Commentary

SEALs inspire Michigan seniors

Originally Published: May 31, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- The senior class from Michigan's football team gathered in a hotel ballroom on the second day of their senior leadership trip to California.

[+] EnlargeMichigan Kids Camp
Deanne FitzmauriceDuring the trip, Denard Robinson showed off his speed (at a youth football clinic) and his desire to grow as a leader.

Greg Harden, an associate athletics director and director of athletic counseling, asked each of the team's 22 seniors a simple question.

"Are you a better leader today than you were a year ago?" Harden asked.

About halfway through the players' answers, Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson offered a surprising response.

"I feel like I haven't grown," Robinson said. "For me to be the quarterback at the University of Michigan, I feel like I have to grow up a lot and be a lot more accountable."

Robinson's honest self-evaluation was just the kind of answer Michigan coach Brady Hoke wanted to hear.

Before Hoke's final season as Ball State's coach in 2008, he named his team's senior captains. One of those players, center Dan Gerberry, walked into Hoke's office the next day.

"What's a leader?" Gerberry asked. "I don't know how to be a leader."

Hoke instituted a senior leadership program for his players, in which he wanted to not only help them become better football players, but also better students and men.

"You could just see the growth of our team and seniors," Hoke said.

[+] EnlargeBrady Hoke
U-M AthleticsBrady Hooke's message to his senior class was clear: the team will go as far as they lead it.

As Hoke prepares for his second season at Michigan, the leadership program has expanded to include a three-day trip to California, where last week the Wolverines attended daily leadership classes, took a tour of the Rose Bowl and organized and conducted a youth camp in Pasadena, Calif. The week culminated with nearly four hours of grueling physical training with Navy SEALs at the Naval Special Warfare Center at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in Coronado, Calif.

"To watch the kids grow and see how they treat their teammates and influence their teammates is fun to watch," Hoke said. "If they run the locker room, we're going to be OK. If I have to run the locker room, we're going to be in trouble."

Over three days last week, Hoke, Harden and Michigan strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman were looking for more than a few good men. They were searching for the senior leaders who would guide Team 133 -- the 133rd incarnation of Michigan football -- into the 2012 season.

Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. PT, Newport Beach

Michigan's seniors had barely been on the ground for four hours before they were corralled into a ballroom at the Newport Beach Marriott for their first leadership meeting. The Wolverines left Ann Arbor, Mich., for Detroit's Metro Airport around 5:15 a.m. CT Wednesday, and then flew through Minneapolis before arriving at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, Calif., around 11:20 a.m. PT.

After lunch, Wellman was eager to lay out the week's plans.

"A lot of things are critical, but one thing to remember is that this weekend is Memorial Day," Wellman told the players. "We're not comparing what we do to what the Navy SEALs do. When they lose, someone dies. When we lose, we come in on Sunday and watch film. We're not saying to anyone that we're like the Navy SEALs. Showing respect to them is going out there and working your butts off and doing what they ask you to do."

Wellman, who also worked for Hoke at Ball State and San Diego State, also offered the players the week's thesis.

"Take time the next three days to reflect about where you are as a football player, but more importantly, where you are as a man," Wellman said. "How do you want to be remembered as the 133rd football team? If you haven't taken the steps necessary to become a leader, you're not out of time -- but time is running short."

After spending several minutes discussing the next day's youth camp, Harden offered the first leadership lesson of the trip, asking each player if he was a better leader now than he was as an underclassman. Michigan's senior class is a combination of returning starters, backups and walk-on players. Robinson, who threw for 2,173 yards, ran for 1,176 and accounted for 36 touchdowns while leading the Wolverines to an 11-2 record in 2011, is easily the team's most recognizable player.

But it didn't take long for other vocal leaders to emerge, like starting receiver Roy Roundtree, linebacker Kenny Demens, strong safety Jordan Kovacs and defensive tackle Will Campbell.

During the meeting, Roundtree was critical of a recent 7-on-7 voluntary workout. He criticized the defense for not putting forth much effort.

"We didn't get better as a team," Roundtree said. "We didn't get better on offense because you didn't get better on defense. It was like running routes against air."

[+] EnlargeGreg Harden
U-M AthleticsGreg Harden set the tone for the trip, talking to Michigan's seniors about growing as leaders and people.

