doing what we call the ‘scissors’ high jump. That’s where you just sort of step over the bar, like in grade school,” Lorimer explains. “The Soviet girl was doing what was in the Western rule, and she jumped almost a full foot higher than the U.S. girl.”

At the conclusion of the weekend’s events, scores of the women’s and men’s teams were combined. The Soviet’s totals narrowly edged out those of the US team. The next day, Philadelphia inquirer published a headline that went out across the globe: “Soviet Team Beats U.S.”

Lorimer knew that the U.S.S.R. would use this win to trumpet the superiority of communism, when in reality, it was only a result of female athletes in the US lacking the training needed to compete.

“I said, ‘I could find a girl right here in Worthington and show her immediately how to jump higher than that girl on the U.S. team,’” Lorimer recalls. And he did just that.

Lorimer contacted a friend who happened to be the Worthington track coach, and asked him to identify the best 14 or 15-year-old female track athlete. The coach pointed him to a student named Melissa Long, a girl who raced against (and beat) male track competitors in her age group.

When Lorimer contacted Long about training for track and field events at the national level, the young woman jumped at the opportunity. From there, he mined the top female talent from a Junior Olympic competition put on by the Columbus recreation department at The Ohio State University, and the Ohio Track Club was born.

“As I contacted them and their families, the reaction was the same as it had been when I contacted Melissa,” recalls Lorimer. “Here was a girl who didn’t have a chance to express herself athletically at all, and they were in heaven that somebody wanted them to come and compete.”

And compete they did, winning numerous meets on the 1960s indoor track circuit across the east coast. “In New York, the main indoor meet is the Millrose Games. These girls were winning—they won the Millrose Games, they won everywhere they went,” Lorimer said.

Lorimer’s success with the fledgling squad eventually led to his appointment as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Athletics, which he would go on to chair. For his proven sports promotion acumen, he was later tapped to organize the National Weightlifting Competition at Veterans Memorial in 1967, and then the “Mr. World” Competition in 1970, which added the draw of a bodybuilding competition to a traditional weightlifting meet.

That first Mr. World event brought a young Austrian phenom to Columbus, and the rest is history. Impressed with Lorimer’s skills as an event runner and promoter, Schwarzenegger vowed to return to Columbus upon his retirement from competition and partner with him for an event that would raise the profile of bodybuilding to a global audience. The two came together over a handshake deal that would create the foundation for the Arnold Sports Festival as we know it today.

Through his decades of achievement in a landmark event that has helped shape the lives of countless athletes from across the globe, Lorimer has never forgotten where it all started. Every five years, he reunites with the group of special women who made up the first Ohio Track Club team, whose achievements paved the way for generations of female athletes to follow and who served as the forebears of Title IX legislation that guarantees equal treatment for female athletes to this day.

“They were 15 and now they’re all age 75. Every one of those girls graduated from college, and they have six master’s degrees, three PhDs and one Harvard Law School graduate,” Lorimer says with pride. “They all tell me that the most significant opportunity they had was the opportunity to express themselves competitively. That sports experience affected their lives, and that’s what still drives us, that we’re affecting so many lives. If you have 22,000 athletes coming in, that means a lot to our community and it’s a lot of kids learning the important lessons you get from something like sports.”

Lorimer sums up one of those important lessons: “The primary lesson of sports that is also true in life: you get back pretty much in proportion to what you put in.” Coming from someone who has achieved what Jim Lorimer has in his lifetime, it’s advice worth taking.

To learn more about the history of the Arnold Sports Festival and for details on its upcoming events in 2020, visit arnoldsportsfestival.com.

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The Interview Issue: Paralympic Rower Blake Haxton

Linda Lee Baird

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

As a senior and the captain of the crew team at Upper Arlington High School in 2009, Blake Haxton was making plans for the future. Then came a moment he couldn’t have planned for. In March, he developed a cramp in his leg that quickly turned far more severe; Haxton had contracted the flesh-eating disease necrotizing fasciitis. Within days, the illness led to organ failure, and Haxton was in danger of losing his life. To save him, doctors made the decision to amputate both of his legs. Ultimately, it took more than 20 surgeries and three months in the hospital before Haxton returned home.

Haxton shared his worries during his long recovery. “I remember being in the ICU still. [...] I was starting to project forward, ‘well, what’s life going to be like now?’” He worried about what he would be able to do, and what he would miss.

Although many of his hospital visitors encouraged him to try para-rowing, he was reluctant. “I knew what the process would be; I just had no desire to do it,” he said. His resistance to rowing stayed with him when he was discharged, and throughout his undergraduate years as a Finance major at Ohio State.

