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Thursday, September 15, 2011
Former walk-on walks tall for U-M

By Chantel Jennings
WolverineNation

Jordan Kovacs was perfectly happy being average.

Yes, the redshirt junior safety who's in his third year as a starter for the Wolverines, was, at one point in time, average -- and happy with it.

Last season he led the team in tackles with 116, which ranked second in the Big Ten. Already this season his monstrous hit on Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder caused a fumble and was a highlight-reel play, as was his diving interception against Notre Dame.

Jordan Kovacs
Safety Jordan Kovacs never envisioned becoming a starter when he walked on at Michigan.
But he never expected any of that.

So Kovacs sat in the back row of the 2009 team photo and tried to hold back too big of a smile.

The other players sat on the bleachers and, presumably, imagined making the game-winning play against Ohio State -- being in the middle of the players' celebration, pumping their fists in the air, shouting at the top of their lungs, being held by the student section as they sang "The Victors."

Not Kovacs. By even sitting in the photograph, he had accomplished all he thought he could.

"That was it. My life was fulfilled," he said. "I had made the team, and I was content being a scout team member for the next four years of my life."

Family ties

The first time Kovacs attended a game at Michigan Stadium was Lloyd Carr's first game as coach. It was an 18-point, fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory over Virginia that solidified Mercury Hayes in Wolverines lore.

Kovacs was sold.

"I always believed I was going to play for Michigan," Kovacs said. "But then again, I also always thought I was going to win the Heisman."

Part of the reason for that belief was Jordan's father, Lou, who had walked on at Michigan in 1979 and played for four years before becoming a graduate assistant for two seasons with coach Bo Schembechler.

Coming into Jordan's senior year of high school, he had visited just two schools that were interested in him: Hillsdale and Toledo. By the time Kovacs was sending out college applications, Hillsdale, a Division II school, was no longer interested, and he was convinced Toledo was only following up with him because his high school coach had asked them to.

That winter, Lou Kovacs put in a call to Brad Labadie, then-director of Michigan football operations, asking what could be done for Jordan, who had yet to receive any serious looks. His son had been put on the wait list at Michigan in December when he'd initially applied, and the family hadn't heard much since.

Labadie agreed to look over the homemade highlight tape that Lou had put together, but he made no promises. Early June rolled around, and Jordan was on the verge of graduating with the Clay High School Class of 2008 when Toledo coach Andy Boyd showed up at Clay, just 13 miles outside of Toledo.

Time was running out. Kovacs knew college teams would start summer conditioning soon. His older brother Aaron had just finished his freshman year at Toledo, and, feeling as though there were no other options, Jordan shook Boyd's hand and accepted the preferred walk-on spot.

"I guess I'm a Rocket," he said.

No, it was not his dream, not his goal, but it was his reality -- he would be a Rocket, he would go to Toledo, he would not play for Michigan.

The final part seemed the hardest to swallow. It all seemed surreal, but it was a truth he was trying to accept.

At work that afternoon, Lou Kovacs received a call from Labadie. Jordan had been accepted to Michigan.

"We watched the tapes of Jordan, and we're impressed," Labadie told Lou. "I can't promise anything, but we're having fall walk-on tryouts.

"Jordan should come."

Lou debated whether to even tell his son about the opportunity. He knew there was no guarantee, no definitive football future for Jordan at Michigan.

But there was opportunity.

So Lou called Jordan and told him the news. He asked Jordan to think it over for a few days, weigh the options and consider the risks. And then Lou contemplated whether he'd just made a huge mistake.

He waited 20 minutes before he called his wife, Susan.

"Brian called me and said that Jordan has an opportunity to walk on at Michigan next fall," Lou started. "I wanted to let you know that I just called Jordan to tell him about it."

"I know," Susan responded, not an ounce of surprise in her voice. "He just called me and told me he was going to be a Wolverine."

And that was it.

It was hardly a thought process for Jordan. Toledo was a fine school, and a preferred walk-on spot was, realistically, a better choice for him as a football player.

