The Lego stadium that might be saving lives

HE REACHES IN and palms one guy by the head and carefully lowers him into a seat. Then he grabs another guy by his torso and slowly helps him find a home, too.

Dr. Paul Janssen’s technique looks an awful lot like either a surgeon doing a complicated surgery or a very intense game of Operation. His arm goes straight out, then straight down, careful not to disturb anything nearby.

As he works inside this large glass enclosure in the middle of the Ohio State library, he doesn’t even notice that three curious people — presumably, an Ohio State student, with her mom and dad — are gathered outside staring in at his careful craftsmanship. For five minutes, he repeats this motion 42 times. As Janssen winds down, the three observers leave. Janssen is left just holding a small rectangular plastic baggie, now devoid of 42 small people.

Every week or two, Janssen comes over to the school library, hikes up one set of stairs and walks into a Buckeye football exhibit where his big 11-year-old Lego child is the star of the show. It’s a 200-pound “miniature” replica of Ohio Stadium, built by Janssen over the course of four years, using about 700,000 Legos that have a value of around $100,000. The actual stadium lurks on the horizon, maybe a five-minute walk away, and yet somehow the brick version seems to draw more oohs and aahs.

Janssen talks about his brick baby while standing beside it. He is a modest man and clinical with his words. But it’s impossible for him to totally shrug off his accomplishments as both a Lego mastermind and a renowned heart researcher at Ohio State. He tries to call himself a “geek” and dismiss what has been a life of toiling all day to find the next tiny breakthrough in heart health, then evenings in his basement putting together the next tiny giant Lego build. If Paul Janssen is a geek, then the world needs more geeks.

Most of Janssen’s heart research happens quietly in a lab, first hunched over microscopes and then carefully laid out in published research papers and grant applications. So this Lego A-lister thing can be overwhelming at times. Around the same moment he says this, he takes a step back because suddenly three familiar faces have sidled up beside him. It’s Mom, Dad and Student again — they’ve come inside the glass-encased exhibit and are now taking photos and not-so-subtly eavesdropping. They’re not purposely boxing out Janssen … but he’s been Ben Wallaced out of the way at this point.

He’s saying that he first finished the stadium a decade ago, and it got lots of headlines back then. In the years since, he’s made several renovations to the stadium to keep up with real-life changes. But the stadium’s 15 minutes of fame seemed to have come and gone, and Janssen thought maybe it would live out its days in his basement. Then the school called with a proposal: How about putting it on display in 2022 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Ohio Stadium?

The answer was yes. Janssen isn’t looking to get rich and famous off his Lego creations, but he is an artist, and every artist wants to see their art on display. So the stadium is in the middle of its second 15 minutes right now.

Mom, Dad and Student are still meandering around the stadium as Janssen begins to talk about getting it from his house to the second floor of the library. It took two university workers several hours to pack up and transport the stadium. Janssen nonchalantly says they had only a few pieces that came loose getting it into the glassed-in room, where he patched it up.

“Legos don’t break,” he says. “They just come apart.”

“That’s what he says,” university archivist Tamar Chute chimes in. “The two guys who did it said it was the most nerve-racking thing they’d ever moved.”

Everybody laughs, including Mom, Dad and Student.

That leaves one big question, though: What’s the significance of the 42 people who arrived today? As Janssen describes what those 42 tiny Lego figures represent, everybody in the room — including the three randos — devotes their full attention.

Turns out, those 42 Lego figures might each be playing a small part in solving one of the great still-unsolved mysteries of the human body: How does a heart actually work?

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, despite being one of the most studied areas of public health for decades, our understanding of what exactly causes a heart to pump — or stop pumping — is still not complete.

That invigorates people like Paul Janssen. When he went to medical school in the Netherlands, he knew he didn’t want to be a medical doctor. He liked studying the body more than trying to repair it. So he chose to pursue a career as a researcher and eventually settled on the heart because he couldn’t believe it still held so many secrets.

“We really only know the tip of the iceberg,” he says.

Janssen graduated from medical school and came to the U.S., first at Wake Forest for his master’s, then at Johns Hopkins for postgraduate work, eventually taking a job at Ohio State as a hybrid teacher-researcher.

