IT WAS THE middle of September, and Shaun Wade sat at his kitchen table in Jacksonville, Florida, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again. He wasn’t at Ohio State, for one. He wasn’t playing football at all, for another. This being 2020, football in the Big Ten, like so much else, had been derailed.
Some nine months earlier, in December, Wade had landed himself in a different wrong place, at another wrong time. As the clock ticked down in the first half of Ohio State’s semifinal playoff game against Clemson, with less than five minutes to go, Wade had charged. He had the Tigers’ golden quarterback, Trevor Lawrence — he of the abundant, flowing blond locks — in his sights, and he launched. Helmet-first. The referees flagged Wade for targeting, then banished him to Ohio State’s locker room to watch the rest of the game alone, just the banks of empty lockers and a television showing the Buckeyes’ lead slipping away to keep him company.
He left the field, and the Buckeyes were in command 16-0. By the time his teammates joined him briefly in the locker room at halftime, they were white-knuckling a 16-14 lead. And when it was all over, they had lost everything. The lead. The game. The shot at a national championship. Clemson 29, Ohio State 23.
That night marked the end of one thing and the beginning of something new. A relentless, soul-crushing offseason.
Trevor Lawrence, referees, the lure of the NFL draft, the coronavirus, Big Ten leadership, the president of the United States — these forces opened and shut the door to the possibility of winning a title so many times that Wade got whiplash. By the time September rolled around, his whole family gathered round the kitchen table to hash out what this fall might look like for him. His mom, Gwen; his father, Randy; his younger sister, Serenity, whom he spoils in ways generally reserved for doting grandpas; his baby brother, Latrell. They do this often, meet as a Wade unit to sort life out, and there was plenty of sorting to do on Sept. 17. Three days earlier, with the Big Ten still on pause, Wade had declared himself out for the 2020 season. Two days after that, the Big Ten un-paused. Sitting in his kitchen, he hadn’t publicly opted back in to the Buckeyes’ season just yet. But he was already all the way back in his heart, he told his family.
That hit on Lawrence was nearly Wade’s final play as a college football player. That lonely walk back to the locker room was nearly his final act in a Buckeyes uniform. He narrowly escaped that fate, but those moments guided every move he made, informed his every decision. So Gwen looked at her son and posed the question that had trailed him like a shadow for months.
“What are you going to do,” she asked, “when you see Sunshine again?”
THE LAST TIME Shaun Wade saw Sunshine, Trevor Lawrence was lying prostrate on the ground. Those abundant, flowing blond locks — the very same that by choice or by chance conjure up Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass of “Remember the Titans” fame — spilled out from under his helmet and onto the grass in the Arizona night.
In the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, Wade, Ohio State’s disruptive slot cornerback, had come blazing toward the quarterback, a shooting star that burned bright and fast and then detonated all over Lawrence. Ohio State defensive end and all-around granite giant Chase Young arrived for mop-up duty, helping wrestle Lawrence to the ground to complete the sack. For a brief, glorious moment, Wade had dispatched the Clemson offense off the field; he had erupted on Lawrence on third-and-5.
Up in the stands, holding court in the family section, Randy and Gwen were … well, Randy and Gwen were losing their minds. Their son, who had committed to play at Ohio State on the very day in 2015 when the Buckeyes last won a national championship, had nudged them ever closer to another title. There was jumping and high-fiving and raucous delirium. And then a tap on Randy’s back.
“Hey,” a fan shouted. “They’re about to throw your son out of the game.”
A switch flipped. A light was snuffed out. A sack became a targeting penalty; a revelry became a wake.
Gwen left her seat for the concession area. She needed a minute to calm down, craved getting swept up in the sea of anonymous fans and faces. Randy sprang into action, turning to his phone to investigate the rules around targeting. It was still the first half. Ohio State was still up by 16. Surely, there’d be another game, he figured. He needed to know if his son would be able to play in that game, for the national title.
Down on the field, Wade processed slowly at first — then all too fast — what was taking place. One minute he was celebrating a sack with his teammates, the next they were telling him he was done. Ejected.
“What are you talking about?” he asked his teammates.