But, realistically, Jordan knew that anything less than Michigan would be a disappointment.

"He just wanted that opportunity," Lou said. "That's kind of the way he approached this whole thing. Just give me a shot, let me get my foot in the door, and I'll take it from there."

A major setback

His shot came that fall with Rich Rodriguez.

"Once you're good enough to win with, you'll play," Rodriguez said after the tryouts. "Whether you're a former walk-on, a walk-on, a fifth-year senior or whatever, the best guys will play."

Jordan Kovacs
Safety Jordan Kovacs might have been the most productive defender during the non-conference schedule.
So, following the tryout, Kovacs walked down State Street to Schembechler Hall. On the front entrance of the building, a plain piece of printer paper with a few names on it was taped to the large glass door.

He scanned the sheet.

"Jordan Kovacs, safety," it read.

But before he could receive his team-issued uniform and be an official member of the 129th Michigan football team, he needed to take care of one "formality" -- meeting with the team's athletic trainer, Paul Schmidt.

Schmidty, as most players know him, had been a trainer at Michigan when Lou played and coached, so the two had long since formed a relationship. Jordan had heard stories and met Schmidty a few times before he had to take care of his physical with his dad's old friend.

It was a comfortable feeling sitting in his office, answering straightforward questions. To Jordan, it hardly felt like a formal meeting.

"Yes, no, yes, no," Jordan repeated like a machine.

"Does your family have a history of heart disease?" No.

"Do you have any allergies?" No.

"Have you had any surgeries in the last 12 months?" Yes.

Schmidty began inquiring about the meniscus surgery Kovacs had received during his senior year of high school.

"Yeah, it still bothers me from time to time," Kovacs said.

Schmidty looked up from his paper and began probing Kovacs for more information. Kovacs knew he'd let something slip.

"I was digging and digging," he said. "I was looking for a way out."

But there was no way out. He'd already said too much.

And when the questions ended and there was just silence, Kovacs cried. He knew what was coming next and stood up to leave before Schmidty could even tell him that he couldn't be on the team. The knee presented far too much of a liability.

With other walk-ons standing in the hallway, Schmidty let Kovacs out the back door, down a hall and out into the parking lot of Schembechler Hall. It was the least he could do for the son of an old friend -- he'd lost his spot on the team, but Schmidty wouldn't allow Kovacs to be embarrassed in front of those who still had theirs.

So Kovacs walked back to his dorm in tears and called his mom and dad, his girlfriend and siblings.

He didn't tell them it was over, that he'd never be a Michigan football player, or that he wanted to transfer to Toledo.

He told each of them he would be on the Michigan football team. Just not right away.

"You made the team once with only one knee," Aaron told him. "I think you can make it again when your other knee heals."

"I know," Jordan said. "I will."

There were seven months until the next walk-on tryout, and Kovacs immediately returned to Toledo to meet with a new orthopedic specialist. If he could get that out of the way and spend the six months post-surgery working out, he'd be on the team by April.

It took just 20 minutes to surgically correct the one reason Kovacs wasn't on the team.

That fall, Kovacs attended every Michigan football game. The Kovacs family had four season tickets in section 35 behind the north end zone, and between the six family members, they'd split up the tickets every weekend.

But Jordan always got one.

He might not have been on the team, but he would show up for every game.

Putting in the work

Nearly every day from the time his meniscus healed after his second surgery to the day of the tryout, Kovacs made the trek to a rec building on campus where the air year-round hangs over the courts like a July afternoon, where the large metal fans circulate more dust than air. It is a melancholic ode to late-1970s architecture.

The three basketball courts and two volleyball courts are lined by aged drinking fountains that work only half the time, and when they do, they're just as likely to provide rust as they are water. Large green tarps on rusted metal hinges separate the courts, and on any given day the ROTC, club volleyball team or a senior citizens club might be taking over the space without warning.