For a brief run in his early Ohio State days, Janssen and a young colleague from the engineering department, Benjamin Coifman, even taught a course for freshmen called The Art and Science of Lego Bricks. The textbook was just a big tub of Legos. “Perhaps the thing I like best about Paul is, you put me in a room full of normal people, I’m the Lego weirdo,” Coifman says. “You put me next to Paul and I look normal.”

As their teaching portfolios grew, though, both Coifman and Janssen had to decide what to specialize in … while letting go of the freshman Lego class. “It was a very fun class while it lasted,” Coifman says.

Coifman got hyperfocused on perhaps his favorite civil engineering topic — mass transportation, specifically the riddle of how and why traffic jams happen — and has become one of the nation’s foremost experts on traffic flow and driver tendencies. Janssen’s heart has always been in the heart. More specifically, the way the heart rests in between its 100,000 beats per day. He says when he started, in the mid-1990s, about 90% of his colleagues were focused on how to prevent heart failure by making the heart stronger.

Janssen became enamored with a small subset of researchers who made the case that more resources should be devoted to a counterintuitive concept — that the relaxation of the heart is as important as how hard it pumps.

As Janssen explains it, the heart is the human body’s most important muscle. It beats an average of 35 million times per year, which means it has to clench, relax, then clench again about 72 times a minute for most adults. If something is haywire with the way a heart rests and regroups, Janssen says, then pure strength doesn’t matter as much. Janssen’s work is not sexy. He believes we now understand about 80% of what makes the heart tick, so discoveries are incremental and announced in obscure journals and medical conferences.

His proudest professional accomplishment is establishing a first-of-its-kind heart donation program at Ohio State. He created an intricate system for several Ohio hospitals to donate defective hearts from transplant recipients to his lab, and also healthy hearts from organ donors. Since the program began 10 years ago, Janssen’s lab has gotten around 110 of each (220 hearts total) that are studied by faculty and students. As Janssen walks through his lab, he toggles seamlessly between talking about the intricacies of the human heart and also how loaded Harry Potter Hogwarts Lego castle sets are. In the background lurk two giant silver freezers that say on the outside that they are set to minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 Fahrenheit). That’s where they keep the hearts that Janssen and his staff have secured.

He moves into another part of his lab, where he houses all of their high-tech, $5,000-plus microscopes used for their research. Funding for the lab comes primarily from grants that Janssen and his team continuously apply for, and Janssen has a pretty good batting average on knowing how to land a multimillion-dollar grant.

But he also has figured out a way that Legos can provide a few bucks for his research. That’s where those 42 Lego figures come into the picture again.

A few years ago, someone in the marketing department had an idea: What if they started selling seats in the stadium? Maybe charge $25 so Bob and Barb Bucknut could put Lego versions of themselves in Janssen’s creation?

The answer, again, was a big thumbs up. The work he does at his lab doesn’t generate giant breakthroughs that stop the medical world cold. So Janssen and his staff spend a lot of time and money publishing papers, then traveling to conferences to announce their findings. Another $250,000 from selling 10,000 Lego figures could do a lot of good in helping get the word out on his latest research, usually one $950 road trip at a time.

Orders came in slow and steady at first. Every week or two, he’d check an online spreadsheet and see that another nine or 14 people wanted a spot, and he’d assemble that number of tiny little people, usually with a red Ohio State-looking shirt on. The library has added a QR code beside the exhibit so people can sign up on the spot as they marvel at it. Janssen believes he still has room for around about 9,000 more seats.

One man reached out to purchase a seat for him, his wife and kids, and he asked if he could pay more than the $25 per person. He’d gotten a heart transplant from Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and wanted to give back … by donating $50,000 for four seats. That’s been a huge chunk of the $90,000 the stadium’s seating has pulled in so far.

But the three seats he gave out for free, almost 10 years ago, way before the lab donation idea, might be his favorites. He’d gotten a call one day from a man who said his grandfather, Howard Dwight Smith, had been the architect of the actual Ohio Stadium. The man said he was calling for his sister, who read about his Lego replica and wanted to know if she could see it herself. They figured out a good time for her and her kids to visit his house. The woman’s name? Beverly D’Angelo.

A few weeks later, the doorbell rang and there was Beverly D’Angelo and her two kids. They climbed down the stairs into the basement at Janssen’s old house, and he gave them the tour. They couldn’t believe the size of his collection, and Janssen didn’t even tell them that he was renting a storage shed for $300 a month for the other half of his Legos.

