In many respects, even entering the 2022 NFL Draft has been something of a miracle for Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett. Life has thrown its share of obstacles in his path. Yet, rather than crumble in the face of difficulty, he’s been fueled by it. Forged by adversity and pride in his Polynesian heritage, Garrett has developed a fierce reputation on the field while becoming a force for good away from it.
Haskell Garrett is an exceptional example of overcoming adversity
August 2020 was a time of uncertainty. An ongoing global pandemic caused disruption to lives around the world. For college football players, it was no different. No one knew whether the season would be played, how it might be played, or if it could be played. Yet, for Ohio State defensive tackle Garrett, one night in August provided a different type of uncertainty — a different type of adversity.
“I was just breaking up a domestic violence and intervened,” Garrett tells me in a matter-of-fact way that understates the act of heroism that could have had a profound impact on his life, not to mention his football career. “Unfortunately, it resulted in me being shot in my face.”
The event could have had very different consequences. But less than 18 months later, as he prepares for the NFL Draft, Garrett’s overriding emotion isn’t about what could have been for him. Instead, it’s a testament to the character of the man that he has nothing but gratitude for those that helped ensure this next stage of his football journey is possible.
“I’m really grateful for the ME’s, the first responders, especially during troubling times,” Garrett said. “They took very good care of me. Reflecting back on my comeback to be able to play football, it made me realize that I was actually really down. I didn’t practice until the Tuesday before our first game due to all the surgeries. I’m just truly thankful for the surgeons and the doctors that took care of me and to get me back to playing football.”
Rebounding to become a leader on the field
After gradually building his production through the 2019 season, there was a sense of expectation for Garrett ahead of 2020. Despite all of the disruption, both personally and globally, he lived up to it with third-team All-Big Ten honors. Setting career-highs in tackles, sacks, and tackles for loss, the Ohio State defensive tackle earned significant attention for the NFL Draft. However, Garrett had other ideas.
“A lot went into that decision,” he said. “I truly believe I didn’t want to leave the brotherhood yet. I didn’t think it was my time. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh, you’re nuts, you had a great season!’ What I put on tape, that’s who I am. I didn’t want it to be just because of what happened in 2020 is the reason that I played so well. This is who I’ve been the whole time. Also, I wanted to come back and be a leader for this team, to contribute anywhere I could to the university.”
The contribution on the field in 2021 came in the form of 22 tackles (7.5 of which were for loss) and 5.5 sacks. It came in the form of a big-man touchdown that he describes as “exhilarating and special.” But, most importantly for Garrett, it came in the form of being a team captain and having the opportunity to help shape the next generation of Ohio State playmakers.
“It meant a lot, meant that I had the respect of my peers, that they looked up to me as a leader and somebody that they can come to in any situation, someone who can lead them and they trust. I’m humbled and honored that they chose me as their leader.”
A proud Polynesian, born in Vermont but found in Hawaii
700 miles and several years from suiting up in the “Horseshoe”, the bleachers of a Vermont high school were Garrett’s football home. While his older brother showcased his skill set under the “Friday Night Lights”, Garrett wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I looked up to him a lot, his football journey, and what he did on the field,” Garrett said. “So, I grasped on to that. I was that little kid that was playing football under the bleachers with the other kids.”
His brother wasn’t his only inspiration. As Garrett developed into a menacing defensive tackle, Lawrence Taylor and Aaron Donald’s ferocity on the football field helped mold him. However, that eight-year-old kid in the Vermont bleachers had a cultural counterpart to create his game around.
“Definitely one of my role models was Troy Polamalu,” Garrett said. “I knew that I was Polynesian, and he was one of those crazy electric Polynesian football athletes who played for the Steelers. I would watch him all the time just going crazy, making crazy plays and crazy hits. It was that warrior aspect, that animal mentality that he had.”
Hawaii becomes home for a young Garrett
Garrett is a walking advertisement for the phrase “tough times don’t last, tough people do.” Perhaps his ability to overcome the adversity of August 2020 came from his early experiences of grief and upheaval. At the age of 13, he faced a tragedy that would ultimately allow him to discover his true self.
“It was hard, you know,” Garrett said. “My father passed away when I was 13, and we moved to Hawaii to be closer to my Mom’s side of the family and just kind of get away from everything in Vermont. Just something new. So, I fully embraced my Polynesian background. Finally, kind of knew who I was because I didn’t know too much about it.
“When I moved there, I realized how much you can express yourself through football with our ancestry and with our culture. It was tremendously important being there in Hawaii, really got to know my background, our ideals, and how we carry ourselves off the field and how it translates on the field.”
While in Hawaii, he got to play football with the Tagovailoa brothers, Isaac Slade-Matautia, and Palaie Gaoteote. The level of competition, with the ferocious warrior mentality, prepared Garrett for the next step of his football journey. Meanwhile, the discovery of how to carry himself off the field would come to the fore in the midst of 2020.
Bishop Gorman brings out the best in Garrett
Set in 34 acres of Clark County, Bishop Gorman High School has become the beacon of college football excellence not just in Nevada but across the nation. They’re a perennial producer of talent to the collegiate ranks. Anything short of a national title is seen as a failure. Bishop Gorman provided a potent proving ground for Garrett on his arrival from Hawaii.
“It definitely prepared me technically, you know, football IQ,” Garrett said. “It’s like a little university in a high school. It really got me ready for football, college ball. You have to learn quickly, learn on the fly, and how to translate what you learn in the classroom onto the field. You played top-ranked opponents every year. That really helped me translate my competitive excellence for the next level.”
When you’ve played with — and against — the best in high school and succeeded, it sets a precedent for the next stage in your football journey. Garrett amassed 56.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks across his career, making him a much sought-after four-star recruit. Despite the attention, only one school met his high level of expectation: the Ohio State University.
“At Bishop Gorman, we worked hard, we trained hard, and we showed it on the field with three national titles,” Garrett said. “You would always hear stories, guys would come back from college and be like, ‘man, college is nothing like high school, we really had it all!’ I wanted to go to the same environment that I was already used to. I want to go to the best, where they train the best way, and hard work is accepted. That’s why I chose Ohio State.”