- Said Alsalah/Daily
BY BEN ESTES
Daily Sports Writer
Published March 25, 2010
Look closely at Mike Dufek as he strides out to his territory at first base, and you’ll see the typical gear: a cap on his head, mitt on his hand, ball in his back pocket.
If you get a good enough look, you may even see a determined expression on his face or eye black smeared across his cheeks.
But what you won’t see is the sixty years worth of success, leadership and Wolverine tradition that follows his name everywhere he goes.
The next time the senior fouls a ball off his leg and opens up a cut, try to look at the blood that comes out.
It just might be maize and blue.
A familiar name
Those Michigan fans who have attended football games for as long as the Pope has attended mass smile knowingly whenever Dufek’s name is announced at Ray Fisher Stadium. Not necessarily for him, but because they know about his predecessors.
The first baseman’s grandfather, Don Dufek Sr., was a standout fullback for the Wolverines from 1948-50. His uncle, Don Jr., was an All-American defensive back in Ann Arbor from 1973-75, and his uncle Bill played offensive tackle for Michigan from 1974-78, also attaining All-American status. All the Dufek men would go on to play in the NFL (as did Mike’s father, Joe, who played at Yale in his college days).
They were all leaders, too. Joe played quarterback, the general on the field; Don Sr. was chosen as the team’s MVP in 1950; and Don Jr. was elected a captain both at Michigan and during his career with the Seattle Seahawks.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mike was selected as a co-captain for the 2010 season. Leadership is genetic in the Dufek family.
“I definitely learned from my uncles and my dad and my grandfather,” Dufek said after practice Tuesday. “Everybody in my family taught me the right way to do things. I guess in the end, that really led to being a leader. Just leading by example is the number one key … they all taught me the right way.”
Despite his family's football pedigree, Dufek was blessed with much greater baseball talent. And with all of his connections to Ann Arbor, Michigan was always the first baseman’s top choice. He first caught the Wolverine coaches’ eyes during summer camps that Dufek attended while in high school.
Those visits also confirmed his interest in the school. The issue, however, wasn’t whether he wanted Michigan — it was whether Michigan wanted him. Dufek was lightly recruited as a pitcher/outfielder coming out of Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. Since NCAA baseball teams have fewer scholarships to give than other major sports, even a player of Dufek's caliber was not guaranteed a full ride. If he were to play for the Wolverines, it would have to be in a walk-on role, at least in the early part of his career. It would also have to be at a new position, as his athleticism limited his potential in the outfield.
“(Recruiting Dufek) was easy in the sense that he made it very clear that he wanted to come, so that was great,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “It wasn’t easy in the sense that he really wanted to hit and he wasn’t blessed with a lot of foot speed. It’s tough if you’re a hitter who doesn’t have a lot of speed, so you got to really hit. And to his credit, he really hits.
“We gave (the opportunity) to him, and we’re thankful we did, because he’s been a really good player for us.”
That hitting prowess led to a first team All-Big Ten season in 2009, one in which he hit .304 with 17 home runs and 59 RBI. The 17 homers led the team and all first basemen in the conference — good enough for third place all-time for Michigan in a single season.
And though Dufek isn’t satisfied with his power numbers so far in 2010 (he's slugging only .411, down .216 from last season), he’s still managing a .329 batting average with 20 runs knocked in.
The senior’s leadership qualities were so apparent early in his career that it “really came as no surprise” that he was selected as one of the co-captains for this season, according to senior utility man Mike Kittle.
“Everyone kind of had a pretty good idea it was going to be Dufek and (senior catcher Chris) Berset,” Kittle said. “Him and Berset are doing a good job keeping the team together ... we wouldn’t have voted him captain if he didn’t think he could lead us. No doubt.”
And the coaches supported the choice. Maloney said that even as a young player, when he wasn’t receiving a lot of playing time, he could tell by Dufek’s work ethic and the way that he “meshed” with the team that he had a shot at becoming a captain later in his career.
