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

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

Mitch Hooper

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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