ANN ARBOR — In his wallet, Jordan Kovacs kept a list he made years ago when he was plotting his goals.
At that time, he didn’t know what the future held. But he put it on paper — a small slip of paper that he’d carried around for weeks and months.
Kovacs wanted to make the football team at the University of Michigan. He wanted to earn a scholarship. He wanted to become a starter.
In the fall of 2009, he made the Michigan football program as a safety, a year after being told “no” by the previous coaching staff at Michigan, who couldn’t add him to the roster because of his honesty. He admitted after his first tryout that his knee, by medical consensus, had not fully healed .
After he made the team, the Clay graduate was thrust into the lineup because of an injury and started eight games that season. That proved to be the foundation.
Now, with Saturday’s game at Ohio State remaining, and a bowl game on the horizon, Kovacs, 22, has to face the fact that next year won’t be the same.
“Michigan football has kind of become my life,” Kovacs said. “Every day I wake up and I say, ‘all right, what football responsibilities do I have and what academic responsibilities do I have?’ To not have to worry about that, or not have to think about that, it’s going to be different.”
From a young age, Kovacs’ life was all about being a part of Michigan football. His father, Lou, played football at Michigan in the early 1980s, and in the 2008 Clay yearbook, there’s a photo of Kovacs as a child, with a mop of white-blonde hair and a small, smiling pout on his face. He’s wearing a Michigan football t-shirt.
It would appear as if Kovacs’ destiny to be a part of the program, but he learned he faced a climb to reach that point. Kovacs admitted he’d never faced that kind of adversity before.
Underneath his senior photo in the 2008 Clay yearbook, one adjective described him: “Determined.”
“I just had this dream to play football at Michigan,” Kovacs said. “I chased it. I don’t think a lot of people really believed in me. But I encountered several setbacks, and the key was to just keep getting back up. Keep fighting and keep chasing it. Because of that, I have all the confidence in the world that I can do whatever I want to do.”
Kovacs doesn’t have a blatant swagger about him, maybe a credit to his small-town upbringing — Clay administrators note his ascendance through the local school system, as well as coming from a close-knit family of overachievers — or his understanding of the setbacks he has faced.
The climb made him appreciate the process, both incentive of making the team and the breaks that allowed him to work his way up to being Michigan’s co-captain and one of its most visible figures.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” Kovacs said. “It makes me appreciate my education because” — and he began to laugh — “I’ve paid quite a bit of money for it. It makes me appreciate walk-ons and the whole process. It’s a tough process. It’s tough to be a walk-on. It’s tough to be a football player.
“I just took advantage of opportunities. Opportunities that were given, I made the most of them.”
Being a walk-on is not glamorous. The only incentive to being part of something bigger than yourself, sometimes, is the opportunity to be a glorified tackling dummy.
“It’s almost like the classification you come in with,” said John Congemi, an ESPN college football analyst who was a quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh from 1983-86. “That walk-on player doesn’t garner all of the attention or notoriety that a scholarship athlete comes in with. But sometimes you miss on a scholarship athlete. And you can miss on a walk-on. You hope you don’t miss a lot.
“The walk-on endures more. He comes in with a label. But the kids I’ve been with as a teammate or been around — no one works harder than that walk-on.”
Tight end Mike Kwiatkowski — also a walk-on — admits that he detests the term “walk-on.”
“Just because you weren’t given a scholarship doesn’t mean you’re not as capable,” Kwiatkowski said. “Obviously, there’s some exceptions to that. But I guess it does give you a chip on your shoulder, and Jordan talks about it all the time. I love it. The fact that he has such a great success story, he really represents us well.”
In 2010, a teammate pulled Kovacs aside. He was the son of Romanian immigrants who endured the fall of Communism and who won a green-card lottery to come to the United States.
“Zoltan Mesko is one of the guys who really sat me down when I first got here and I started cracking the second string,” Kovacs said of Mesko, who is now a punter with the New England Patriots. “He sat me down and talked to me, and he said, ‘I’m proud of you. There’s a lot left to do. Keep sticking it out, keep playing hard, and good things will happen.’ ”
When asked about that list of goals, Kovacs took out his worn leather wallet and began to look through its contents. He couldn’t find the list, but he recited it by heart.
"To make the team,” Kovacs said. “To get a scholarship. To, hopefully, one day, make the special teams, make the travel squad, and then, at the end of the day, have fun.”
Ticking off those goals was symbolic for Kovacs, the path he took to reach this point.
“I want to be that guy someone points to and says, ‘if he can do it, I can do it,’” Kovacs said. “ ‘He did it, he had all the odds against him, and nobody really gave him a shot, but he made the most of his opportunities. He worked hard, and he achieved his dreams.’ ”
Now, Kovacs’ time with the Wolverines is dwindling. When he looks ahead, he sees several options. Physical therapy school. Coaching. The NFL. Yet, when the time comes that he doesn’t have to think about a trip to the weight room or a meeting with teammates, Kovacs admits this much.
“I know I’m going to cry like a baby when that happens, when it first hits me,” Kovacs said. “But what the future holds, I’m anxious to see.”
There is no crystal ball that will tell Kovacs how it unfolds. There will be new opportunities.
Kovacs now has a new list to compile.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.