By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published June 1, 2012
Twenty-two members from the Michigan football travelled to Newport Beach, Calif. last week for a three-day senior leadership trip.
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They saw, heard and experienced plenty of things they never expected.
There were closed-door senior meetings. There was a brutal three-hour workout with Navy SEALs in Coronado, Calif. There was a visit to the Rose Bowl.
And there was Big Will.
Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs can’t describe the scene without laughing. The seniors were conducting a youth football clinic in Pasedena, Calif.
Kovacs remembers turning to see 6-foot-5, 322-pound lineman Will Campbell bolting down the football field with 35 kids in tow.
“I was thinking, ‘How is he gonna get away from all these kids?’ ” Kovacs said.
Well, he didn’t. One of the youngsters brought Campbell down and the rest dog-piled on top.
But it wasn’t all fun and dog-piles for the Michigan seniors. There was praise and ridicule, relaxation and pain, but it was all for a purpose.
“It was overwhelming,” Kovacs said. “I think a lot of people probably think it was just a senior trip, but that’s not at all what it was. It was a leadership-building trip and it was an opportunity to see the rest of our senior class in a different light and understand their stories and where they’re coming from.
“Not only was it building us for the season, the main thing is it developed us as leaders and improved us as men.”
A business trip
A three-day trip to California sounds more like a vacation than anything else. The players, though, can assure you it was anything but.
Michigan officials told ESPN that the Big Ten had cleared the trip because of its benefits in developing leadership and life skills, which under NCAA rules is permissible. The trip was funded through a special fund in the Michigan Athletic Department’s operating budget.
With one quick look at the itinerary, the seniors of Michigan’s Team 133 knew one thing for certain:
“That this was a business trip,” Kovacs said. “And that’s exactly what it was.”
Michigan strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman joined the seniors for the extent of the trip, with head coach Brady Hoke stopping in briefly on the second day.
There were several senior-only meetings in which players aired their shortcomings, goals and frustrations. The focus was on three questions:
“How have you developed as a leader so far?”
“How have you developed as a man?”
“What do you still need to improve on?”
“A lot of us said, ‘You know, we’ve taken baby steps but we’re still nowhere near where we want to be as leaders on this team,’ ” Kovacs said.
He added: “We’ve been together for four years so we know each other pretty well, but there were some stories that will stay in the room that made me feel like I didn’t know my teammates half as well as I thought I did.”
But that’s all part of the process of building a senior class.
“I think it created a tighter bond for the senior class. You saw guys start to connect a bit – guys who are from completely different backgrounds but realized (they) had a common story,” Kovacs said.
Smelling roses for the first time
On Thursday morning, the seniors boarded a bus and began the hour-long trip to Pasedena to visit the Rose Bowl.
It was an opportunity to visualize for a team that hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl since 2007.
“It was my first time and I was dying to see it,” Kovacs said. “That’s a special place. I understand now why they call it the granddaddy of ‘em all.”
The team took a tour of the locker rooms and stepped inside the bowl to snap pictures.
“It was unreal,” Kovacs said. “I left that place thinking, ‘I’ve gotta be back here in six more months, because I can’t go too long away from this place.
“We’ve had this vision of playing in the Rose Bowl, but this gave us a picture, something tangible to see to make that vision even clearer.”
The group went to a nearby park to conduct the youth coaches camp, splitting up into position groups and rotating the kids through.
“Anytime that you get an opportunity to work with kids, you understand that it’s something they’re going to remember for their lifetime,” Kovacs said. “It’s an opportunity that you have to send a message to them and get to work with them to not only develop them as football players but also as human beings.