Campbell was just as critical of the defensive linemen's poor showing in recent conditioning runs. Michigan's defense lost three starting defensive linemen, which is a big concern heading into its Sept. 1 opener against defending BCS national champion Alabama at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Crimson Tide is expected to have one of the country's best offensive lines.

"That's the position where we lost three starters," Campbell said. "The biggest part of Alabama is its offensive line."

"We want the team to be amazing," defensive end Craig Roh said. "We just need to map out a few things."

During the meeting, the Wolverines adopted their motto for 2012: "We Want It All."

"If you ask 119 other teams, their senior classes would say the same thing," Wellman said. "What makes you different? If you want it all, you can't remain who you are right now and become the men you want to be."

Shortly before the Wolverines filed out of the ballroom, Harden offered them a few more words of advice.

"We're talking about transforming a culture," Harden said. "You can't try it once and if it fails not try it again. You're at a place that's starving for leadership. Some of you were here under the former regime, which seemed to be a little more self-oriented. You're striving to become a team."

Wednesday, 6 p.m. PT, Newport Beach

After dinner, the Wolverines were back in the hotel ballroom, where Captain Duncan A. Smith and Special Warfare Operator First Class Eli Crane of the Navy SEALs gave them an orientation of what they would face on the beach at Coronado on Friday.

"I'm someone who is familiar with the pressure of being a part of an organization where there is an awful lot expected," Smith said. "That's a mantle. That's a yoke you have around you right now, not just for your team but the teams that will play at Michigan in 20 and 30 years from now."

[+] EnlargeSEALs Meeting
Deanne FitzmauriceThe SEALs message of building trust within the team hit home with Michigan's seniors.

Hoke and Wellman became involved with the SEALs while they coached at San Diego State. Hoke's last group of Aztecs seniors went through a day of SEALs training in 2010. The SEALs' traditional trident -- a three-pronged spear, which is associated with the sea gods Nepture and Poseidon -- has become a part of Michigan's football culture. Last season, before the Wolverines defeated Nebraska 45-17 on Nov. 19, three SEALs traveled to Ann Arbor and presented the Wolverines with their tridents.

"We have a notion or sentiment in our organization where you earn your trident everyday," said Smith, whose nephew, Nathan Brink, is a junior defensive tackle for the Wolverines.

Hoke wants his players to adopt the same kind of work ethic.

"They're the most elite warriors we have and everything is about team, accountability and trust," Hoke said.

Crane, who is from Arizona and served three deployments to Iraq, admitted to the Wolverines that he's a Notre Dame fan.

"Unfortunately, my team is Notre Dame," Crane said. "You guys have hammered them over the years. I'll try not to take it out on you on Friday morning."

Then Crane scanned the room.

"Who doesn't think they can handle three hours of training?" he asked.

No one raised his hand.

"It's going to be us against you," Crane said. "Please have thick skin. You guys are going to get yelled at and you're going to be taken out of your comfort zone."

The SEALs left the room, leaving the Wolverines to watch the Hollywood film "Act of Valor," which included active Navy SEALs in its cast.

Thursday, 9 a.m. PT, Newport Beach

Before departing for a tour of the Rose Bowl and conducting a youth camp at a nearby park, the Wolverines went through another hour of leadership training in the hotel ballroom. Harden divided the players into four groups and charged them with creating new ways to unify their team.

"Come up with some plans and ideas you think you can sell to the larger group," Harden said. "What emerges three weeks from now? A month from now, how can you galvanize and unionize and create some unity in this community? This is a community. It's a brotherhood."

Almost to a man, the Wolverines came back with identical dilemmas: They didn't really know their teammates.

"The thing I hate about leadership is you wait too late," Demens said. "Just imagine if we'd cared about each other like this as freshmen, sophomores and juniors. We'd be a dog-ass team. We'd be relentless."

During the meeting, several players shared stories about their backgrounds. Roundtree told his fellow seniors about how he overcame a learning disability as a child and still struggles with his brother being imprisoned. Cornerback J.T. Floyd admitted he's sometimes too self-centered because he's so focused on playing in the NFL. Floyd has a young daughter, Jordin, and is worried about her future.