He looked up at the big screen to see the play under review. Had he dipped his head before hitting Lawrence? Had he used the crown of his helmet? He watched the referee confirm the targeting call, which meant his hit would be the last play he’d make for Ohio State this game — and if the Buckeyes lost, for the season.
Wade walked off the field, a strange sensation settling over him. It’s disorienting to feel so alone in a throng of people. By the time he made it back to Ohio State’s deserted locker room, he could hear a growing hum in State Farm Stadium. He turned on the locker room’s television set to see that Clemson had already capitalized on his absence. The Tigers had needed exactly five plays — including one 15-yard pass interference penalty dealt to Wade’s replacement, Amir Riep — to claw closer, 16-7.
Beneath a throbbing crowd, Wade sat alone. The equipment manager passed through a few times. J.K. Dobbins ran in to get his ankle taped, then bolted back out. Wade watched him leave and wished like hell he could go with him. But otherwise, he was left by himself, with the TV and the sour taste of disappointment. He fielded a slew of FaceTime calls to ward off a creeping loneliness. His mother FaceTimed him, but she was still in the belly of the stadium and it was hard to talk above the din. His godsister FaceTimed him too, and he put on a brave face and a small smile for her 6-year-old son, who wanted only to regale Wade with tales of seeing Uncle Shaun on TV. Finally, he FaceTimed his girlfriend, Jordan Fields, who was back home in Florida.
They had met in high school, and their love story began as all great modern romances do: on social media. Fields was a track and field star at nearby Creekside High School and posted on Twitter when she signed with South Carolina as a senior. Among the well-wishers was a Trinity Christian Academy junior who was an elite athlete himself and heading to Columbus not long after Fields would leave for Columbia. They struck up an online friendship, which led to phone conversations, which led to meeting in person. She was the talker, he the listener, and that’s what she offered him on this night, in that ghost town of a locker room.
“If you don’t feel like talking, if you just want me to be on the phone …,” she started. “Whenever you’re ready, you can just talk.”
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen.
“I think he was … just stunned,” Fields says.
Eventually, Wade broke the silence.
“I wish I could go out there and coach,” he said. “At least stand on the sidelines.”
He coached from inside instead, yelling at the TV with only the walls and Fields to heed his entreaties. He swallowed the plays he ached to be on the field for — Riep’s penalty; Lawrence’s 67-yard touchdown run where the 6-foot-6 quarterback managed to both lope like a giraffe and juke several Ohio State defenders in the open field. He hollered like any unhinged fan who knows the unique and piercing kind of agony brought on when your team is slowly but steadily losing its grip on victory.
For that was the Greek tragedy playing out before him. Without him.
The moment Wade’s violent hit became targeting instead of a sack, the second Clemson was afforded a first down instead of a fourth, was exactly when Ohio State’s grip faltered. Lawrence, the chief engineer of Clemson’s resurrection, said as much.
“They thought they had me knocked out,” Lawrence said that night. “I had a different kind of edge when I got up.”
Wade watched Lawrence bounce back from afar, and when it became clear Ohio State wouldn’t overcome that resurgence, he retreated inward. He was quiet at the beginning of his call with Fields; silent again at the end, as a new reality set in. He had to right a wrong. More, he had to rewrite a wrong ending.
One week later, Mel Kiper Jr.’s sixth-ranked cornerback prospect announced NFL draft be damned. Wade was returning to Columbus.
THE WADES LIKE to tell a story about their son on his first birthday.
Gwen’s father was a football player himself. Curtis Green played his college ball at Alabama State, then spent nearly a decade with the Detroit Lions. Shaun’s father, though, he was the basketball lover. So on the day Shaun turned 1, the two men, angling to put a debate to rest, placed one basketball and one football alongside each other and dropped Shaun down a ways from both. Then they stood back to let Shaun crawl to his fate. They watched, rapt grandparents and rapt parents alike, to see which sport he was going to play once he could do things like, say, walk. He scooted right over to the pigskin.
The lesson, they mean to say, is that Shaun will always choose football.
He chose Ohio State football for 2020, rather than professional football, after some internal debate among the Wades back in January. His parents figured if the opportunity was there to enter the draft, and to get drafted early on, he ought to jump at that. They’d heard rumblings of first- or second-round potential, and those were some tantalizing murmurs.
