A 14-year-old Jordan Kovacs sat in the bleachers of the Big House watching Michigan attempt to erase a 17-point fourth quarter deficit against in-state rival Michigan State. He sat on the edge of his seat, one of among 111,609 in attendance. Like many of them, he idolized Charles Woodson. He dreamed of running out of the tunnel for just one opportunity to touch the “Go Blue” banner. This game would set the tone for the next six days of his life.
“I have such a passion for Michigan football. I grew up living and dying by Michigan football,” the Michigan senior said. “I would go, week to week. I would watch a game every week, how I felt the rest of the week was determined how Michigan played on Saturdays.”
But when the Wolverines erased the margin and sent the game into overtime, Kovacs cheers might have been just little louder. When they won, in triple overtime, his euphoric feelings might have been a little more perfect. Kovacs was more than just a blurred face in a crowd larger than most cities.
He didn’t choose his passion for the Wolverines, it’s in his blood. His dad, Lou, donned the maize and blue in the 80s under Bo Schembechler.
“I always tell everyone, being a Michigan fan is the best decision that my dad has ever made for me,” Kovacs said.
Coming out of Clay High School in Oregon, Ohio, Kovacs didn’t have a single offer from a Division I program. He committed to Toledo as a preferred walk-on, but it lasted as long as Kovacs name on the Michigan wait list. As soon as the school accepted him, it welcomed a new student but also its future starting safety and defensive captain. They just didn’t make it easy on him.
“I always say I kind of recruited myself to Michigan,” Kovacs said. “Michigan didn’t show any interest in me and you know, 125 other schools didn’t (either).”
After placing a few calls and sending his highlight reels to the Wolverines coaching staff, he earned a tryout on the first day of classes in 2008. The tryout started at 6 a.m. with 60-70 other players hoping to impress then head coach Rich Rodriguez. It consisted of 30 minutes of running 40 yard dashes, weaving in and out of cones and executing drills.
Soon after the coaches posted the names of about five players, who they wanted to have physicals. It was the final step in making the Wolverines, a mere formality for most players.
“I was on cloud nine,” Kovac said. “I called my parents and being from a small town the rumors spread that I made the football team. I went down the next day saw my name on the list that I had made it, went and did the physical, and yeah, (it) didn’t go so well for me.”
Kovacs had a torn meniscus, the second of his career. The medical staff said the injury would prevent him from playing, more importantly it prevented him from making the team. He walked back to his dorm feeling pain that had nothing to do with his knee.
“Obviously that was devastating,” Kovacs said. “Here I thought I reached my dream. I told all my friends that I made the team. I was sent home and yeah, walked back up to the dorms crying and really upset. But I made a decision I was going to try out again. It didn’t matter what it took.”
Kovacs had surgery in the fall and tried out again in front of the same coaching staff in the winter of 2009. Knowing what to expect, Kovacs went into the tryout more confident. On a surgically repaired knee, Kovacs made the squad.
This time he was a bit more closed-lipped about living his dream.
“After that tryout, I didn’t tell anyone for the longest time that I made the team,” Kovacs joked. “I didn’t want to make that mistake again.”
Four years later, Kovacs is Michigan’s defensive captain. He’s the team’s starting safety and has made 320 tackles, enough for 13th in the program’s history.
When he suits up to the maize in blue for the final time Saturday, he’ll do so trading in is No. 32 jersey for No. 11, to honor the Westert Brothers, who wore the number during their tenure at Michigan. The three All-American linebacking brothers won four national championships and College Football Hall of Fame players.
“Obviously it’s a huge honor. I think I’ll always be remembered as 32. I’ve worn it for so many games,” Kovacs said. “But it’s just such an honor to be able to recognize the legends of Michigan football program.”
He still remembers the adrenaline rush he felt riding on the team bus for the first time. It jumped to another level when he strapped on the iconic winged helmet, jumped to touch the “Go Blue” banner and heard the roar of 110,000 fans.
“I can tell you the banner is not as high as you think, especially when you have 110,000 people cheering you on. You think it’s a lot higher than it is,” Kovacs said. “You have that adrenaline rush, and you damn near close line yourself.”
He’ll have to contain different type of emotion against Iowa. When he’s introduced for the final time at the Big House, Kovacs will be standing next to him will be his dad, the person responsible for him becoming Wolverine.
“I imagine it’s going to be emotional being down there with my parents, knowing it’s going to be my last time in the stadium,” Kovacs said. “I’m just going to try to play off that emotion because if you do that, I think that you’ll play really well.”