Some players shared their proudest achievements. Center Ricky Barnum graduated in April and has been accepted to graduate school. Roundtree is the first member of his family to graduate from college, and guard Patrick Omameh spends one day each week at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he recently made a little girl smile for the first time in weeks.

Tight end Mike Kwiatkowski told his teammates he wants to become a pharmacist; receiver Steve Wilson wants to be a doctor; and walk-on quarterback Jack Kennedy wants to be a musician.

"You have to start talking to people about things that matter," Harden told them. "You've got X amount of months to decide what kind of man you're going to be when you leave this program. You need to be deliberate and intentional."

Kovacs said he learned a lot about his teammates.

"Everyone has a story and you really don't know everyone's story until you sit down and have some serious talks," Kovacs said. "I think until we know everyone's story we won't become a team."

Thursday, noon PT, Pasadena

The Wolverines traveled by bus to the Rose Bowl, where Kevin Ash, the Rose Bowl's chief administrative officer, greeted them. Ash said it was the first time he could recall a team touring the Rose Bowl during the offseason.

The Wolverines, who last played in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 2007, were given a tour of the locker room and the playing field. Most of the players used camera phones and iPods to take their pictures inside the stadium.

[+] EnlargeRicky Barnum
Deanne FitzmauriceMichigan center Ricky Barnum taught technique to local kids during the team's clinic.

"It's unreal," Kovacs said. "Driving down to the Rose Bowl and winding through the mountains, it just sent chills through me. Hopefully, we'll be back here in six more months."

Added Robinson: "It's the granddaddy of them all. It's tradition. It's history. We needed to see tradition and history."

After leaving the Rose Bowl, Michigan's seniors organized and conducted a youth camp for more than 80 children from the Pasadena Youth Football Association at Robinson Park Field (named in honor of Jackie Robinson, who once lived nearby). The Wolverines split up by positions and sent the kids through a circuit of drills for more than an hour.

"You've got a chance to make an impact on these kids," Wellman told them. "They'll remember this for the rest of their lives. Don't think for a second they're not watching you and listening to what you're saying and saying to each other. Teach them football skills and have some fun."

Friday, 10 a.m. PT, Coronado

After breakfast, the Wolverines loaded a bus to make the 90-mile drive to the Naval Special Warfare Center at the Naval Amphibious Base, which is located outside San Diego. The breakfast and bus ride were noticeably quiet.

"They're nervous," Wellman said. "I knew they were nervous when they showed up at breakfast wearing headphones. It's just like game day."

[+] EnlargeMichigan Seals logs
Deanne FitzmauriceMichigan players learned first-hand what the motto 'Embrace the suck' means to the SEALs.

When the bus reached the Naval Special Warfare Center, the Wolverines assembled into formation and jogged to a classroom. Crane and Rob Stella, the SEAL's chief special warfare operator, were waiting to meet them. The Wolverines stripped off their sweatpants and replaced them with camouflage pants.

"I'm going to tell you right off the bat -- we can't make you into a better player and we can't make you into a championship team," Stella said. "If you came here expecting us to have the magic pill, you're going to be disappointed. It's up to each and every individual to actually buy into it. The most important thing to remember about leadership is it's a privilege and it's a hard privilege. Your team is going to fail or succeed based on how you get them up."

Stella then told the Wolverines the only thing they really need to know about the next three hours of training. It's what he likes to call "Embrace the suck."

"It doesn't matter who can run the fastest, who can shoot the best or who can throw it the farthest," Stella said. "What it all comes down to is how do you perform when you're stressed and under pressure? We're going to take you places where you've never been before. Be prepared for that. You're going to get a snapshot of yourself today and your teammates are going to get a snapshot of you today."

Before sending the Wolverines out to the beach, Stella gave them a few final words of advice: "We might do some things today that you don't like. Talk yourself through it. Work as a team."

The Wolverines hit the beach around 10:30 a.m. PT, but they hardly were greeted by typical Southern California weather. It was around 58 degrees and the beach was covered with fog and misting rain. The SEALs call this time of year in San Diego "Grey May."

Michigan's SEALs workout started on a rope climb behind the beach. After the exercise was finished, Stella sent the players for a dip into the Pacific Ocean. A few players, including Campbell, had never been to the beach before. They wouldn't forget their first trip, not after Stella instructed them to cover their shivering bodies in sand from head to toe.

