A tale of perseverance: Michigan seniors finishing off roller-coaster ride
ANN ARBOR -- Michigan's fifth-year seniors were recruited to a program that played in a Rose Bowl two years before their arrival. They expected the same.
Instead, they endured the worst season in school history when they were true freshmen.
They toiled through the worst defensive season in school history two years later.
But those who remained became champions -- maybe not Big Ten champs (yet), but Sugar Bowl champs. They ended losing streaks to Ohio State and Michigan State, won 11 games last year and have Michigan in the thick of a league title race this year with two games remaining.
They helped spur a revival in Ann Arbor.
As the 22 fourth-year and fifth-year seniors prepare for their final game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday against Iowa, perhaps no one embodies that rise quite like Jordan Kovacs.
The safety's only Division I offer out of Clay (Ohio) High School was as a preferred walk-on at Toledo. He required two student-body tryouts just to make the Wolverines.
Kovacs was given an opportunity, though, and flourished, especially under the tutelage of the new staff. He became an all-Big Ten performer, four-year starter and team captain.
"When I first walked on here, I just wanted to be a part of the team -- make the team and help any way I could, on special teams or scout team or whatever," Kovacs said this week. "After the first few weeks of practice, I said, 'You know what? I can play with these guys.' Gradually I set the bar higher and higher, seeing how far I could push myself.
"Once I did crack a special team, I said, 'I want to play defense.' Once I did play some defense, I said, 'I want to be a full-time starter' and whatnot. I just kept the ladder of goals going from there."
Kovacs' story is remarkable for its perseverance. But look around the field, and you'll find stories of perseverance all over the place.
Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd was thrust into action as a redshirt freshman in 2009 not necessarily because he was ready, but because he was needed due to the severe attrition that eviscerated Michigan's secondary.
He started eight games in 2010, the worst defense in school history, before suffering a devastatingly painful leg injury that sidelined him for nearly a calendar year.
But he persevered. Now he's starting for the nation's No. 1 pass defense.
"I remember guys like Morgan Trent, Donovan Warren, Stevie Brown, Charles Stewart, they all told me how quickly it goes by," Floyd said. "And now, I'm here. You definitely can't grasp it when you're a younger guy.
"(I'll miss) the atmosphere, from the bus ride over, the locker room, running down the tunnel and touching the banner, the opening kickoff and the final seconds. You can pick out moments in each of those segments I'll cherish forever."
What will you take with you from the experience?
"I wish I could take the whole field," he said. "Give me 100 yards, I'll take it."
Fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer was a prized offensive lineman recruit when he was involved in a fatal car accident that killed his father and girlfriend. His brother, Brock, was paralyzed.
The emotional pain was devastating -- and he tore his rotator cuff to boot, delaying his progress as a player.
Mealer spent four years shuffling between positions, never finding a home other than the bench. But he persevered.
Now he starts at center and has become one of the better spokesmen for the program.
"I love the feeling of walking down the tunnel, and everything is kind of pitch black, and all you can see is light," he said. "You can't see fans or anything, because of the angle. And then you walk out and it feels like the coliseum.
"It became my home. I'll miss it."
Tight end Mike Kwiatkowski watched games in the student section for two years before getting the inspiration to try out from a blurb on MGoBlue.com. He now starts.
Receiver Roy Roundtree suffered the most dramatic drop in catches in school history when the new staff took over last year, but never complained, embraced his diminished role with a smile and now has logged late catches against Notre Dame last year and Northwestern this year that will be remembered for years.
Defensive tackle Will Campbell, once one of the most highly touted recruits in the country, was a three-year bust. He now leads Michigan's defensive line in tackles.
Stories of individual perseverance flow up and down the roster, and collectively, the 23-man group has persevered through lean years to return the program to relevance.
Perhaps the most notable story of all, though, might not take the field for a final farewell to the hometown fans.
Quarterback Denard Robinson came to school as a gifted yet raw talent. He spoke so poorly, teammates had to help him call the plays in the huddle as a freshman.
Four years later, he's the school's all-time leader in total yards, a team captain, the face of the program.
He hasn't played the past two weeks with an injured nerve in his throwing elbow. Should it prevent him from playing against Iowa -- a real possibility -- it would be an unfitting end to a singular career.
But Robinson continues to persevere.
"To see his action when he wasn’t playing is why you think more of him than you could possibly think," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "He truly is into that game, and he truly is trying to lead when he’s not out on that field.
"It just keeps reinforcing how fortunate you are to have a Denard Robinson. You want everything possibly good that could ever happen for him to happen. That’s how you feel by being around him."
Twenty-two players will end their Michigan Stadium careers Saturday. Not all of them became starters, not all were stars, but together they accomplished.
"I can look back on things that's happened throughout my entire career," Floyd said. "The coaches always talk about riding the roller-coaster, even throughout the game. There's going to be peaks and valleys in each game. It's the same thing with my career here. Riding the roller-coaster.
"Just hanging on."