Ohio State's Haskell Garrett wants to do more than survive

7:45 AM ET

Hallie GrossmanESPN Staff Writer Close

  • Staff Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
  • Joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from Penn State University.
  • Covers college football and college basketball.

HASKELL GARRETT SOMETIMES thinks about whether he really needed his phone that night. He had left it in his car, some five or so blocks from home, but it was the middle of the night -- the clock was creeping toward 1 a.m. -- so what would a few more hours without it matter? In his mind, he never opens the door of his apartment to go back out to retrieve the phone. Never walks the couple hundred feet alone in the dark.

He rewinds the movie in his head of that night, spooling back one frame then the next, like he does when he's poring over his football film, breaking down plays, diagnosing what he'd do differently. He closes his eyes, and he's right back there, on Aug. 30, 2020: the deafening ringing in his ear, the rush of confusion, the dawning of a new reality.

"I remember that night like it was yesterday..." he says.

Garrett is perched on a blue plastic seat at the football stadium at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, 2,000 miles away from Columbus, Ohio, reliving the moment he was shot in the face. Nearly three weeks before that instant, the Big Ten had called off its 2020 football season in the height of the pandemic, but Garrett and his Ohio State teammates had stayed on campus, working with strength coach Mickey Marotti, toiling for competition their conference was assuring them wasn't going to happen.

Those had been hazy, demoralizing weeks. Garrett, a senior at the time, had spent his first three years in Columbus mostly on the team's defensive line backburner. But he was the Big Ten's highest-graded returning defensive tackle heading into the 2020 season -- until the Big Ten told him, and everyone, they couldn't return at all. "I'm thinking, alright, it's my time," he says. "I've been in the rotation for years. This is my time to take the reins over and then you get hit with..." He trails off.

Most days, Garrett is a cheery, gentle hulk of a guy. When he's back at Bishop Gorman, where he spent his last three years of high school winning national championships -- and where he now returns to train in the weeks before the NFL draft -- he passes through the hallways to a stream of adulation. "That's a future NFL player, right there," one teacher tells his crop of students as Garrett walks by a class in session. He smiles.

Later, one of the high school's current football players walks up to him outside the locker room, introducing himself as the son of Tony Sanchez, Garret's coach at Bishop Gorman in his sophomore season. "I remember when you were this big," Garrett tells the teen, genuinely tickled to discover that in the intervening eight years, that son has sprouted to high-school-football-player size. He smiles again, this time beaming.

When he does, you can't see the two small pock marks on his cheeks left behind by the shot of a handgun.

Before he returns to that split second when a 9-millimeter bullet blazed through his mouth, he rattles off the normal college goings-on he had been a part of that night. There he was, house-hopping with friends because they all lived in the same area just off campus in Columbus. There he was, toward midnight, walking home to the apartment he shared with his teammate, Pete Werner. There he was, bidding goodnight to Werner, the two going off to their respective rooms. There he was, realizing he left his phone in his car, and walking back out of the apartment to collect it.

There he was, a couple hundred feet from home, the streets mostly deserted and this residential stretch of block asleep, when he saw a man and a woman arguing across the street. He would have walked by, wouldn't have given them a second glance at all, he says, except he saw the man hit her.

He crossed the street, he remembers now, pushed the man aside to separate him from the woman, then turned around to look at the aggressor. That's when everything went black.

When he came to, the street was empty, the man and woman gone. All he could hear was a ringing. All he could sense was the burn of what felt like a flame on his face. Had he been hit by a brick? Shot?

He stood up and his shirt and pants were stained red. He ran back home, spitting out blood along the way so he wouldn't choke on it. He pounded on his apartment door until Werner answered. "Pete, I don't know. I think I was shot."

Garrett pauses, breathes in the dry desert air. "That's the moment," he says. "That's when I really thought it was it for me."


GARRETT THOUGHT HE would join the military, once upon a time, rather than the NFL. He was a member of the ROTC in high school, because football was the game he loved, but structure and brotherhood were what he craved.

He had plenty of siblings -- three on his mother's side and two on his father's -- but his mother's children were seven, 11 and 18 years older. They were practically different generations, and didn't really grow up in the house with him. One sister on his father's side only had a few years on Garrett, but he toggled between the homes of his father and mother, Maria Key, when he was growing up in Vermont. The constant companionship he sought was not a part of his picture.

Key held different jobs, at times for the city of Burlington, other times in the private sector in sales and marketing, and she was often at work more than she was at home -- so was his step-father, Joe -- so he learned how to fend for himself. He'd dump out a coin jar to scrounge for five dollars, enough to cover a sizzler -- his favorite half-pound burger -- from The Shopping Bag in Burlington.

