Mike Kudla may have left the game of football, but the game never left him. The 2002 Highland graduate who went on to become a first-team All-Big Ten selection at defensive end for Ohio State looks like he could put the pads on today and not only succeed, but excel.
It’s the sport of football that has made the 2012 Medina County Sports Hall of Famer who he is today.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Kudla said. “It’s the core thing that sports teaches everyone about discipline, persistence and toughness. Those things all transfer to everyday life. It’s the way you conduct yourself. You wake up early and work late. You find the internal drive to succeed. It’s the teamwork to get the job done.
“You take the things that made you a successful athlete and apply them to life. When I work with kids in camps, I try to send that message home. At some point, you have to hang up the cleats. But if you remember the skills you learned, they will last you a lifetime.”
Those skills made Kudla the Associated Press’ 2001 Division III co-Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best to ever come out of Highland.
He’ll be honored June 14 during Hall of Fame ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.
“He was so well-grounded even back as a 17-year-old,” former Hornets football coach John Hopkins said. “The pressure he put on himself was amazing. I think it’s why he continues to succeed. I think he’s one of those individuals that if he has a goal, there’s very little — if anything — that can stop him.”
Back in the day
Before Kudla was named to The Gazette’s All-Century team or selected as the 2000-10 Player of the Decade, the coaches at Highland knew they had something special.
“He was a freak,” linebackers coach Tim Snook said. “You could see as a freshman he was something above and beyond. I’ve never seen anything like him in high school before or since. We knew he was a special kid.
“You put him on the field and he was going to make a difference whether he was on his feet or had his hand down. He was a good, coachable kid. Anything that happened to him, you weren’t amazed by it. He was a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-career type of kid.”
That kid led Highland to its first playoff appearance in 2000 and was the catalyst for the undefeated 2001 team.
Fittingly, his career ended at Highland with him blocking an extra point against Oak Harbor in Week 11 to secure a 21-20 victory.
Unfortunately, he tore his hip flexor during the game and didn’t play the following week against Bellevue. The Redmen went on to beat the Hornets 28-14 and eventually reached the state semifinals.
A guarded discussion
The one argument that still goes on to this day is whether or not Kudla was a better linebacker or right guard.
Behind Kudla, backs like Geoff Price, Adam Snook, Bobby Guccion, Zach Valentine and Elijah Blower plowed through defenses.
At linebacker, Kudla ended his senior season with 144 tackles, including 27 for loss. He finished his career with 495 tackles.
But ask one of the coaches to give him up on one side of the ball and a fist fight might ensue.
“He excelled on both sides of the ball,” Hopkins said. “With what we did offensively, we needed somebody like Mike. Our guards needed to be the best out there. Defensively, he had the ability to run sideline to sideline. I look back at those films and he literally made tackles sideline to sideline. Man, he could run.
“If he had to be a one-sided player, it would be at guard. No, wait. I change my mind. He has to go both ways. He had great feet. His first two or three steps were as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. He was a great trap blocker, but when he pulled for our buck sweep, it was gold. He was money in the bank.”
When he pulled on the buck sweep, not even his teammates wanted anything to do with him. Dan Thoburn, who platooned at center next to Kudla when he was a sophomore, found himself on his butt more often than not in practice.
He also saw how Kudla made those around him better.
“That’s an impossible question,” said Thoburn of where the two-way player fit best. “When he pulled, he would wipe out everybody. I remember being the defensive tackle on the opposite side for the scout team and I hated it. He would just crush me.”
A national championship and perfect record in bowl games followed for Kudla at Ohio State. So did injuries and a life-threatening condition that attacked his immune system.
Through it all, he showed just how strong he was.
A starter on special teams as a freshman, Kudla was a vital part of the Buckeyes’ success as he left as a member of one of the winningest senior classes in Ohio State history.
“The class I came in with was something special,” Kudla said. “It was a lot of what I had at Highland. It was a group that always tried to do everything right.
“You look at the body of work and it’s amazing. I lived, ate and slept Ohio State football. We were there 12 months out of the year. Looking back — being removed from it now — you see what an honor it was to play there.”
Not surprisingly, Kudla led Ohio State in sacks his senior year with 9½. His three sacks of former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn are still a Fiesta Bowl record.
Living the dream
By now so much has been written about the hamstring that kept him out of the NFL that it needs nothing more than this one sentence.
Ironically, it’s that hamstring that has turned Kudla into what he is. As director of development at Ohio State, Kudla is aspiring to do even greater things off the football field.
“Everything in this world happens for some type of reason,” Kudla said. “(The hamstring) closed a chapter and opened up another opportunity. I learned so much. There’s always life after sports. I feel I have one of the best jobs on the planet. I love what I do.”
Now in Columbus, Medina County still holds a special place, but the state capital is where Kudla, 28, feels he belongs.
“I have four pins in my shoulder with the Ohio State emblem embossed in them,” Kudla said. “The people and the culture are great. Medina County is still home to me, but Columbus is where I feel I matured and grew up and found out who I was going to be.”
Contact Brad Bournival at email@example.com.