When he unveiled the stadium, D’Angelo and her kids loved it. They asked if they could take some photos with it, and Janssen volunteered to be their photographer. He took a few, then handed back their phones.

After a half hour or so, D’Angelo thanked him profusely for his time. She felt honored on behalf of her grandfather, and when they got to his front door, D’Angelo said, “Thank you so much for your generosity. If you’re ever in California, please stop by.”

As they walked to the car, the last thing Janssen heard was one of the kids say, “Man, that guy really loves Legos.”

IN THE LATE 1930s, a Danish carpenter with a knack for making toys created The Lego Group, with the word “Lego” being a riff on the Danish phrase for “play well.” And when Ole Kirk Kristiansen launched the company, he insisted that Lego would cut no corners, even if it cost more to produce his colored bricks. “Only the best is good enough,” he said.

Over the years, Lego has remained family-run and stuck to that simple premise that perhaps their bricks will require an extra week of allowance more than other toys, but they will not be chintzy. Janssen cites one recent study that had a machine pull apart Legos and then reassemble them 10,000 times and found virtually zero diminishments in what’s known as “clutch power.” Almost every parent will vouch for the sturdiness of Legos with a story of stepping on one in the middle of the night and screaming something resembling “Clutch power!”

But by the mid-1990s, Lego was limping along with debt somewhere in the range of $800 million, with an expired patent that allowed other brick builders to surge into the market. The company was stalling out.

The toy industry has always been oddly faddish and fickle, with technological advances and eras rendering toys obsolete from generation to generation, sometimes even from one Christmas to the next. Furbys, Teddy Ruxpin, POGs, Zhu Zhu Pets … the graveyard of items that were fall’s hottest toys and next summer’s top yard sale giveaways is long and sad. Throw in the rise of video games and gadgets starting in the mid-1980s through now, and Lego was facing an uphill battle in surviving a very difficult business.

Then the company made a game-changing decision. In the run-up to Lucasfilm releasing Episodes I, II and III from 1999 to 2005, Lego reached an agreement to produce “Star Wars” sets. Say what you will about those three movies, but they made $2.5 billion at the box office and brought out millions of nostalgic parents with their kids. That generational bridge saved the company.

About 20 years later, Lego is probably the most successful modern toy ever invented, with licenses to produce sets for Star Wars, Marvel, Disney Princesses, Jurassic Park, Ninjago, Super Mario, Minecraft and others. There have been four hit Lego movies that somehow pulled off being both a little edgy and 100-minute product placements. By 2021, Lego had $8.06 billion in toy sales, the highest in the world, just ahead of No. 2 Hasbro ($6.42 billion) and No. 3 Mattel ($5.48 billion), according to toy historian Richard Gottlieb.

Gottlieb, the founder of Global Toy Experts, adds an important caveat about Lego’s dominance. Hasbro includes sales of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Peppa Pig, Nerf and a dozen other properties; Mattel is Barbie, Hot Wheels, American Girl, Fisher-Price and more. Lego is just Legos.

“Lego is the No. 1 toy in the world, and probably the No. 1 toy produced in the last 100 years,” Gottlieb says. “And I’m not sure that will change any time soon. It doesn’t matter how old you are, people inherently like to build things.”

The one knock on Legos is the price point. It’s not an easy hobby for a kid to get into for $5 or $10. Janssen and other Lego enthusiasts don’t disagree, but wonder what kids’ hobbies — Legos, Barbies, remote control cars, video games, baseball cards, whatever — can be done for less than $100 anymore?

The key to Janssen’s success is that he was an early adopter in what has become a booming secondary market for Legos. He buys plenty of Legos like everybody else, at stores or on the company website. But Janssen’s secret is that he is an online Lego wizard.

Hitting secondary market sites like BrickLink and eBay, Janssen spots sets that he wants, then carves them up and sells off individual pieces he doesn’t need — especially the little figures in many sets — to not only recover what he spent but to make money. He especially makes a killing by buying Harry Potter sets, keeping the pieces and bundling the Potterverse characters to sell to collectors. He’ll sometimes clear out entire post-holiday inventories of stores, then wait a year (or two or three) before selling them online. It’s the equivalent of buying all of Walgreens’ clearance Valentine’s Day stuff at 90% off, eating half of it, then selling the rest at full price next February.

“Paul figured out how to buy and sell patiently,” Coifman says. “Before you knew it, he was building skyscrapers that were $5,000 worth of bricks. He was a rags to riches Lego buyer.”