“If a manager says he’s gonna give you a million-dollar raise, you don’t take that raise next year,” Randy says. “You take that raise when they give it to you.”
But that ill-fated hit.
But that lonely walk.
But that forsaken locker room.
But that nagging loss.
Had Wade declared for the draft, he wouldn’t have been the first football player whose college career ended with an ejection. He wouldn’t have even been the first Buckeye. Back in 2016, in a different Fiesta Bowl, Joey Bosa barreled crown-of-the-helmet-first into Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and was cast out in the first quarter of the game. Bosa cried when he huddled up with his teammates before leaving the field. And if he happens to catch that Notre Dame game replayed on TV now, five years and two Pro Bowl seasons with the Chargers later, that play still eats at him, he says. But not as much as it would have gnawed at him had Ohio State not gone on to win, and win handily.
Wade wasn’t afforded such luxury. His Ohio State team had lost, and its unraveling had begun with his ejection. An ejection that he and his family still struggle to wrap their heads around. Hadn’t Lawrence ducked his head after Wade had launched full-speed ahead? How could Wade have stopped mid-air?
He’s a quiet guy, laid-back and generally unflappable, and always has been, his parents explain. No one from his family recalls him crying the night he was tossed from the game; he threw no tantrums. He’s long been the family’s peacemaker. “Shaun was probably 6 or 7, and he came home from school and said that the teacher had asked about what they would like to do in the world,” his grandmother, Mary Montgomery, says. “His thing was he wanted to make the world peaceful.”
Wade isn’t a rabble-rouser, she’s saying. He isn’t prone to histrionics. Wade swears he allowed himself a month to put that play, and that night, behind him. But the line between moving beyond calamity and burying it is thin and precarious and sometimes easier for others to see than it is to see yourself.
“He couldn’t go out like that,” Fields says. “That did not sit right with him at all.”
Which is perhaps why Wade didn’t just choose to return to Ohio State once. He chose to do so twice.
There was Wade, going about his offseason, when along came a pandemic. In early March: Ohio State suspended classes for the month. On March 22: Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order. In June: The Buckeyes returned to campus for voluntary workouts, their first reunion since the pandemic took hold. In July: The Buckeyes were forced to pause workouts after positive virus tests. And by August, the Big Ten deemed COVID-19 too grave a danger to its athletes and coaches and called off its fall season.
With that, with a blink, Wade was denied his chance to right a wrong, to rewrite that wrong ending.
But that hit. But that walk. But that locker room. But that loss.
In the end, the Big Ten didn’t knock all the other Power 5 dominoes down on its way out the 2020 door. The Pac-12 linked arms in forgoing the season; the ACC, Big 12 and SEC did not. Big Ten players cried out via hashtag (see: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields‘ #WeWantToPlay); Big Ten coaches released sternly worded statements (also see: Ohio State coach Ryan Day pleading for the Big Ten to reconsider its ban); Big Ten parents revolted. Their ringleader? Randy Wade.
Even with his father hopscotching across the country — to Rosemont, Illinois, where the Big Ten is headquartered; to Columbus, where he staged a rally at the Horseshoe — Wade decided he had to extricate himself from the swirling would-they-or-wouldn’t-they uncertainty hovering over the Big Ten. The not knowing was too heavy a weight, and it was crushing him. On Sept. 14, he announced he was opting out of Ohio State’s 2020 season. He was doing what he had chosen not to in January. He was choosing the draft.
There was sorrow in that decision, he says, but relief too. To know what lay ahead of him, to understand the path forward and how to walk it. But underneath that veneer of relief, a gnawing.
“I had a gut feeling,” Wade says. “Something deep in my stomach saying, ‘but I want to play football.'”
Two days later, on Sept. 16, he turned 22, and he commemorated the occasion by heading to physical therapy in the morning. Fields had just picked him up from his appointment when her phone chirped with an alert. The Big Ten was back. The conference had slammed the door shut, Wade had bolted it, and then the Big Ten went ahead and kicked the barrier down anyway.