After completing a series of dips and pull-ups, the players had to bear crawl up a dune, with a teammate hanging on them from below. After moving to the SEALs' obstacle course, the players flipped tractor tires in a relay race. Team 133 was divided into four boat teams.

"Get your game face on and embrace the suck!" Stella shouted into a megaphone. "Make small sacrifices for your teammates, just like they're making for you."

Robinson's team, which also included Floyd and Roundtree, won one of the early tire relay races. But they made the mistake of celebrating in front of Stella.

"What did they do wrong?" Stella asked. "They celebrated. How many times have you seen a team celebrate before the game is over? They're out there jumping up and down and hollering and then it's about them. Football players are the worst about that. Be humble, people. If you act like that, you're going to put a target on your back and people are going to crush you! What is humility? It's the absence of arrogance. If you start winning games and acting like fools, I'm going to get on a plane and come out there and kick your butts. Be humble and act like a team."

[+] EnlargeSEALS training
Deanne FitzmauriceRobinson's team struggled after being disciplined for celebrating an earlier victory.
Then Stella turned to Robinson's team.

"They celebrated and now they're going to pay," Stella said.

Instead of getting a reward -- a short rest period -- like other winning teams, Robinson's team was ordered to complete lunges and sprints. None of the Wolverines did any more celebrating.

Predictably, Robinson's team struggled on the next exercise, in which the players moved in unison while in a push-up position, with a player crawling under them through the sand. Communication and teamwork were more essential than strength and speed.

"If you guys are going for the slowest time, you're rocking it," Stella sarcastically told them.

Crane and Stella saved the best for last. For the last hour of their workout, the Wolverines carried 235-pound logs. Before they started, Stella gave them strict orders.

"These things are heavy as hell," he said. "As soon as you get lazy and don't carry your weight, your teammates are picking up your slack. Trust your teammates are going to carry their weight. It's all about teamwork. If you guys start throwing around my logs, you're going to get sand and grit all over them. Then I'm going to make you wash them. There's only one place to wash them -- in the Pacific Ocean."

Stella found more uses for the logs than WD-40. The Wolverines carried them on their chests, hauled them on their shoulders and pushed them with their legs. They even did sit-ups and push-ups while carrying them.

At one point, Roh has difficulty keeping up with his teammates while they pushed a log with their legs.

"Just go without me!" he shouted.

"No, get up here!" Campbell responded. "We're a team!"

Stella was watching them closely.

"It's the fourth quarter and your motivation is being sucked out," Stella said. "Your opponents are going to sense that and crush you! I don't hear any communication! Your motivation has dropped. Your teamwork has dropped. Your opponent is going to crush you!"

Mercifully, Stella gathered the Wolverines around him when the fun was finally over.

"You guys are starting to communicate, but a lot of it is negative," Stella said. "There was a lot of bickering back and forth. As leaders, you guys have got to be a united front and working toward the same goal. The reality is the team that learns to play like a team wins championships."

Friday, 7 p.m. PT, Newport Beach

After returning to their hotel, the Wolverines gathered in a ballroom for the final time. Wellman, who went through the SEALs workout with his players, wanted to put the experience into perspective.

"I think a lot of you guys got a lot of good things out of it," Wellman said. "Communication when you get tired is an issue. Some of us in here are soft and you know who you are. You guys have to hold each other accountable."

Robinson said the Wolverines needed to do a better job of communicating with each other.

"It's hard for people to believe when they're tired and fatigued," Robinson said. "We all have so many ideas and we all want to be leaders. But the thing that stood out to me is we have to have one goal and one plan for our team to get to the destination where we want to go."

Kovacs, a former walk-on who was second on the team with 75 tackles in 2011, told his teammates they'd learned something about themselves.

"My biggest concern is, how is this team going to respond to adversity?" Kovacs said. "There were times we did OK, but a lot of times we didn't respond very well. I guarantee you in every game we play, starting with Alabama, the other team is going to make plays. Are we going to respond?"

When the Wolverines boarded a plane for Detroit on Saturday morning, they had less than 100 days to figure it out.

Mark Schlabach | email

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