Mike Kwiatkowski wasn’t supposed to make it this far.
The fifth-year senior tight end admits that much himself. As a senior at Dakota High School in Macomb, Mich., Kwiatkowski was only recruited to play football by Division-II schools.
Though he ended up choosing to attend the University of Michigan due to the school’s strong academics, Kwiatkowski never thought he’d end up on the football team. When he pushed his way up to somewhere around the fifth row of Michigan Stadium as a fan during his first two years at the school, he thought that was as close to the field as he’d ever get.
Yet here is Kwiatkowski, preparing to play his final game at the Big House on Saturday, joined by 22 other seniors, most of them much more than ballyhooed than he ever was.
It’s fine to recognize how unlikely it is that Kwiatkowski rose from regular student to scholarship starter in a matter of three years — but don’t call him a walk-on.
“I actually despise that label,” Kwiatkowski said. “Because like you said, there’s been a number of (walk-ons) who have played, and just because you weren’t given a scholarship doesn’t mean you aren’t as capable. Obviously there’s some exceptions to that, of people who walk on and don’t end up playing.
“I guess that’s the rule, if anything.”
Kwiatkowski has managed to break that rule. When he arrived at Michigan in 2008, he ignored former high school teammate Ricky Reyes, then a redshirt junior walk-on himself, who prodded him to try out for the team right then and there.
Two years later, Kwiatkowski was checking the Athletic Department website to see how an exam for a genetics class matched up with the football schedule. He noticed a blurb about open tryouts — one of several such tryouts held by former coach Rich Rodriguez in his three seasons — and decided to give it a go.
Kwiatkowski’s own expectations were low — he joked that he had run about three times in the two years before that fateful tryout in 2010, and that he was already sweating during warm-ups.
But then-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee pulled him aside while players were walking off the field to deliver the news that Magee was going to “keep” him. Kwiatkowski was at first a bit confused by what Magee meant, but then it dawned on him — he was a bonafide Wolverine.
“That was pretty cool,” Kwiatkowski said.
Of course, it wasn’t suddenly all smooth sailing. A 262-pound tight end now, Kwiatkowski was around 250 pounds back then and an offensive lineman by trade, playing tight end only occasionally. He was relegated to scout team left guard duties, where he found himself forced to block either Mike Martin or Ryan Van Bergen on any given play.
It was still a highlight to be on the field on Saturdays, though, which occurred first for Kwiatkowski against Bowling Green in 2010. He dressed for the first time against Michigan State later that year, but his real breakout came in spring ball after the season.
Then-new coach Brady Hoke moved Kwiatkowski to tight end full time because Michigan was lacking depth at the position, and he impressed coaches and teammates alike during spring practices. When the 2011 season rolled around, Kwiatkowski found himself on the travel team, and he appeared in his first career game against Minnesota on Oct. 1.
Late in fall camp before this season, Kwiatkowski was one of seven walk-ons to be given a scholarship by Hoke. On the field, despite the arrival of highly-touted freshmen tight ends Devin Funchess and A.J. Williams, Kwiatkowski’s role has only increased.
He’s started six of the team’s 10 games, and the fifth-year senior has been the most reliable blocker at the position. He’s also managed to record three catches, the first coming in the season opener against Alabama.
Kwiatkowski’s relative lack of accolades hasn’t discouraged him from helping out the younger tight ends as much as possible, a trait that earned him compliments from Hoke. And the dearth of credentials hasn’t made him any lesser part of the team — nor has it endeared him any less to his fellow seniors.
“I think it’s what makes it special, and I think it’s what makes a lot of us close, is we’ve all had different experiences,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “We got guys like Mike and Jordan Kovacs, (walk-on safety) Charlie Zeller, a guy that’s been on the team only for a couple years. They’re all seniors, and even though they haven’t been with us our whole careers, all four, five years, we’ve all got a special bond.
“(Being walk-ons) doesn’t take away from anything that they’ve put into this program. It feels like they’ve been a part of it the whole time since I’ve been here.”
And yet it can’t be denied that Kwiatkowski’s journey to this Saturday’s senior day was a very different one from the rest of the seniors.
“When I first got here, I never expected this day to come,” Kwiatkowski said. “The first game I dressed for was Michigan State, 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.”
A pre-pharmacy major, Kwiatkowski said he wanted to go into medicine so that he could help people. He’s already helped the Michigan football team more than anyone imagined he would.