From student section to starter: Mike Kwiatkowski wrapping up unlikely Michigan career
ANN ARBOR -- As tight end Mike Kwiatkowski prepares to run through the Michigan Stadium tunnel for the final time, he remembers his first time.
It wasn't while he was being courted during recruitment. He didn't have a recruitment. He was a student for two years, watching games from the student section, before ever deciding to tryout for the team.
Instead, the first time Kwiatkowski touched that hallowed ground was for a summer workout. A teammate was on his back as he ran up and down the stands that once seated him during games.
Three years later, the former walk-on is expected to start for No. 23 Michigan (7-3, 5-1) in the final home game of the season against Iowa (4-6, 2-4).
"When I first got here, I never expected this (Senior Day) to come," he said. "The first game I dressed for was Michigan State (in 2010), and I was just happy to be out there. I had no foresight of thinking three years in the future, I'd end up walking out there as a senior for the last time.
"I didn't even know if I'd make it three years. The first week I got there, the Friday morning workout consisted of buddy carries with somebody on your back up and down the stadium. That was like Day 3 for me.
"It's been a long ride."
Michigan's tight end depth was expected to be lean this year after the graduation of Kevin Koger and Steve Watson, and that was accentuated in the opener when starter Brandon Moore was sidelined with a knee injury.
Kwiatkowski stepped in and has become an important cog in Michigan's offense, playing in 10 games and making six starts. He has three catches for 31 yards, although his biggest impact has come in the blocking game.
He's not a flashy player. But he's a player, and that's more than ever dreamed he'd be.
Kwiatkowski didn't have any Division I offers coming out of Macomb Dakota High School, and scarce interest from Division II schools, so he enrolled at Michigan for its academics.
He attended school for two years, majoring in brain, behavior and cognitive science. He's pre-pharmacy. Football was far from his mind.
That is, until he visited MGoBlue.com to cross-check his junior class schedule with the football schedule. There happened to be a blurb about walk-on tryouts.
He decided to give it a whirl.
"Came up here for the tryout severely out of shape -- I'd probably run three times in the two years leading up to that," Kwiatkowski said. "During the warmup alone, I was sweating profusely and was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to make this.'"
Apparently, though, coaches saw enough. Then-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee called him over and barked, "I'm going to keep you, boy."
"At first I was like, 'What do you mean you're going to keep me? Did I seriously just make the team?'" Kwiatkowski said.
He had, although the coaches moved him to scout team offensive guard, where he mixed it up at 250 pounds.
"I had the choice of blocking Mike Martin or Ryan Van Bergen, and neither of them knew who I was," said Kwiatkowski, who took a beating at the hands of those eventual All-Big Ten linemen.
"I would pray for pass protections."
That didn't last long. Coach Brady Hoke was hired in 2011 and moved Kwiatkowski back to tight end full time, wheren Koger took him under his wing.
Hoke saw enough from Kwiatkowski to offer him a scholarship during a team meeting before this season.
"That was incredible," he said. "I never expected to earn a scholarship. When I walked on, I was just hoping to make the travel squad, contributing in any way."
That MGoBlue blurb has payed dividends for Michigan. Freshman Devin Funchess has been terrific this year, but Kwiatkowski has been Michigan's best blocking tight end and provides depth at a position that otherwise lacks it.
He's played a unexpectedly large role this season in replacing Koger, who graduated after last season. He had played about eight snaps before this season, but tripled that against the Crimson Tide, subbing for Moore, and recorded his first collegiate catch.
Moore has since returned to health, but Kwiatkowski and Funchess remain the go-to options.
Kwiatkowski joins safety Jordan Kovacs as former walk-ons who are starters for the 7-3 Wolverines. Although Kwiatkowski hates that word -- walk-on.
"I actually despise that label," he said. "There have been a number people who have played and just because you weren't given a scholarship doesn't mean you're not as capable.
"It does give you a chip on your shoulder."
Kwiatkowski's career and role are as unlikely as any. And now, he's left with one more opportunity to run out of that tunnel.
And nothing will be on his back this time, besides a maize and blue jersey.
"The first time (running out of the tunnel) was a huge shock," he said. "It's not like I was here for a recruiting visit or anything.
"They try to capture it, with a camera of running out and being able to see everything, but it's not the same until you actually run out there. It's hard to describe."