In fact, for most of the past 20 years, Janssen has had to file an annual tax return for the money he brings in, which has ranged from a few thousand dollars as high as mid-five figures. He is stockpiling a Lego warehouse while making money.

For the stadium, Janssen used all of his Lego economist skills. He drew up a massive diagram of what he would need using photos — some from aerial images, some he took himself at home games. He needed massive amounts of basic blocks, which he mostly could pull from his already existing inventory.

But then he ran into a common problem for Lego “purists,” the term he and other builders use for those who refuse to cut, glue or paint blocks. Everything he builds must naturally exist in a set, with no adaptations allowed. For Ohio Stadium, he needed 60 to 70 curved arches for the top of the stadium, the kind that isn’t produced often by Lego.

He finally discovered a set sold only in Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Each set included two arches that looked perfect for his stadium project, so he methodically began placing orders from sellers all over the world. He’d buy one or two at a time, chipping away at the 30 to 35 sets he needed. After months of hunting and gathering, Janssen finally had every arch he needed. Then he bundled up the other bricks and sold them online, basically breaking even by the time he was done.

At the end of a tour of the stadium at the library, then a stop at his heart lab, Janssen considers a request to come to his home and see his collection. He doesn’t respond at first. Instead, he pulls out his phone and plays a video.

“Take a look at this and tell me if you’re still interested,” he says.

He’d taken a 30-second video of his basement and roughly 1.3 seconds in, after just seeing the vastness of colored blocks covering 2,000 square feet, floor to ceiling … the answer is yes. If it’s good enough for Ellen Griswold, it’s good enough for ESPN.

JANSSEN OPENS HIS FRONT DOOR and points toward the basement steps. He is lean and energetic. At 54, he doesn’t run marathons anymore, but he still looks four weeks of training away from a new personal record.

He speaks four languages, and you can detect the slightest Dutch undercurrent in his voice sometimes. He has three kids from his first marriage, 22, 20 and 15 years old, and a 5-year-old son with his second wife, Nona.

He met her online, and on their first few dates, he went out of his way to casually mention his affection for Legos. Eventually, he invited her to his house, where he cautiously waited for her reaction when he showed her his Legos.

“This is cool,” she said. “It’s, uh, definitely something I haven’t seen before.”

He has a sheepish grin on his face as he tells that story. They got married soon after, and he now has a 5-year-old Lego buddy he has to pick up from preschool in a few hours. As he heads down to his Lego sanctuary, he has a gleam in his eye, like he knows he’s about to boggle the mind.

Mission accomplished. His basement is unbelievable. It’s colorful and joyous and messy in some spots, incredibly organized in others. The beauty of Legos is that even in a massive, disjointed mound, there’s order and serenity and potential to be discovered within.

The main space features all sorts of big builds, plus a small area where his son can build. Janssen entered two national Lego building contests, in 2005, and he won them both, first with a giant South Carolina house he chose from the national registry of historical homes, then with a New Orleans skyscraper the next year. Both reside here. There is one four-foot-long Titanic and three different two-foot-high Statues of Liberty, each requiring about $1,000 worth of pieces. He has plans to tear them apart, buy more pieces and Voltron them into one giant, human-sized Lady Liberty. On the wall, he has stationed every train set that Lego has ever produced (about 50).

And the Lego force is strong in this one basement. Janssen has at least four completed Millennium Falcons spaced out across the rooms, and his figure game is off the charts. He has tiny bleacher-like setups for hundreds and hundreds of little Lego Storm Troopers and Chewbaccas. He has two Yoda figures in “I Love NY” shirts that were handed out at New York Comic Con a few years ago, so there are only about 1,000 in existence. He believes he could get $2,000 a piece for them right now.

Janssen turns the corner, into the storage area of his Lego lab. He has a back room that has ceiling-high shelves packed in, with just enough room for one person to maneuver, and the old sets and pieces he’s acquired go eight feet high. There’s a good chance that his back room is bigger and better than some Lego stores.

And right there in the middle, on a table, sits Janssen’s next addition to the Lego stadium. It’s a perfect window into how he works his Lego magic.

He’s putting together a new field for the stadium, complete with a re-creation of the Ohio State band dotting the “i.” The Best Damn Band in the Land has 225-plus human members, but Janssen believes he’ll only have space for 90 mini trumpet, trombone, sousaphone and snare drum players.

