The madness that made Chase Winovich
Chase Winovich doesn’t forget things easily.
He still remembers the Ohio State fan who “shot the double bird” at him last year. He still remembers his omission from the Under Armour All-America Game. He still remembers the scout team, the position change and every other slight, in part, because all of that has made him who he is.
Perhaps it’s those recollections that draw his teammates to say the redshirt junior has a few screws loose, that he’s different. Frankly, they’re not entirely wrong. Winovich himself will admit that he’s “just that right amount of crazy.”
Ask him about Conor McGregor. He’ll say he would love to just “be boys with him.”
Ask him about how he approaches each day. He’ll compare himself to a lion needing to be faster than gazelles.
Ask him about this team’s identity. He’ll reference a Steven Spielberg documentary to make the point that Michigan, regardless of its youth, can defy expectations.
But the path he has taken to become the Wolverines’ starting defensive end required craziness, obsession or whatever you want to call it.
So let’s do away with the illusion of normalcy. Chase Winovich is different.
He is crazy.
It surfaced at his 10th birthday party.
Winovich was hosting a double-elimination checkers tournament at his house, eventually matching up with his friend, David Stover.
There were no seeds, but if there were, Stover would have been up there. As Winovich says, Stover was a bright kid that was in the gifted program. Winovich lost and promptly ran upstairs, crying, pleading for his dad to beat David in the next round. Even then, losing was a shock to his pride.
“I was like, ‘You have to beat him so that I can play him again in the loser’s bracket,’ ” Winovich recalls. “In my head I’m thinking like, ‘How can I win?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Beating him twice in the championship will be a tough task, but I know if I can get him in the loser’s bracket, where I’m at, I can beat him again.’ ”
Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
Winovich’s dad beat David. Then Winovich beat him himself, jumpstarting a run to a 10-year-old checkers tournament title.
Winovich admits that, for Stover, the experience was “probably just irrelevant.”
But not for Winovich. He calls his competitiveness a curse and a gift. Asked for an example of such away from a football stadium, the checkers tournament is the first thing that comes to mind.
“When you hate to lose and you want to win that much, it creates anxiety in a sense,” Winovich says. “It’s like, you want it more than anything you’ve ever wanted in every situation.”
And there’s a lot that Winovich wanted.
For what it’s worth, Bill Cherpak doesn’t think Chase Winovich is crazy.
But Cherpak knows his do-it-all standout doesn’t care what anybody thinks of him. As Winovich’s former coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Jefferson Hills, Pa., he saw that every day.
As a junior, Winovich would ruin offensive practices on the scout team defense. As a senior, he asked to be on the kickoff team.
He saw it off the field too — in a dance contest of all places.
In December of his senior year, Winovich participated in Thomas Jefferson’s fifth annual “Dancing With the Athletes” — an event in which all proceeds were donated to the Four Diamonds Fund, a nonprofit that supports families with children who have cancer.
As Cherpak recalls, Winovich was “busting his ass” with his partner to prepare for a disco rendition “like Saturday Night Fever.”
The work paid off. To Cherpak’s best recollection, Winovich won.
It was just a few months prior that he won a different type of battle, too.
Winovich’s older brother played quarterback, and he idolized him. So, as Cherpak recalls, Winovich always wanted a shot to line up under center.
“And we’re like, ‘Listen, you’re not a quarterback. You’re actually horrible at it.’ ”
Qualified or not, Winovich was eventually granted his wish, despite mechanics that left something to be desired.
“He thought he could throw,” Cherpak said. “He really wasn’t that good. He thought he could. It would seriously be the ugliest form.”
When all was said and done, though, Winovich’s mechanics didn’t really matter. Entering his senior year at Thomas Jefferson, Winovich split snaps under center. Then he won the starting job.
There were games in which he’d carry the ball 25 times, and throw once or twice. Form aside, Winovich was a leader, and he got the job done.
“That was him,” Cherpak said. “He would, like, will himself to do it even though he wasn’t skilled at being a quarterback. ... He just made plays. He just got it done. Whatever he had to do, he was finding a way to get it done.”
That wouldn’t be the last time Winovich willed something into being.
When Matt Thompson first met Chase Winovich, Nick Volk had a prediction for him.
“The day I met Chase,” Thompson recalls, “(Volk) said that Chase was gonna be an All-American one day.”
Winovich came to Ann Arbor to play SAM linebacker in Brady Hoke’s defensive scheme, was asked to play tight end upon Jim Harbaugh’s arrival, hurt his PCL in the ensuing Spring Game and pulled his hamstring during the first week of camp. He found himself as the sixth or seventh-string tight end.
Ask Winovich if he was any good at the position, and he’ll preface his answer by saying that he may be more confident in his abilities than others. Then he’ll tell you he could have been decent.
Ask former scout team quarterback Matt Thompson, and he’ll say that — despite all the time Winovich spent studying the concepts and catching balls outside of practice — they both knew tight end wasn’t the right position for him.
Thompson was also Chase’s former roommate, so he knows that Winovich never said so out loud. Instead, he reverted to the part of him that made losing a checkers match so unbearable.
“The way Chase’s brain is hardwired is that he will literally run through a wall for anybody,” Thompson said. “And I guess I would just try to make sure to emphasize to him that the position move was for the best of the team and that it’s a phenomenal opportunity for you to shock the world, because nobody had high expectations for him at the position. That type of thing excites him.”
Winovich didn’t get to shock the world, at least not at tight end.
He was reserved to special teams and — for the third straight year — scout team responsibilities.