His attitude began to change as he prepared to start law school. “I really haven’t been that active for four years. I need to be an adult and figure out, you know, just a way to work out and train and be healthy,” he said. So he returned to the ergometer—known as “the erg”—an indoor rowing machine. Still, it wasn’t what he was used to, and he didn’t enjoy it at first. “It felt so abbreviated and cramped,” he said.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

It took a shift in his mindset to change his relationship with the erg. Haxton began thinking of para-rowing as “an entirely different sport” from what he’d done at Upper Arlington.

When he let go of those expectations, Haxton discovered that he was good. Really good.

“They publish time standards on the ergs... and if you’re under this time, you can try out for the national team; if you’re under this time, you can probably make it. [...] Well I got under those times for my event.”

Haxton signed up for a competition called the Indoor World Championships, where rowers competed on ergs in the same room, pulling as fast as they could.

He won.

Then the U.S. National Team approached him about trying out. “That’s what got me back in the boat,” Haxton said. He calls returning to the water “one of the best decisions I ever made.”

In 2016, Haxton qualified for the Paralympic Games in Rio. He said that life in the Olympic Village isn’t as glamorous as it might look from the outside. “You’re pretty isolated,” he explained. Getting sick would be detrimental in races where tenths-of-seconds matter, so athletes keep to themselves and try to stay focused. “You don’t really get out of that loop of just training, sleep, compete. And you don’t really want to,” Haxton said. He ultimately placed fourth, “which was about as good as I could have done.”

Now 28 years old, Haxton is in his prime

years by rowing standards (male rowers are generally considered to peak between ages 28-32). He finished seventh in the 2019 World Championships, qualifying the U.S. Men’s team for a spot in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. Under the rules of U.S. Men’s Rowing, however, there’s still an individual qualifying race to determine who will compete. Haxton is spending his winter training for the race—and what he hopes will be his second Paralympics— with weights and on the erg. When the weather warms, he’ll return to practicing in the boat.

In addition to rowing, Haxton works full- time as an Investment Research Associate at Diamond Hill Capital Management. “We divide up the market of publicly traded stocks by industry,” he explained, investing in opportunities that may have been overlooked or undervalued elsewhere. Haxton specializes in airlines and oil and gas, and calls the work “a ton of fun.”

Unsurprisingly, Haxton is a busy man. With a twice-a-day, six-day-per-week training regime on top of his job, his schedule doesn’t leave him with much wiggle room or social time. “There’s some wedding invitations you have to turn down,” he said.

On the other hand, Haxton is thrilled with how he gets to spend his days. “A lot of people don’t get to say they like any job they have. I have two jobs I really like—rowing and investing—and I get to do both of them every day. What could be better than that?”

Even so, he becomes introspective when asked about the moment he knew that his path, as an athlete and businessman, was the right one for him to follow. “I’m not really sure it is,” he said. “I couldn’t answer honestly saying, like, I think that ‘Blake Haxton’s purpose on this planet is rowing or investing.’ I don’t know the answer to that question. And I do think we all have a purpose... and I think that the talents we all have are hints about what that purpose is.”

Haxton, someone who has been through— and accomplished—so much in his 28 years, expresses tremendous gratitude for the way he gets to spend his life. He’s grateful for his friends who have made his path as an athlete

possible. “I can’t carry my boat on my own, can’t do a lot of travel on my own,” he said. “There’s a really core group that’s around that enables me to do all these things.”

Haxton has a true village of friends in Columbus and across the country who are intrinsic pieces in the puzzle of his athletic success. Members of his village will wake at 5 a.m. to join him on the water and help him practice. They will use their vacation time to drive him to competitions in other states. And not only will they do so without complaint, they share his excitement. “There’s not one trip [...] where we don’t look at each other and be like, “‘man, how cool is this!’” Haxton said.

His positive attitude and his self- described “stubborn” dedication as an athlete were undoubtedly behind his U.S. Rowing teammates voting him the 2016 Male Athlete of the Year. Haxton is the first para-athlete to receive the award, and he’s humbled by it. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever gotten by a long measure,” he said.

Even in the hardest times, Haxton has learned to be “willfully grateful.” He points to that moment when he was still in the ICU, as he wondered what the future would hold for him as a double amputee. His fears and worries began to snowball as it sunk in that his life was forever changed.

And then he looked up and saw his mom sitting in the corner of the room. The moment was a revelation.

“I realized how true it was, that as bad as this is, it would be so much worse if my mom wasn’t here,” he said. “In that moment, it was like the snowball stopped rolling.” He began to think of the other visitors coming that day—his dad, grandpa, and brother. “I sort of found that it can snowball the other way,” he said. “I was surprised by how powerful that was.”

Haxton knows firsthand that life comes with real difficulties. He says the hard moments need to be confronted, not “swept under the rug.” Still, he focuses on the people around him and the support they provide him as an athlete, colleague, and friend. “When you get to go through life with teammates like that,” he says with a smile, “it’s pretty good.”

Visit blakehaxton.com to learn more.

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