But he realized early on that the sousaphones were going to be a problem. He needed some kind of bendable pieces to be the main tube coming out of the instrument, and the best fit happened to be an obscure big rig sold only in Europe in the 1980s. The truck has an exhaust pipe that looks like the end of a sousaphone.

So he ordered four sets from Germany and one from Denmark. He pulled the makeshift sousaphone tube pieces, then started selling off the rest of the set. He ended up in the green, somehow. Now he’s grinding away in one of two workshop areas in the basement. He wants to add the band by the time Ohio State welcomes Michigan on Nov. 26. In mid-October, Janssen was still a little worried about getting the last shipment from Denmark in time.

The stadium is on display through February, then the library’s glass area changes to another exhibit. Janssen plans on taking the stadium home after that, but his ultimate goal is that it doesn’t live with him. “I’d like for people to be able to see the stadium and enjoy it,” he says.

He’s optimistic that someplace will want to showcase it, perhaps even a second showing at the Columbus Museum of Art, which paid him years ago to make an exact replica of the Columbus Museum of Art to display at the Columbus Museum of Art. Maybe the Mini Museum would be interested in a Lego buddy.

As Janssen winds his way through his basement, he pauses for a full five seconds to contemplate a question he has no good answer for. Where does his love of Legos come from? What’s at the root of his passion?

After a long silence, he considers a suggestion. Perhaps his soul needs the precision of building with blocks after spending every day in a lab, a string of 9-to-5s where he’s trying to crack the code of the human heart. Down here in his basement, maybe there’s a beauty to the rigidity of smashing together one Lego to the next, with a specific finished product in mind.

He believes there might be some truth to that. As the conversation moves on to finishing the band, though, a clearer answer emerges. He says he needs two or three more weekends to finish, and he casually mentions that could be tricky because he’s going overseas for an 11-day astronomy trip at the end of October.

Wait, an 11-day overseas astronomy trip?

He smiles. He says his dad, Leo, has been an amateur stargazer his entire life, and he had approached him and his sisters a while ago with a wild idea. Janssen’s mom had died years ago, and Janssen had moved to the U.S. as a young adult. So the whole Janssen gang hadn’t gone on any kind of trip together in decades. He wanted to know if Janssen and his sisters would help him go on an adventure he’d waited his whole life for: A trip to Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of Senegal known for its incredible sight lines into the heavens.

“My dad knows if we don’t do it now, it’s probably not going to happen,” Janssen says. “Realistically, I’m only ever going to see him a few more times.”

It would be a very Griswoldian trip for Janssen: He would have to fly two hours to Detroit, then seven hours to the Netherlands, meet up with his family, then six hours to Cape Verde off the African coast, then a 15-minute puddle jumper to another island.

But Janssen said yes, and he did so enthusiastically. As tough as it was going to be to leave his lab and his unfinished Lego Ohio State band, Janssen credits his dad with encouraging him to try Legos about 50 years ago. He got Janssen his first train set and stared up into the sky at night as the little guy built with bricks on the floor beside him. He’d tell his son to come take a look at a constellation or star he discovered, and Janssen would show off every new train he completed.

Neither one of them ever fell in love with the other’s hobby, but they loved that each of them loved something and that they were able to love their somethings together. Imagining that scene, a dad’s head in the heavens and a kid on the floor building big trains, it’s not hard to understand why the roots of a lifetime passion formed in Janssen.

On the way to Cape Verde, Leo’s neck and back pain was flaring up, so he needed a lot of help from the Janssen kids getting around with his telescopes and books. But he saw Jupiter and several moons he had never seen before, and he’d back away from the telescope so Paul and his sisters could each get a look. “He was so happy,” Paul says.

“It was a good trip. A really good trip.”

At the end of the 11 days, Janssen made his way back to Columbus and found a pleasant surprise: The last truck parts to make the sousaphones had arrived. He went down into his basement and put the finishing touches on the new field and the 90-figure band.

The band looks fantastic. The instruments are silver and shiny and more real looking than should be possible considering they’re made of Hogwarts castles and 40-year-old German truck parts. He’ll take the new field and the band over to the library sometime this week as the stadium enters its final two months on display.

He’s proud of the way it looks, and he hopes maybe he can spark another wave of donations from fans. No matter what, though, he knows little Lego Beverly D’Angelo is going to love it.

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