Sports can be cruel. Exhibit A is Ohio State receiver Chris Olave. The sophomore from California led the Buckeyes in receiving yards (849) and touchdown catches (12) this year. The last of those touchdowns came with 11:46 to play in the Fiesta Bowl, when Olave hauled in a 23-yard strike from Justin Fields on a 4th and 1 play that gave the Buckeyes a 23-21 lead over Clemson and put OSU on the brink of a trip to the national championship game. Unfortunately for Olave, it's not the touchdown he got that will be most remembered, it's the one he didn't.
The Buckeye lead vanished in the final minutes of the game, when Clemson went on a 4-play 94 yard drive to take a 29-23 lead with 1:49 to play. Ohio State responded, driving 52 yards to the Clemson 23 with 37 seconds remaining. Olave, arguably the Buckeyes most reliable receiver, had a chance to be a hero but instead, has been forced to handle the burden of tremendous heartbreak. By now, Buckeye Nation knows what happened. Rather than breaking his route to the middle of the field, as designed, Olave broke out. He thought Fields was scrambling when he wasn't. Fields delivered to where he thought Olave would be and where he should have been, and the pass was picked off, effectively ending the game and Ohio State's national championship hopes.
Olave, in his two years in Columbus, has always impressed me with his maturity. He did again that night. It was clear that he was devastated, yet there Olave was, at his locker, answering every difficult question and taking responsibility for the final play miscue. That game was nearly three weeks ago, but the emotional pain for Olave is still there.
"Chris is the ultimate competitor. I love Chris Olave," Buckeye coach Ryan Day said at his season wrap up press conference Wednesday. "I'm not sure he ate solid food for about three or four days after that game. He was crushed."
The old ABC Wide World Of Sports tag line, "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," couldn't be more accurate. Everyone wants to be Joe Burrow and have a dream season, and walk off the field with confetti falling, having won the national championship. In sports, however, for every Joe Burrow there's a Chris Olave, who put in just as much work, sweated through just as many conditioning workouts and took just as many reps. Unfortunately, for Olave, instead of being the guy perceived as being most responsible for team success, he's the guy who feels most responsible for team failure.
"That wasn't the reason we lost the game. That kid threw his heart on the field," Day said. "He thought Justin was scrambling and you know what, when you play in games like that, things like that happen. Nobody cares more than Chris and I know he's going to come back even more hungry."
And so it starts again for Olave. Winter conditioning began this week, as Ohio State begins the long grind to try to get back to the big stage next year and this time finish the job. The storybook ending would be for the 2020 Buckeyes to make it to the national championship game, with Olave catching the game winning touchdown in the closing seconds. In sports, however, nothing is guaranteed. The Buckeyes could fail to make the playoffs or could get back and lose in heartbreaking fashion again. That's the risk Olave, all of his teammates, and every athlete on every team at every level take. You could celebrate your best moment, but also may have to deal with your worst.
Sometimes the rest of us forget that....we shouldn't. I'm not saying that Buckeye Nation shouldn't be sick to their stomach about the loss and still feel the sting, but whatever you may be feeling, it's infinitely worse for the kids on the team. In the case of a player like Olave who was "crushed," he likely will never completely get over it. He'll think about that route for the rest of his life.
The good news is, it won't define him. There's no doubt Olave is going to make more spectacular plays and more sensational catches and he'll play a huge part in whatever success the Buckeyes have next year. We're all hoping for the storybook, confetti falling 2020 ending. But here's to Chris Olave and the 2019 ending. Here's to all athletes who put themselves through hell but suffer the ultimate heartbreak. Sports can be cruel, but the effort, courage and class of Chris Olave and every athlete who puts it all on the line for our enjoyment, is beautiful.