ANN ARBOR - Lou Kovacs was skeptical when son Jordan phoned home during fall camp with the unexpected news he was working with the University of Michigan's second-team defense.
Lou's private reaction: "Is he really second on the depth chart?" Maybe Jordan was naively overstating his ranking with the team, maybe he was merely the coaching staff's experiment for a practice or two. There was only one way to know unequivocally - if the starter suffered an injury, would Jordan be inserted?
It's Sept. 12 and UM is in a fierce second-half battle with nationally-ranked Notre Dame. Lou is watching from the Big House. Of course he is. Like Jordan, Lou was a former walk-on for the Wolverines (1980-82) before staying on as a graduate assistant. He'd be at the game even if his son wasn't playing. And there's no way the unknown freshman would play. Right? Nuh-uh.
Free safety Mike Williams cramped up on the field and needed a breather, spawning the moment of truth. Lou glanced at UM's sideline. The defensive coaches were giving instructions to Jordan. He was going in.
And, like that, a heartwarming story began.
Actually, it began two years earlier when Jordan was thriving as a senior at Clay High School. He was by all accounts outstanding, earning first-team honors on the City League and district teams.
"He was a good ballplayer," Lou said. "He was very good."
But, alas, he was going to pay his own way through college. A smattering of Division II and III schools pursued Jordan, and the University of Toledo expressed interest but not enough to extend a scholarship offer. Had UT - or any other D-I program - offered Jordan a scholarship, the decision would've been a no-brainer. He would have accepted.
"And I'm kind of happy they didn't," Jordan said. "I'm happy I ended up here."
It's a mutual sentiment. Through seven games, Kovacs (5-foot-10, 194 pounds) ranks second on the team with 45 tackles - including 17 in a loss to Michigan State - despite not starting until the fourth game against Indiana.
Walk-on success stories often don't materialize until one has been in a program for four or five years. Kovacs has been a Wolverine since this spring. But in some ways, he's been a Wolverine his entire life, attending games as a youngster with Lou, listening to his father's stories of the Rose Bowl appearances and about the few times Lou saw playing time. Jordan was in attendance in 2005 when UM dealt visiting Penn State its only loss of the year. No. 13 PSU (6-1, 2-1) visits the Wolverines (5-2, 1-2) tomorrow for a 3:30 p.m. matchup.
"I always believed I was going to play football at the University of Michigan," Jordan said.
That dream was nearly squashed when Jordan answered a question honestly. Too honestly.
When it was apparent a Division I scholarship wouldn't be coming across the fax machine, Lou compiled a video of Jordan's highlights and mailed it to UM's coaches. They were immediately interested, and Jordan attended a tryout at the beginning of the 2008 academic year. He made the team - sort of - and was instructed to come back the following day for what Jordan perceived to be a "background check," a mere formality before he was handed a jersey and a locker combination.
But he made a critical mistake during the interview, revealing that the knee he had surgically repaired a year before had not fully healed. "Thanks, but no thanks" was the coaching staff's response.
"I kind of realized I was digging myself in a hole then," Jordan said.
"He was absolutely demoralized," said Lou, an area lawyer and a 1978 Clay grad. "He was as high as you can possibly be and the next day he was in the pits."
But Jordan was not without a plan. He would undergo an additional surgery - a 20-minute operation to fix a meniscus tear - and then make the team the following season. Just as he did the year before, Jordan received inspiration the night before his tryout by watching the film Rudy. Lou was sure Jordan's fortunes would be different this time. Jordan was equally confident. Showing no lingering effects from the surgery, Jordan excelled in his tryout and was invited to spring practice. A dream was realized.
"I hope we can have a Jordan Kovacs story every year," UM coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez himself was a walk-on at West Virginia before earning playing time during his second year because of "a couple guys leaving, a couple guys getting hurt, moving to another position, and a guy getting hurt in the game."
Kovacs' ascension wasn't as dramatic. When given the chance, he outplayed Williams, and then in an obvious sign he was playing well, Kovacs moved to strong safety before the Iowa game so Troy Woolfolk could play cornerback.
Lou, like everyone else in attendance for the thrilling win over Notre Dame, was sweaty-palm nervous. "Add to that I have a son out there in a national game."
Lou's cell phone battery died during the game because of the volume of congratulatory calls he received. Jordan later heard apologies from friends - close ones - who once tried to convince Jordan his career would be best served at UT. Wolverine linebacker Stevie Brown, who regularly confused Kovacs with freshman safety Matt Cavanaugh, was now embracing the new guy.
As for Jordan, he admits to being surprised at how rapidly his career blossomed, believing he'd need to exact some patience before finally earning a promotion during his junior or senior year.
"But I never really thought it wasn't going to happen," he said.
INJURY REPORT: Running backs Carlos Brown (concussion) and Brandon Minor (ankle), and center David Molk (foot) were all listed as probable on the team's injury report released last night.
Contact Ryan Autullo