"I wasn't a very strict parent at all," Key says. "I just trusted that he knew what his responsibilities were. I gave him a lot of leeway and he certainly would hang himself every now and then, like any other kid, but he had a good head on his shoulders. So I trusted him."

Garrett mostly enjoyed the autonomy. "I ran the streets and did whatever I wanted; I knew right from wrong, but there was no having to ask a parent, 'Can I or can I not do this?'" he says.

Still, Garrett idolized his father, who was 54 when Haskell was born. He lapped up the stories of Haskell Sr. walking into Madison Square Garden with his high school basketball team at a time when it was rare for African Americans to play in the arena. He tagged along as Haskell Sr. carried out the business of his nonprofit, a small organization aimed toward empowering people of color. Haskell Sr. was full of and larger than life to his son, and when he succumbed to stomach cancer when Garrett was 12, Garrett felt unmoored. He'd lost his roots and wings.

By the time his father passed away, his mother's marriage to Joe was falling apart, and just over a year after Haskell Sr.'s death, Key moved her and her son from Vermont back to her native Hawaii. Garrett had lost his father, the family structure he enjoyed and the only home he'd ever known in rapid-fire succession.

When he was alive, Haskell Sr. always insisted his son be a sharp dresser. Garrett's shirt couldn't be wrinkled. His shoes needed to match his outfit. "It'll always stick with me," Garrett says. "He said, 'When you leave the house you leave the house looking like you belong to somebody.'"

He did, and then he set out looking for more somebodies to belong to.

He found them through football. When he began to lose the familiar anchors in his life -- his father, his step-father, his hometown -- the game did not leave him. "God, it was really the only thing he had," Key says. "It really was."

A trio of boys -- Bryson, Tryson and Pierson Mook -- met Garrett through football camps and took him under their wing, and he coveted what he saw in the Mooks. Garrett had taken care of himself growing up, but these boys took care of each other. They were native Hawaiians, Polynesian like Garrett, but they lived and played football for a powerhouse on the mainland named Bishop Gorman, which was how Garrett decided he wanted to live and play there too. Ray Mook, the boys' father, opened his home to Garrett and with his mother's blessing, Garrett moved to Las Vegas and transferred to Bishop Gorman before his sophomore year. Ray Mook became Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray became Pops. Even when Key followed her son to Las Vegas a few months later, he stayed with Pops for much of high school -- for the convenience (he could walk to school), but for the comfort of this new family dynamic too.

Pops ran his household with a firm hand. Enforced curfews. Phones surrendered to Pops' wife, Shelly, at 8 o'clock each evening. One day Garrett told Pops that he was going for a jog; the team had a big game on the horizon, and he wanted to get some work in. A few hours passed when one of Pops' sons wondered aloud where Garrett was or how far he could possibly have run. The family ventured out on a manhunt, eventually finding Garrett with a girl, which didn't sit well with Pops. He herded Garrett into the car, drove out to Red Rock Canyon in the black of night, where there was nary a streetlight nor phone signal, and told his charge: "You want to run? You can run home from here." Garrett got out of the car, cried, vowed he wouldn't lie again, and Pops -- figuring he had imparted his lesson, and never having really intended to make Garrett run the eight miles home -- opened the car door to let him back in.

But what Garrett forfeited in freedom, he gained in fraternity. "Wolves in great packs always run together," he says. "They were my pack."

The Mooks led him to his second pack. Alex Neal, two grades ahead of Garrett at Bishop Gorman, had dated another boy who spent time in the Mook household, but the relationship that stuck was Alex's older sister-like bond with Garrett. "You should come over for Thanksgiving kind of thing," Rick Neal, Alex's father, explains. "And pretty soon it's, 'Well, you can't not be a part of Thanksgiving." Which is how Rick Neal became Papa Neal. And his wife, Teresa, became Mama Neal. High school bled into college and life shifted from Las Vegas to Columbus. With Mook moving back to Hawaii once Garrett left for Ohio State, home base became the Neals' home.

Stability, a big, boisterous family. Several of them, in fact. These were things that Garrett didn't always have growing up, and now clutches with an iron grip. He clutches his birth family. His siblings are scattered across the country -- in Texas and New England, in Georgia and back in Hawaii -- but they're devoted to using technology to stay in each other's lives. And he clutches the families he has adopted. One of Teresa's family friends had a baby recently, and within weeks, the father died suddenly from a heart attack. The news rattled Garrett. "He told me, 'I remember what it was like, when my father died,'" Teresa says. "He said, 'I remember all these people coming around saying, 'We'll take care of you. We'll help you through this. We'll do this for you. We'll do that for you.' And six months later they were all gone.'"

