COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before the season started, Billy Price surveyed the situation. This was going to be his senior year at Ohio State. He was already an All-American offensive lineman. He'd already won a national championship. And he'd already graduated. He had one more season to convince an NFL team to use its first pick on him, and nothing would deter him from completing that mission.
"I'm not dealing with any B.S. this season," he recalls saying. "I've got 12 opportunities to go put [together] the best draft resume possible and tell a team I need to be your first pick."
That sentiment was precisely on point for the type of person, and player, Price is and hopes to become in the NFL.
This is the sort of man who devotes every moment to the elimination of B.S.—B.S. being anything that might impede the efficiency with which he pursues his goals. He has modeled himself after his mother, Pam Lescsak, who works as a materials planner for a steel fabrication company in Youngstown, same as her father. They all have one thing in common.
"My mom is very black-and-white," Price says.
Price has ambitions in business, too—he has interned for Nike and imagines himself getting an MBA and one day doing work much like his mother does—but if all goes according to plan, that will come after a long NFL career.
Price is, by most accounts, the top center prospect in the 2018 NFL draft. In a blowout win over Michigan State two weeks ago, he set the Ohio State record for consecutive starts at 51. At least one NFL scout who has seen him play a lot thinks he can play either center or guard in the NFL, an increasingly marketable trait in a league that is suffering from a lack of quality offensive line play.
He is obsessive when it comes to the gym, rarely going more than a couple of days between workouts, even when he's supposed to be relaxing. He's been kicked out of the football weight room before, told to go rest somewhere, only to turn up at the student rec center to get up some reps.
Even among Big Ten linemen, his strength and conditioning are extraordinary. When Ohio State left tackle Jamarco Jones was a freshman, the team was being put through an intense conditioning drill that required so many pushups Jones' arms flat-out could not do one more.
"He literally crawled over and crawled under me and started doing pushups," Jones says. "To me, that was incredible, because I didn't really know him. It was my first few weeks on campus. That just showed me early on what type of guy he was."
Price admits to allowing himself a drink from time to time, and coaches and teammates tease him about his Mountain Dew intake, but he's never been in any sort of trouble with the law or with coach Urban Meyer. The worst it ever got, Price says, was when he set his alarm for p.m. instead of a.m. and slept through a workout.
"My fault," he says.
He is, to put it shortly, everything Ohio State imagines its athletes can be: a student, a champion, a great teammate, an All-American, community-minded—he even went to Jamaica to give shoes to the needy.
All this from a player whose college career was almost over as quickly as it began. When he was a freshman, Price was so bummed out about his prospects that he told a good buddy from Youngstown, Vince Marks, he didn't like playing football anymore.
"I told him, 'If you quit, you're going to regret that,'" Marks says. "I totally thought he was going to quit."
Growing up in Youngstown, Price had been so big and strong that it didn't much matter whether he was on offense or defense. Ohio State started him out on defense, but it just wasn't him.
"I was like, 'I need to change positions or else I'm not going to be here,'" he says. "The culture wasn't a good fit."
They say a defensive lineman is a guy who can tear apart your refrigerator and an offensive lineman is the guy who can put it back together. That's Billy Price. He couldn't see a path to becoming a contributor as a defensive lineman, and he couldn't stand the idea of being on a team and not contributing to it.
So he went to Meyer after a practice and told him he wasn't happy.
"It had nothing to do with the coaches, nothing to do with the players. It was me personally," Price says. "You've got to make sure you're comfortable. At Ohio State, the expectation is that you're going to play. That second year, you're supposed to be contending for a starting spot, adding value to a program, and I wasn't."
Lescsak doesn't think her son would have quit football entirely, in part because of the lessons he learned growing up in Youngstown, an old steel town where abandoned churches and shot-out factories are a decaying reminder of how thin the margins are in life.
"It's sink or swim around here," Marks says. "It's really about how you were raised."
Lescsak says most kids in Youngstown these days are trying to get out of there, but Price and Marks are a little different. Price talks about all the great pizza places and how much nicer downtown is than it used to be. And it's true that when you go downtown and to the Youngstown State campus, you see a newer Youngstown that isn't looking into the past for answers about the future.
When you listen to Price, you hear a guy who loves his hometown and doesn't have much use for self-pity.
"Everybody's always like, 'I want to leave, I want to leave, I want to leave,' but the people who leave always come back," he says. "Or they'll transfer back, or people leave and they go to Akron University or they go to Kent State University. That's less than an hour away from my home. I tell them all the time, 'That's not leaving.' …
"Even if you have problems back home, you can't run away from your problems. Your problems will follow you. People will come to Columbus, but they're still the same person they were in high school and they're still unhappy. It's like, 'OK, you didn't fix anything.' But there is still a sense of pride there."
It's a place where things can go bad quickly. Marks says it's all about "grit." Price says he figured that out by about eighth grade.
"You have to make a choice," he says. "You can go down the path others do with the drugs and alcohol, getting yourself in trouble. Or you set yourself aside. You go and do things and sacrifice, because you know if you do the right thing it will pay off for you. I knew I wanted to go to a bigger school and go to a good business school. Your freshman and sophomore year are your most important years in high school, in my opinion."
That's a pretty mature perspective for a 13-year-old boy to have had, but Price says that's the sort of perspective you're bound to have when you're raised by Pam Lescsak, who has made her career in the aviation and steel industries.
"She's in a male-dominated industry, and she runs things," Price says. "She's legit. That woman is the reason why I'm in business."
Price calls it black-and-white thinking, an obsession with efficiency and outcomes he inherited it from his mom, who inherited it from her dad, who also worked in steel. It has made him an All-American offensive lineman, and as a bonus it's kept him from most of the juvenile pursuits that sometimes derail athletic careers.
Lescsak says Billy never gave her much trouble beyond the typical teenage button-pushing. He was way too much like her to let something fleeting get in the way of the ultimate pleasure—a smart plan, well-executed.
"Overthinker, Type A," she says. "That's us. … The older I get, the more I'm telling him, 'You need to relax a little bit.'"
But there's no time for that. There is, instead, a plan. The plan this year was to win a national championship, a plan that encountered serious logistical woes when Iowa beat Ohio State 55-24 on Nov. 4. It was Ohio State's second loss, and it was by such a margin that the Buckeyes were shellshocked. Jones, the left tackle, had tears in his eyes.
Something needed to be said.
"You say, 'Coach, what did you say?'" Urban Meyer says. "I didn't say anything. It was Billy Price."
In typical Pam Lescsak fashion, Billy Price went black-and-white.
"I said, 'No, we didn't lose everything we needed,'" Price says. "'Everything is still in front of us, being Iowa is in the West. If it was an East team, it would be a different story, but everything is still in front of us.'"
He has earned Meyer's undying respect.
"I'm deeply indebted to Billy," Meyer says. "Billy's going to be a lifelong friend, and he'll be a Buckeye for the rest of his life, obviously, and I'm glad we still have him for a few more games."
The Buckeyes beat Michigan State 48-3 the next week and followed that up with a 52-14 win over Illinois. It would be a stretch to say the No. 9 Buckeyes control their destiny, but they have already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game against undefeated Wisconsin. Win that, and Price could easily be right.
That would make a good time to relax and enjoy a moment, but Price's mom wouldn't count on it.
"In his mind, he's working on the next project," she says. "That's just how he is."