Wade was frazzled, dizzy. He had made a choice, finally felt at peace with that choice, and then the reality he based that choice on was upended. Fields took Wade home, then promised to see him later that night. It was his birthday, after all, and his family had planned a celebration downtown.
“That night changed everything,” Randy says.
Ryan Day called in to the party. Urban Meyer called. Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, Kerry Coombs, called. Wade’s old AAU basketball coach called. Wade’s high school coach came in person. Over FaceTime and just traditional face time, the coaches who have passed through Wade’s life wished him a happy birthday. They boasted about how proud he made them. They gushed.
“He was floating,” Gwen says.
If he seemed lighter, well, that’s because he was. The Wades closed down the restaurant that night, and toward the end of the evening, Wade joined his mother outside on the deck, the gleam of the St. Johns River behind them.
“I want to go back,” he told her. “I’ll let them know tomorrow.”
Shaun Wade will always choose football.
HE CAME BACK. For the season that didn’t begin until well into October; for the first Ohio State game that was canceled due to COVID-19; for the second game that was canceled two weeks later, and the third, against sworn enemy Michigan, canceled two weeks after that. For the five-win regular season and the period of purgatory that ensued while the team waited to see if those five games would be enough for a crack at the Big Ten championship game. And eventually, the playoff.
Wade’s dream of redemption has stayed a step out of reach of the dreamer.
While he’s been doing all that chasing, he’s also stumbled. He started most of last year as the Buckeyes’ slot cornerback, and his transition to replace last season’s world-beaters on the outside — Jeff Okudah, 2020’s third overall draft pick; Damon Arnette, 2020’s 19th overall draft pick — has gone how you might expect it to go when you’re asked to replace world-beaters. That is, there have been high-profile missteps (Penn State, Indiana) and media hand-wringing (What can Shaun Wade do to salvage his draft stock!?), and even some gentle online ribbing courtesy of his father (retweet: “Shaun Wade needs to bounce back”; retweet: “Shaun Wade losing money out here. #buckeyes”). Randy, a military man and not one for excuses or sugarcoating, says the reason he circulates critiques of Shaun’s play this season is that … Shaun’s play deserves critique this season.
Despite this Serious Internet Concern, the very people tasked with evaluating such highs and lows aren’t all that low on Wade at all. Has he dropped a few draft slots? Perhaps. Is he still a first-rounder? Probably. Was everyone a little too rosy-eyed before the season because Wade, a corner, plays at Ohio State, where cornerback demigods go to terrorize receivers?
“I don’t see the same level of talent that I saw from Okudah, but Okudah’s different,” says ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “But [Wade] is so athletic. He’s long. He’s got really good top-end speed. He can recover if he does make a mistake.”
Wade is still sure, though. Even with the canceled games and the continued waiting and all that concern, he is certain he was right to come back.
“This is where I wanted to be,” he says.
McShay, for his part, thinks that Wade’s sporadic on-field struggles aside, that resoluteness will serve him well. “I love the fact that he came back and competed,” he says. “And I do honestly think evaluators will value that.”
Randy, too, remains steadfast that Shaun was right to return to Columbus by opting back in this September, and right to continue to return to Columbus every day since. Scores of the top players in the country opted out of 2020 before the season began; scores more did the same as the season played out in all its messiness.
“I think that the 40-year-old Shaun would regret not going through this season and trying to play for a national championship,” Randy says. “The older him would regret the what-ifs.”
And the younger him? On Dec. 9, Wade and the Buckeyes were granted a reprieve and allowed a berth in Saturday’s Big Ten championship game despite not meeting the original benchmark of six games played. Their place in the playoff is nearly in their clutches. Northwestern is up next. Clemson, of all teams, and Lawrence, of all quarterbacks, may yet loom ahead.
Wade is aggressively diplomatic about such a possibility. If it happens, it happens, he says. He just wants to play and beat whoever lines up across from him, he insists. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe such diplomacy is an act of self-preservation; he wants to feel that way and so he says he does feel that way. The line between moving beyond calamity and burying it is thin.
But he released a missive to the world on that day back in September when he announced he was returning to Ohio State (again). He left no doubt about what this season, this chance, means.
“I’m Back Sunshine” was all he wrote.