When they each got word that Garrett had been shot in the summer of 2020, the families -- these people he'd drawn into his life and let draw him into theirs -- converged. His mother, at first disbelieving that her son could have been shot, sure it must be some mistake, told her son to get some rest. When he called back again, sobbing, she told him she'd be on the next flight out. Ray Mook, still asleep in his bed, missed calls from Urban Meyer and defensive line coach Larry Johnson, then saw the news on ESPN. He panicked, wanted to get on a plane too, until they assured him Garrett was not critically hurt or in immediate danger. Alex Neal did get on a plane, acting as the Neal family ambassador, and didn't leave Columbus for 10 days.

Garrett knew how to fend for himself. He didn't have to any longer.


POLICE WHO WERE called to the scene arrived to find an empty street -- the man and woman having fled; Garrett having rushed back home -- so they followed the bloody trail Garrett had left from the intersection of Chittenden and Grant avenues to his apartment a few blocks away. He rode to the hospital in an ambulance, crying the whole way, praying the whole way. Please be OK. Please just let me be OK. Please. He went to the ICU. He recounted what happened to the police. I thought I was doing the right thing. He waited for his mom to arrive. He was wheeled into surgery the next day, to close his wounds. He lost five teeth, but the bullet went in one cheek out and out the other -- a through and through, he'd come to learn it was called -- without hitting bone, without even hitting his tongue, and he was discharged by Monday.

The hospital stay was short-lived, and still, it stretched on too long for Garrett. This hospital brought back the other hospital, the one where he spent too many hours with his father undergoing chemotherapy, witnessing the ravages of cancer and chemicals to treat that cancer on a man's body. This mad rush to the emergency room brought back the other mad rushes to the emergency room, when he was in sixth grade and had to learn to drive in order to take Haskell Sr. to the hospital if no one else could.

He wanted out, but he didn't want back into his apartment, either. "You get shot in the face, somebody's trying to take your life," Garrett says. "We didn't want anybody coming back to finish the job." By that time, reporters had staked out the apartment he shared with Werner, anyhow, so he holed up in a hotel with his mother, instead.

Sometimes he felt guilty. "I'm sorry I had to put you through all that," Werner remembers Garrett telling him.

Other times he felt lucky. "He was groggy, but he knew. He knew," Teresa says. "He's like, 'I'm OK. I'm going to be OK.'"

Feeling like a man who had been shot. The bullet had missed his tongue, but singed it all to hell, so he couldn't drink. His mother and oldest brother went to an auto parts store to buy a funnel, so he could pour water into his mouth from overhead and bypass his tongue entirely.

While Garrett's body did the slow work of mending, the Big Ten reversed course. Five weeks after declaring the season over, and two weeks after he was shot, the football season was back on, and Garrett -- still relegated to a mostly liquid diet; avocado and soft eggs if he was feeling ambitious, too -- got it in his head he'd like to be back in time to play. He set up camp in Larry Johnson's office, bingeing film because he couldn't practice. He searched for a way to feel helpful, worthy again, when what he really wanted to do was fly around the practice field. "It's like when a soldier gets hurt in the military," he says. "You don't feel useful anymore."

Kerry Coombs, Ohio State's defensive coordinator at the time, didn't have the heart to tell him that he didn't see a world where Garrett could make it back. How would he maintain his weight, when his jaw was wired shut and he could hardly eat? How could he wear a helmet with the type of injuries he sustained to his face? And even if he made it back, how good could he be? The kid was still undergoing surgery. The first, just after he had been shot, to sew him back together. The second, one week after that, to clear out the shrapnel and bone fragments that remained. The third, another week after that, to put in a bone graft. All in the final weeks before the 2020 season began. "'Who's his backup?'" Coombs remembers pondering. "Because that's literally what you have to think."

By mid-September, he was lifting weights, even if he couldn't bench press, lest the blood rush to his still-healing face.

By the end of that month, he was allowed to put shoulder pads on for modified training.

He played on Oct. 24, Ohio State's first game of the pandemic-adjusted year, against Nebraska. It was a Saturday. He had been cleared for -- and sustained his first contact -- the Tuesday before.


WHEN GARRETT WAS 3 years old at home with his older sister, he snuck out when she fell asleep and rode his two-wheel bicycle toward his father's home. He lived maybe a mile-and-a-half away, and Garrett made it all the way to his father's street -- already having crossed a bustling intersection -- when Haskell Sr. rounded the bend, and found his son en route.

Key likes telling that story about her son because it undergirds Garrett's lifelong modus operandi: "He has always been just as independent as ever," she says. He's independent and self-sufficient and generally on his own timetable, and 55 days after he sustained a gunshot to his face, he played in Ohio State's first game of the 2020 season. He recorded his first collegiate sack.