It was in those practices that Winovich came across a safety who didn’t take as much pride in the scout team as he did. To Winovich, winning on the scout team meant making the offense better “at all costs,” especially when the offense was sputtering in 2014. Eventually, the issue came to a head. Winovich told him that he was never going to make it here, because he didn’t want it bad enough. He wasn’t wrong. The safety didn’t make it.
There were other instances like that too. A punter criticized Winovich for missing a tackle in a scrimmage. Winovich told him to worry about punting.
In short, people took exception to the competitiveness he calls a gift and a curse.
“They got pissed at me everyday,” Winovich said. “I was just going so hard. Sometimes I was just being a schmuck, like I’d celebrate after I got a sack.”
Fifth-year senior center Patrick Kugler remembers those celebrations well. Winovich would do the worm, the Nae Nae or any celebration he could conceive after a big play during practice his freshman year.
Michigan went 5-7 that year. Brady Hoke eventually asked him to stop. The antics were dialed back.
As you can gather by now, though, there was no turning off Winovich’s motor.
That motor brought Winovich to blast music on the way to practice with Thompson, when his friend wasn’t feeling up to the grind. He’d tell Thompson that it was his big day, that he was the next Tom Brady — ready to climb out of the cellar of the depth chart.
And eventually, that motor landed him back in the defensive line room after Harbaugh’s first season.
“Yeah, I was ecstatic,” Winovich said. “It was my coming home party. Like LeBron James had going from Miami to Cleveland, I had mine going from tight end to defense.”
Added Thompson: “He was just really excited and said, ‘I think I was made for this position. My name is Chase. My name is not Block or Catch. I think I was made to play on defense.’ ”
And if 2017 has been any indication, Winovich was right.
Drive four miles east on Washtenaw Avenue from Schembechler Hall, and you will arrive at Randazzo Dance Studio.
If Winovich truly doesn’t care what people think of him, taking ballet classes in the offseason was a pretty good way to show it.
He went to the studio last spring, while still taking classes, and talked with Sarah Randazzo, the studio’s director. He asked for recommendations, and went through an evaluation.
Soon after, he was paired with Audrey Launius for one-on-one instruction. Once a week for about three months, Winovich was in the studio. He started with basic ballet-bar work, before moving on to pliés, tendus and degages.
Like most things Winovich does, he was good at it, and good simply wasn’t good enough.
“He picked it up very quickly, but he also asked the right kinds of questions,” Launius said. “(He asked) a lot of questions about the mobility of the movement that a beginner student wouldn’t even have the conception of asking.”
Having taught at the studio for the past 10 years, Launius never once saw a football player walk through its doors. But as she put it, teaching Winovich was “a treat.”
Though they joked about it, there was never a recital in the cards for Michigan’s 6-foot-3, 253-pound defensive lineman.
“He was like, ‘Yeah I could get up there, you just show me the stuff, we’ll work on it and I could get up there,’ ” Launius said. “And I think we joked about whether or not he’d have to wear a tutu, and he’s like, ‘I’m not sure about that but we’ll see.’ ”
As Launius explained, the ballet lessons allowed Winovich to focus on external rotation muscles — helping him to quickly shift weight, and teaching him to control his body when it was caught in odd positions.
For all the affinity Winovich had for being a quick study, though, there was one thing he was never good at: musicality.
Launius would tell her pupil the steps they were going to do, and turn on a piece of music. The music, no matter what it was, didn’t matter.
“He would do the steps to his own rhythm,” Launius said. “He would do it really well, but he would never do it with the music.”
And perhaps there’s no better metaphor for this journey than just that. Chase Winovich, in a ballet studio of all places, disregarded the music. He moved to his own.
During his junior year of high school, Winovich was approached with a question.
Do you want to play in the NFL?
The inquiry came from then-Florida State defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
Winovich said yes, but isn’t shy about now admitting it wasn’t even on his radar. He was roughly three months removed from getting his first college offer. He had just switched positions during the season, and was still “trying to make it” in high school.
It was a self-admitted time of uncertainty.
The NFL was never Winovich’s first dream. He didn’t give much thought to his plans after college at all. At least in part, that changed when he visited Michigan and stayed with former linebacker Jake Ryan. They showed him highlights of himself and Ryan side by side, and Winovich knew Ryan was a good student as well.
As Winovich put it, making that sort of impact at the college level was “all I wanted to do.”
Now, he’s done that and more.
Winovich has one more year of eligibility, but the NFL beckons. Harbaugh has equated him to J.J. Watt. Hyperboles aside, he is second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss and fifth in sacks.
And all the hype comes only one year after his defensive homecoming. Last season, Winovich says, was about vindicating himself and embracing the process that got him here. He admits that the NFL was an afterthought even a few months ago. But the reality is finally settling in.
“That was kind of the big thing last year, but this year I think maybe the focus has shifted,” he says. “I went to my buddy and I said, ‘Man this is crazy. I’m actually gonna make it.’ ”
So we’re back to that word. Crazy, the term most commonly used to describe Chase Winovich.
It’s hard not to almost laugh at it.
Because when you ask him what his teammates mean when they say “Chase is Chase,” even he can’t tell you.
When you ask him why he dressed as himself for Halloween, he’ll say his mom told him the worst thing you can be in life is someone else.
And when you ask him about his current role, he’ll tell you a Bible story about shekels that his friend Macy shared with him at Perry’s Burgers in Ohio.
Above all, though, ask Chase Winovich if it’s flattering that his teammates say he has a screw loose. He’ll refer you again to McGregor, saying you need to be at least slightly crazy toward your craft. Then he’ll give you another quote, one that seems to cut to the core of his being.
“The people that are crazy enough to believe they can change the world are the ones that usually do it,” Winovich says.
Maybe not the world. His world though? Yeah, he’s already done that.