But it was on those worn floors that Kovacs worked out every morning at 6. For six months he ran around the lopsided two-lane track, avoiding the early morning joggers, telling himself each gray head he passed was just an older, slower version of the people he'd have to catch on the field the next fall; that each gray head was an Ohio State football helmet he needed to get to; that each gray head was one person who was maybe working harder than he was.

Dayne Crist
Jordan Kovacs worked tirelessly just to make his dream of suiting up at Michigan a reality.
Kovacs met Jack Kennedy that year, and when Jack told him that he was hoping to try out as a walk-on quarterback that spring, the two teamed up to start working out together. They'd recruit friends to come into the gym and become a wide receiver for a day. Kennedy worked on his footwork and throwing, while Kovacs worked on his cuts and coverage.

Route after route their friends would run. Kennedy would throw the ball, and Kovacs would do his best to make that throw as difficult as possible.

On the basketball courts, they would dodge the has-beens reliving their high school glory days, determined never to be one of them.

"Those rock-hard courts were great for my recovering knee," Kovacs said sarcastically. "But it was my only option."

And at night, after classes and homework, Kovacs would sit alone in his dorm studying game film.

Humble but hungry

The night before the spring tryout Kovacs sat with his friend Greg Hockenbrocht in West Quad watching "Dumb and Dumber."

"Hey," Kovacs started, "I'm going to the football tryouts tomorrow."

The movie blared from the TV, and Hockenbrocht looked over at Kovacs. He had known for months that tomorrow would be Kovacs' big day. He stared at him blankly.

"So, you want to come with me?" Kovacs asked.

Hockenbrocht was taken aback. He laughed. He hadn't even been on a field since his senior season of high school football, but he agreed to the seemingly ludicrous idea.

At least he'd be able to meet the coaching staff.

The two walked down State Street the next morning talking about the week, homework and exams, but Kovacs' mind was already on the tryout.

He was prepared and focused. This was his second opportunity to get his foot in the door, and he would leave nothing to chance.

"He was by far the best player there," Hockenbrocht said. "It was kind of like, 'Why are you trying out again? They need you.' "

Hockenbrocht ran his 40-yard dash and was feeling pretty good about himself until he saw Kovacs run. He'd known that Kovacs had spent the entire semester working out until he vomited, but he didn't know Kovacs could run like that.

After the tryout Hockenbrocht and Kovacs quietly walked back to the dorms.

Hockenbrocht asked about Kovacs' 40-time. But Kovacs wouldn't tell; he refused to brag, knowing it would be faster than Hockenbrocht's time. "I knew what was coming so I was just more prepared," Kovacs said.

"But seriously, what did you run in the 40?" Hockenbrocht pestered.

"I don't even remember," Kovacs answered before trying to change the subject.

"It was half an hour ago," Hockenbrocht said. "What did you run?"

Hockenbrocht knew Kovacs wouldn't tell him, wouldn't offer up any kind of information that'd make Hockenbrocht feel badly about himself. They'd only known each other for less than a year, but Hockenbrocht knew to stop asking, knew that Kovacs was the kind of guy who wouldn't let anyone feel inferior around him.

Today, the two still live together.

And Hockenbrocht still doesn't know.

Perseverance pays off

That spring, Kovacs made the same walk from West Quad to Schembechler Hall that he'd made that fall. Again, the names were posted on a white sheet of paper on the front door.

Again, he saw, "Jordan Kovacs, safety."

He had another meeting with Scmidty, and another question about his knee surgery.

"I had another surgery," Kovacs answered. "My knee doesn't bother me at all."

And that was it. Kovacs had made the Michigan football team.

The next fall, Kovacs arrived to fall camp and moved into his team's hotel with his roommate, Jordan Reilly.

Reilly was a sophomore strong safety who'd been a preferred walk-on before receiving a scholarship after his freshman year.

Midway through camp the coaching staff decided to move Kovacs from free safety to strong safety, a position he'd never played.

Reilly, who knew the position well, promised he'd help out Kovacs, and he spent that fall camp trying to be as subtle as possible as he yelled directions from the sideline.

"You have middle third," Reilly would yell one play.