Coombs kept an eye on Garrett, a detective scouring for any signs of hesitation. "Never, one time, did he flinch," Coombs says. If anything, he savored the chance to throw his 300 pounds around more, accruing the kind of statistical prominence rare for interior defensive linemen as the year wore on: 20 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass breakups, one pick-six interception and a breakthrough campaign after years of living in the shadows on Ohio State's vaunted defensive line.

His coaches weren't precise about what changed in Garrett, merely certain that he had changed, period. "Ever since that happened, he's got a different look in his eye," Ryan Day, the Buckeyes' head coach, said at the time. Coombs says it wasn't so much his eyes as his mouth. "When you've been shot in the face and you're talking through gritted teeth because your jaw is wired shut and you say, 'I am going to be somebody,' that takes a whole different tone to it. Probably more so than before the incident, he was determined to be something and be somebody."

Garrett will calmly break down the moment a bullet punctured his cheeks. He'll recall with openness the hole that his father's passing ripped in his chest. But this -- the idea that his shooting spurred his breakthrough -- is what he bristles at.

His ordeal had a small impact on who he was that year and what he accomplished in 2020, but he'll have you know that he was always that defensive tackle. The guy with heavy hands. The person with an always-revved motor. So intent was Garrett on proving that truth that he chose to forgo the 2021 NFL draft and return to Ohio State. "To show people that it's not because of what happened to me that I am who I am." It's why, even as a season-long ankle injury hampered him last season, he doesn't regret embarking on his truth-telling mission.

When Garrett wrapped his arms around Nebraska's quarterback in his first game back after being shot, then dragged him down to earth, he didn't consider himself new and improved. The sack wasn't validation of who he could be. It was a reminder of who he had always been.

I'm still me.


THE SHOOTING STILL sneaks up on him. Like his father's death still sneaks up on him.

Going into his junior year at Ohio State, Garrett walked into a Taco Bell. He placed his order, then gave the cashier his name. "Haskell? By any chance, are you from Vermont?" the man asked. When Garrett confirmed he was, the cashier recounted an improbable tale. "Well, your dad helped my family move when we were immigrating."

That was the kind of man his father was. The kind of man he lost. "OK, I see you showing off, Dad," Garrett thought to himself, struck anew that he was lucky to have had a father like that. That he was the kind of unlucky that takes your breath away to have lost him so early.

The nightmares don't haunt him anymore. Two weeks after he survived the shooting, he'd fall asleep every night and dream he didn't. "But my dreams were about death," he says. "Now I'm more focused on living life."

The pop of a car backfiring doesn't bring back the pop of a gun. When he passes by Chittenden and Grant avenues, fear doesn't paralyze him. That's not where he could have died. That's where he was blessed to stay alive.

But he still carries that night with him, in part because something like that never leaves you, and in part because the world won't let it leave him. "Everybody asks," he says. "Eeeeeeeverybody," he says for good measure.

He's an NFL draft prospect -- ESPN's 12th-ranked defensive tackle and a likely third-day pick -- so all the teams that are contemplating bringing him into their fold are relentless. They want to know how it all went down and ensure he was a good guy ensnared in a bad situation and understand what he learned from it all.

None of this is unexpected, of course. Their curiosity is just not in step with the import he affords the shooting in his life anymore. His mother says they sat down and talked about what happened when she first got to Columbus in the aftermath, but haven't broached the subject since. As far as the Columbus Police Department is concerned, with no leads on the suspect's identity, nor knowledge of who the woman was, the case is officially inactive, which is fine by Garrett. He'd be open to pursuing charges if a lead ever surfaced, but in the absence of one, he doesn't want to dwell on the case's loose threads. He can remember the contours of the man who shot him -- a smaller guy, certainly smaller than an NFL-bound tackle; maybe 5-6 or 5-7, 130 pounds. But he can't recall the look in his eye or the looks of his eyes, his nose, his face. If he's being honest, he'd rather keep it that way.

Still, there are reminders that he either cannot or will not relinquish. The two small blemishes obscured beneath his beard are hardly visible, might even be confused for old acne scars, but they're there. And he never threw out the clothes he was wearing that night. Never washed them either. They're in the bag, exactly as they were returned to him, stained -- these tokens not of a faith unraveled, he says, but a faith renewed.

Two years ago, he was lost in the vortex of Ohio State's uber-talent, his mind wandering to what else he could or should be doing. Now he's three days away from an NFL draft that will take place in his backyard. While the names of future NFL stars will be called out on Las Vegas Boulevard, he'll be a few miles off the Strip, at home -- at the Neals' home -- with Rick and Teresa and Alex, with Ray Mook, if he can catch a flight in, with his mother, and a few of his siblings, waiting for his own name to be called.

"I think that night was a way the man above, God, Allah, whatever you want to call him -- that higher power for me -- that's how he brought me back," he says. "He said, 'This is why you're here.'"