Mike Kudla always stood out, and not just because the former Highland High School and Ohio State football star was 6-foot-3, 265 pounds and could bench press more than 500 pounds before he was old enough to get a driver’s license.
“He was a man among boys,” said former teammate Dan Thoburn, a sophomore when Kudla was a Hornets senior in 2001. “I’ve even heard that from people that just watched the games from the stands.
“On the field, seeing him do the things he did when he pulled (from his guard position) and cleared space for a running back, you made sure you paid attention because Mike was about to wreck somebody’s world.”
Kudla, who earned All-Big Ten honors at Ohio State and was part of the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship team before receiving a tryout with the Green Bay Packers in 2005, died Sunday at the age of 34.
A cause of death was not mentioned in a news release issued by Highland schools.
The 2012 Medina County Sports Hall of Fame inductee lived in Columbus and owned a highly successful company called Core Plex, which built and developed medical facilities across the country.
Having suffered several concussions in his playing career, Kudla also was working with the NFL on protocols for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have experienced multiple head injuries.
“He was kindhearted and had a good sense of humor,” said John Hopkins, Kudla’s football coach at Highland. “He was definitely a very caring person. This whole thing is mind-blowing. He’s too young. You don’t expect anything to happen to young people, especially kids you’ve coached and taught. It’s such a tragedy.”
A warrior in the weight room, Kudla had muscles on top of muscles, even as a 15-year-old. He played guard and linebacker for the Hornets, helping them reach the second round of the Division III playoffs as a senior.
At the same time, Kudla was gentle and extremely friendly off the field. He never hesitated to help younger players like Thoburn, who went on to wrestle collegiately at Slippery Rock (Pa.) and Findlay.
“I looked up to Mike a lot,” Thoburn said. “I lived down the street from him, so he used to give me rides to two-a-days. His focus and determination were something you just don’t see.
“It was cool to see he made it to where he made it, but he still paid attention to what was going on around here. I saw him a couple years ago and he said, ‘I followed you through high school and college.’ That was cool to hear.”
At Ohio State, Kudla moved to defensive end under coach Jim Tressel. He was named team defensive MVP as a senior and finished his college career with three sacks in a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
After being released by the Packers, Kudla put his degree to work and began a career in insurance and risk management. In 2012, he was named director of development for Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business and later founded Core Plex.
For all his football and business success, Kudla may have been best known for his incredible strength. He bench pressed 610 pounds while at Ohio State and set what at the time was an NFL combine record — 13 years later, it’s still third — by doing 45 repetitions with 225 pounds.
“We were in a smallish town,” said former Highland running back Elijah Blower, who graduated a year after Kudla. “It wasn’t until I left that small town that I realized just how big of a talent he was.
“When you’ve been around somebody for so long, you just sort of take it for granted. But even in that sense, he was such a standard above that you couldn’t judge yourself by him. There are forces of nature you never judge yourself by, and Mike was one of those guys.”
Blower, a University of Akron graduate, added he was privileged to play with “one of the greatest players around,” even if he didn’t realize it as a teenager in Granger Township.
“It gets put in a little more perspective once you grow up a little bit,” Blower said. “On the football field, it was almost unfair having Mike Kudla on your team, but I was glad for it.”
Playing with a cast on his hand and wrist, Kudla’s Highland career ended when he blocked an extra point as the Hornets defeated Oak Harbor 21-20 in the first round of the D-III playoffs. Kudla hurt his hip flexor on that block and didn’t play the following week as Highland fell 28-14 to Bellevue.
Kudla finished his prep career with 495 tackles. He had 144 as a senior, including 27 for loss. He was just as good at guard, where in 2000 his block led to a 2-point conversion run by Adam Snook that gave Highland an overtime victory over Mentor Lake Catholic and the program’s first playoff win.
“After all the bedlam of winning, there was that moment where it was just Mike and me,” Snook said. “There’s no rhyme or reason as to why it happened that way, but Mike came over and bear-hugged me. He literally picked me up off the ground. I’ll never forget that interaction.
“There are a lot of guys who are big and fast and strong, but he had the desire to win and succeed as a team and as an individual. Without that personality, he never would have been an Ohio State guy. That’s just who he was.”