"You have man-to-man coverage on No. 12," he'd say the next.

But then came the one practice when Reilly knew Kovacs was going to be good. Very good.

The two were standing on the sidelines, Reilly explaining new schematics to Kovacs, when they turned and heard one of the coaches yell, "Our scout team safety is down, we need a someone out there now!"

Reilly turned around just fast enough to see Kovacs halfway onto the practice field.

"The team watched it on film that night, and you just see, in the corner of the TV, Jordan running in off the sidelines," Reilly said. "He almost got an interception, and he didn't even have his chin strap on or his mouthpiece in."

Through the camp, Kovacs worked his way through the safeties' rotation. When depth charts were posted, he was No. 2 behind redshirt sophomore Mike Williams.

He called his dad, but Lou told him not to say anything, because he probably wasn't actually second string.

"One person stood between me and the Michigan defense in the Big House," Kovacs joked. "And honestly, no one wanted that to happen."

But then, it did.

Vick Ballard
Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs went from walk-on to honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore.
In Michigan's second game, against then-No. 18 Notre Dame, Williams started cramping up. Kovacs had played on special teams during Michigan's opening-weekend win over Western Michigan, but he'd yet to see the field in the secondary.

Then-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson looked at Kovacs.

"Get out there," he said.

Robinson had spent most of fall camp mixing up Matt Cavanaugh and Kovacs, sometimes even referring to both of them as Reilly. Most of the coaching staff wasn't even sure of Kovacs' name, and much of the Michigan secondary, playing along with the confusion of the staff, jokingly referred to Jordan as "Kojacs."

"He may or may not have even known my name -- he very well may have thought he was putting Cavanaugh out there," Kovacs said of the 2009 Notre Dame game. "But I wasn't about to correct him. This was better than scout team."

He would go on to start eight games that season, making 75 tackles. And during his redshirt sophomore year he would finish second in the Big Ten with 116 tackles.

Life changed for Kovacs. During the fall, he and his brother Aaron would return to his high school's football games, arriving early and sitting in the top row. Jordan would wear a hat, not because he didn't want people to see him, but because he didn't want to take attention away from the players on the field.

"He's always willing to sign autographs," Aaron said. "We can't walk through the entrance of Clay without having a lineup of kids."

So he signs those autographs on Friday nights.

And then on Saturdays, he makes opposing offensive coordinators shudder. He breaks through the line, intercepts passes and saves his teammates by running down opponents who are bigger or stronger before telling people, "Anyone could have made that play, really, anyone."

But that's not true. An average player could not have made that hit on Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder, or that diving interception in last week's Notre Dame game.

"It's not that Jordan's a hero," Lou said. "There are 10 other guys out there working, and he's the one that came free because those 10 other guys were working. If they all do their jobs, then one or two guys get glamorized.

"That's all it is."

And on Sundays, you can find Jordan sitting in his living room with his feet up on the coffee table responding to well-wishers on Facebook, thanking each one of them for his or her support, telling all of the average high school and middle school players who reach out to him that if they work hard, good things will happen.

He's proof it's true.

Walking proud

In a dusty box in the Hillsdale football offices sits the archive of every recruit that has ever visited the campus. Most of those kids never attended the school, and their names have long since been forgotten.

Coach Keith Otterbein pulls out a file with "Jordan Kovacs" written at the top of it. The coach has no idea that Hillsdale was just one of two schools interested in the seemingly average high school safety. And he has no idea where that player ended up, if he ended up anywhere at all.

"Here it is," he says after searching, and begins to read from the grading Jordan received after his visit.

Height and weight: pretty good
40-yard time: average
Vertical jump: decent
Shuttle drill: did not test

Jordan Kovacs always thought he was those things: pretty good, average, decent, at best. And he was fine with that, proud to help others help Michigan, elated to be a member of the scout team, because it all meant he was a part of Michigan football.

Yes, Jordan Kovacs was perfectly happy being average.

The problem is, he never really was.

Chantel Jennings covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. She can be reached at jenningsespn@gmail.com.