ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In January 2008, the phone didn’t ring at Jordan Kovacs’ home in northwestern Ohio. Nobody knocked at the door in an attempt to sway Kovacs to attend Ohio State, Alabama or Wisconsin, or any other major Division I football program.
Still, Kovacs held onto the dream of playing for Michigan, even when that possibility seemed nearly nonexistent. Nine years later, Kovacs looks back at that January with some relief and plenty of perspective.
Unlike many of his teammates at Michigan from 2009 to 2012 — a group that includes NFL players Denard Robinson, Taylor Lewan and Mike Martin — Kovacs was barely recruited as a high school senior. In fact, Michigan’s admissions department wait-listed Kovacs, and he didn’t earn acceptance into Michigan until June of his senior year.
But he had his mind set: Somehow, some way, he was going to play football at Michigan. Even if the phone wasn’t ringing. Even if it the path appeared more rocky for him.
“I was going to see it through,” said Kovacs, who was a safety at Michigan. “Towards my senior year, that’s when I started getting discouraged. I knew how hard it was going to be to even get into Michigan, and without the football team having any interest, that was going to make it harder.”
January is one of the most frenzied months in recruiting in college football, when coaches make their final appeals to high school seniors. During the final two weeks of January, some prospective college football players are inundated by phone calls, texts messages and in-home visits by college coaches, a last-chance effort to persuade a recruit to come to campus.
But instead of opening doors, answering phones or hitting “reply,” some high school football players wonder what their futures in football will be and have to market themselves.
“It was pretty discouraging not to get any interest from Division I programs, and then minimal interest from Division III schools and Division II schools, and I was just in a weird predicament,” said Kovacs, who recently completed his fourth NFL season.
Kovacs had another strike against him: In January 2008, he had just undergone arthroscopic surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee.
“I don’t even know what was going through my head at that time,” Kovacs said. “Just one thing: ‘Hopefully, that this happens.’ ”
But, he said, “I’d made up my mind years earlier to play football at Michigan. Even if there was no interest at all from the school.”
Yet his parents encouraged him to consider other schools, and Toledo held a preferred walk-on spot for Kovacs, one that he couldn’t commit to because he held out hope that somehow he would join the Michigan football team, even when the setbacks continued. In fact, the coaching staff at Hillsdale (Mich.) College, a Division II program, gave Kovacs a tryout but later told him that his best chance at making the football team was as a walk-on.
Kovacs enrolled at Michigan in 2008, paying his own way as a freshman. He was told after his first tryout with the football team that he did not pass a physical, and to return the following year for another tryout — and after a second knee surgery.
“I had this blind faith that things were going to work out,” Kovacs said. “Things were going to shape themselves.”
Kovacs became a walk-on at Michigan in 2009. He earned a scholarship the following year. In August 2012, Kovacs was voted a Wolverines co-captain. A week before he graduated with a degree in kinesiology from Michigan, he joined the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in April 2013.
But the more remarkable thing? The odds seemingly were stacked against Kovacs to even become a college football player.
“All of that just added to the chip on my shoulder,” Kovacs said. “It started from not being recruited and walking on at Michigan, and every time I’ve been cut or released, it’s just added fuel to the fire. On the day that it happens you’re like, ‘Man, this happened? Now I’ve got to make a 9-hour drive back to Ohio?’ But then you step back and find out that every setback motivates you.”
Kovacs knows there are other college football hopefuls like him who are out there this year. Their phone might not be ringing — instead, those high school seniors may be making the phone calls or sending their own highlight reels.
“Don’t give up hope,” Kovacs said. “Just work your butt off, and if you do that, good things will happen, if you play or not. You’ll be happy with the decision you made.
“Being a walk-on is tough, but if you keep working on the field and in the classroom, that will show through. Eventually, all it takes is catching the eye of one coach.”
Jordan Kovacs at Michigan