ANN ARBOR -- It is a story Jordan Kovacs has told 100 times. As opposed to having him make it 101, we'll tell it from memory.
How he came out of Clay High School with few football prospects.
How his dad, a former walk-on at Michigan, imposed on the kindness of old friends to get his son a shot.
How he made the team at a student body tryout only to have a high school knee injury scuttle his first chance to wear the winged helmet.
How he had a second surgery, worked his tail off, went back to the same tryout a year later and made it again.
How he was standing on the sideline at the Big House during his second game when Wolverine safety Mike Williams cramped up and had to leave the field against Notre Dame.
"You," shouted then-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. "You're in."
There is some question whether Robinson knew the kid's name, or where he resided on the depth chart, or even if the coach had the young man confused with another player.
It doesn't much matter now. Jordan Kovacs has been in for Michigan ever since.
Ready to embark on the final chapter of one of college football's more remarkable rags-to-riches stories, the senior Kovacs, named as a team captain, is the heart and soul of a UM defense that has its sights set on great things for the 2012 season.
And it all started as a member of what he calls "Walk-on Nation."
Michigan coach Brady Hoke was at not-too-distant Ball State when Kovacs was begging for a team, any team to give him a shot.
"I don't remember him, I really don't," Hoke said with a chuckle.
Asked if it was unusual for a player to fall between the cracks, to come out of nowhere as a late bloomer, Hoke continued, "It probably happens more than we all think. But remember, we're talking about a unique situation because of Jordan's unbelievable love for Michigan, his pride and work ethic, his football instincts that a lot of guys don't have, and his great intelligence."
Hoke's predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, had a saying, "All in for Michigan."
Kovacs has been just that for as long as he can remember. Heck, even longer.
As the story goes, he attended his first game in Michigan Stadium the day of Lloyd Carr's first game as coach in 1995.
"My dad told me I was there; I don't really remember it," Kovacs said. "I know it was a big comeback, that Mercury Hayes made that catch on the last play to win. But I remember seeing some great games here. I've always loved this place."
It is the only place he wanted to play, but it figured to be an unrequited love affair. His best offer after making special mention All-Ohio as a senior at Clay was to attend the University of Toledo as a preferred walk-on.
He figured if nobody wanted him as a scholarship player he'd pursue his maize-and-blue dream.
"As a young kid I wanted to win the Heisman," he said, smiling. "But nobody wanted me. I was never the guy. I never made highlight tapes. I knew not many walk-ons ever played. I just wanted to get my foot in the door, be on the scout team, maybe play on special teams, and make the most of whatever opportunities I got. I never expected it to play out like this."
Before his freshman season ended, Kovacs had produced a 17-tackle game against Michigan State. He had the same number a year later against Ohio State and finished 2010 on scholarship and as the No. 2 tackler in the Big Ten with 116 total stops.
A year ago, he produced a game-high 11 tackles in the Sugar Bowl as UM capped a turnaround 11-2 season with a 23-20 victory against Virginia Tech.
"He's an awfully important part of us," Hoke said.
When the Wolverines open the 2012 season Saturday against defending national champion Alabama, Kovacs will make his 34th start at safety and look to build on his 266 career tackles, 151 of which have been solo hits.
"The expectations are huge," he acknowledged. "But that's been the case here forever. It's a great opener and it's a challenge that excites us."
It's no longer hard to believe that a guy who came out of high school at 5 feet, 11 inches, maybe 180 pounds, and virtually unrecruited has become one of the elite players on any field.
"Wow, I wouldn't go that far," Kovacs said. "Elite player? I just love Michigan football and that passion carries me through every practice and every game. I'm proud of what I've done and I'm proud that it started as a walk-on. It's not easy; nothing is given to you. You have to earn everything.
"Walk-on Nation. I still carry that chip on my shoulder. No other team in the nation wanted me."
Fair enough, considering there was and is no other team in the nation for which Kovacs would rather play.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.