It was the same story for Dufek in high school. Though the co-captain said he didn’t really realize his potential until his senior year, his high school coach, Bryan Rice, saw it much earlier.
“When I met him in eighth grade, to tell you the truth, he showed tremendous potential," Rice said in a phone interview. "That’s the first time I saw him and he just kept getting better and better. Even as a sophomore, he came up in the state playoffs and got the bench all fired up and was getting people going. You could just tell he had a special quality about him.”
Dufek, for his part, was ready for the challenge of leading at the collegiate level.
“When coach first told me, I was excited to be put in that position to help lead the team,” Dufek said. “We didn’t have a great year last year, so being a leader on the team this year, I got a great chance to kind of guide the way the season will go. So far, we’ve had our downs, but we want to be at our best during Big Ten play.”
The team has indeed struggled somewhat so far, with its record sitting at 9-9 heading into the long-awaited home opener against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne today.
The Wolverines' rough start has challenged their leaders to step up and right the ship. The team has leaned on Dufek and Berset to keep everything afloat in the face of an extremely difficult schedule and injuries to preseason All-American Ryan LaMarre and the team's most experienced returning pitcher (senior lefthander Eric Katzman).
His teammates and coaches have praised the first baseman for the job he’s been doing and for keeping everything together despite a rough start to the season.
“The hard part is having to tell guys when they’re not acting the right way or they’re not doing something the right way,” Dufek said. “You’ve got to correct them on and off the field, not being afraid to pull a guy aside and have a talk with them. You don’t want to do it, but sometimes every now and then it has to happen. It doesn’t happen too often, really. We have a good clubhouse. These guys all have good heads on their shoulders.”
Building a legacy
After this season, Dufek’s future is uncertain. If he performs well enough, he has a shot at playing pro ball (he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 41st round of the 2006 draft, before he even got to Michigan).
But with his determination, work ethic and leadership ability, Maloney feels his success in any future endeavor is almost guaranteed.
“When you’re a leader, a lot of people are going to want you,” Maloney said. “So for whatever he chooses, he’s going to be a leader in that profession. I fully expect that he’ll be outstanding.”
Instead of worrying about that right now, Dufek has more pressing issues on his mind: returning the Wolverines to their familiar spot atop the Big Ten.
When asked what his top achievement has been, he immediately mentioned the two Big Ten Championships the team won during his freshman and sophomore years (he waited until much later to bring up his individual accomplishments).
But those are two conference crowns Michigan won before Dufek became a big contributor. Coming off of a disappointing season last year as a team, he is driven that much more to cap his career with a championship.
“You want to leave a champion,” Maloney said. “He realized being a champion (in) years one and two, making some contribution, but not (being) one of the guys that we had to lean on. Now it’s his time, and for us to try to win another championship, your legacy is what you do to make that happen. That’s the way I look at it.”
With the family he has, one would think that the word “legacy” would be something that weighs on the co-captain. Is there any pressure to live up to the Dufek legacy?
“Both my uncles and my grandfather played football here and I play baseball,” Dufek said. “Totally different sport. They’re proud of me no matter what happens on the field, as long as I compete.
“But I hope if they did have any expectations, they’ve been fulfilled.”
He is building his own legacy, in a way — one he knows will be defined by how this season ends. Forget last year. The ingredients are there for a Big Ten Championship run, something this program has come to expect.
And it will be Dufek leading the charge. In a family of champions, he will be attempting to make his own name — one synonymous with being a winner on the baseball field. That will be his legacy.
“I’m real proud to wear that jersey,” Dufek said. “There’s a sense of pride, but there’s also a sense that you’re expected to win. So far, I’ve been on teams that have won championships, but last year was a pretty big disappointment.
“I feel like I’m the Dufek that played baseball instead of football … but I also want to make my own name by being a winner. I want to be known as one of the captains that led the team back to Big Ten glory.”