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Published: Friday, 10/12/2012

Ex-Whitmer, UM player coaching at Saline, rehabbing

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Kevin Koger, seen here in at Michigan Stadium in 2011, is coaching at Saline High School and rehabbing as continues to work on making his NFL dream a reality.
Kevin Koger, seen here in at Michigan Stadium in 2011, is coaching at Saline High School and rehabbing as continues to work on making his NFL dream a reality.
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SALINE, Mich. — Shivering as he stood in a wind gust, Kevin Koger was rethinking his wardrobe selection.

Normally the Saline High School assistant football coach leaves home in the morning with two sets of clothes: one that's appropriate for chilly conditions at practice and another more suited for his weight training session. Wearing athletic shorts this week on a breezy afternoon outside of the team's football complex, Koger expressed regret.

"I didn't do too well on the practice part," he said.

This is the life Koger, the former Whitmer standout and University of Michigan team captain, now lives. He juggles his efforts between his day job supervising students sentenced to in-school suspension, to his after-school job coaching Saline's tight ends and slot receivers, to the evenings when he trains to land his dream job with an NFL team. "The job here at Saline is always kind of temporary," his boss, Joe Palka, the former Whitmer coach, said. "If he gets an opportunity, we're going to give him our blessing. I want him in the NFL, for sure."

Three nights a week Koger wraps up at practice and drives 40 minutes north to Plymouth to the training center owned by former Michigan strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis. It was there, on March 22, where Koger's professional football ambitions unraveled in a freak injury. Projected to be taken in the latter rounds of the NFL draft, the big-framed tight end with reliable hands tore his Achilles tendon participating in a box jump exercise. The injury required surgery to fix, rendering Koger off the market in the eyes of professional scouting departments.

"I guess everything happens for a reason," he said.

With a degree in sport management in hand, Koger accepted an internship in the spring with the athletic department at Saline, where Palka had recently arrived after guiding Whitmer to back-to-back appearances in the Division I state semifinals. Palka, the assistant athletic director and assistant principal, did not spend much effort persuading Koger to join his staff.

"I wanted him to want to do that," he said.

Koger in the summer sent his former high school coach a text message seeking a position. Palka's response: "You're in."

With a win tonight at Skyline, Saline (6-1) — a 20-minute-drive south of Ann Arbor — will earn a share of the Southeastern Conference Red division title. In what many figured to be an average season, the Hornets have secured a berth in the Class A playoffs and are on the cusp of posting their first 8-1 regular season since 1990. Whether Koger remains on staff beyond this fall could hinge on his opportunities to play professionally.

"I definitely miss playing, but I still have aspirations of playing, so that's not too far out of the realm of possibilities," he said.

He stays behind after Monday practices to snare passes from Tyler Palka, the coach's son and Saline's senior quarterback. Koger, who is able to make sharp cuts but cannot explode from a stopping start, figures he'll be back to full health within 4-6 weeks. His muscle base is restored, thanks to grueling two-hour sessions at Barwis' gym. Within a week after surgery, Koger was already working out all muscle groups save for the afflicted area.

"Tough, blue collar kid who busted his [butt]," said Dan Mozes, a former Wolverines strength and conditioning coach who assists Barwis in managing the facility. "That's the way he was at Michigan too."

So tough, in fact, that Koger refused the assistance of others as he lay on the ground in agony on that fateful day in March. He propped himself up after five minutes or so, Mozes said, and hopped 50 yards on one leg — "like a bunny rabbit" — to the gym's rehabilitation center.

By no later than Dec. 1, at which time he hopes to be 100 percent, Koger plans to phone his agent to re-start the NFL process. He is hoping for a tryout, and everyone at Saline will cross their fingers that it goes well. Especially those michievous middle-school kids Koger monitors every day.

"That's an intimidating face to look at," Mozes said. "You're not going to mess around when Kevin Koger's watching over you."

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com 419-724-6160 or onTwitter @AutulloBlade.



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