Passing the tests

Michael Jocz stands out as both a Michigan football player and an honor-roll student, but to him, Michigan means more than that.

Michael Jocz stands out as both a Michigan football player and an honor-roll student, but to him, Michigan means more than that.
File Photo/Daily

 

Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 6:47pm

A few weeks ago, Ben Braden recalled sitting around watching the Ohio State-Penn State football game the previous Saturday night with his roommates.

He listed them: Ben Pliska, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman; Greg Froelich, a redshirt junior offensive lineman; Mike Jocz — “You guys know, the really smart guy,” Braden said with a laugh.

That label follows Jocz, a fifth-year senior tight end, around Schembechler Hall. It’s understandable. He is, after all, well on his way to earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering after graduating with a team-high 3.964 GPA in the same major.

So it’s no surprise that Jocz’s academic prowess has captured media attention. His teammates routinely field reporters’ questions on the subject, and coach Jim Harbaugh has faced exactly one question about Jocz this season, on the same topic.

“We always kind of joke about how he’s the genius of the group,” said redshirt sophomore Ian Bunting, a tight end like Jocz.

Coaches seize it as a motivational tool — tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh even created the Michael Jocz Honor Society to recognize the tight end with the top score on the weekly playbook test. It is usually Michael Jocz.

Jocz seems more than comfortable with the notion that he will follow a different path than many of his teammates who land in the NFL next year. He hopes instead to earn headlines for designing concussion-preventing helmets or improving self-driving cars.

Either way, to many, Jocz’s path has captured two labels: great student and great football player. Braden’s joke aside, those close to him know him as much more.

“To them, I’m just their friend that happens to do well in school,” Jocz said. “I’m with them all the time, hanging out with them, so they just think of me as one of the guys.”

He doesn’t often think of himself as an incredible student or an incredible athlete. Those are just two things he enjoys doing. His career at Michigan has really been about realizing a lifelong dream — but if you thought everything has gone smoothly, you’d be wrong about Jocz again.

* * *

When Jocz was little, his family put an addition onto their Novi home. After months observing the head carpenter every day, 2-year-old Michael walked up to the man and said, matter-of-factly, “You have a new saw, don’t you? I’ve been watching you, and you’ve got a brand-new saw.”

Sure enough, the carpenter had just purchased a compound miter saw. Michael’s father, Warren, watched in shock and wondered: “What 2-year-old picks that kind of thing up?”

Michael took off from there. Soon, he beat everyone at adding up the dice during Yahtzee games, and he’d calculate how much change his mother, Ann-Marie, would receive at the grocery store.

Before long, Warren — who also earned a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering from Michigan — began enlisting Michael’s help in chores around the house. Warren, a Ford Motor Company engineer for the past 29 years, was a worthy teacher, and Michael was his eager student.

In that sense, Jocz’s path to mechanical engineering wasn’t a surprise. His place on the football team, on the other hand, wasn’t easily forecast.

Jocz didn’t even begin playing football until his freshman year in high school. His prep career netted a handful of Division III offers, but Jocz only ever wanted to go to one school. He wore Michigan T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats nonstop. He estimates that 17 of his family members across five generations have gone to the University. As a kid, he even dressed up as a Michigan football player for Halloween.

So committed to this dream, he applied and committed to attend before the football team was even an option. That’s when his offensive coordinator at Novi stepped in and sent his highlight tape to former Michigan assistant Al Borges, who offered Jocz a spot as a walk-on.

“I got this opportunity to play for the winningest program in football history, and it was something that I’ve always dreamed about doing,” Jocz said. “I was like, ‘You know, why not? I’m never going to get this opportunity again, and why not make the best of it?’ ”

With that, Jocz joined the team, and he’s been there ever since. On the surface, it sounds like a charmed journey. Getting here required much more work.

Jocz never even planned to play football at Michigan, but he made his way onto the field on the punt-block team.

Jocz never even planned to play football at Michigan, but he made his way onto the field on the punt-block team.
Claire Abdo/Daily

On the third day of his first fall camp as a freshman, Jocz wanted to quit. In fairness, so did Vincent Smith, then an established senior running back.

Jocz’s parents dropped him off on an August Sunday in 2012. By Tuesday, he wasn’t sure if he would last. He was struggling and exhausted, and another walk-on tight end had already quit.

In times like those, Jocz often calls his parents to talk through them, and this time he told them he wasn’t sure if he’d make it. Warren Jocz recalls Michael relaying a similar sentiment from Smith, who was in his fourth fall camp. “I just want to call home and tell Mom I quit,” Smith had told Jocz in an ice bath after practice.

“It was huge going forward, because it helped me know that obviously I wasn’t alone, and that everyone was going through that, so I could make it through,” Jocz said.

Jocz broke things down: First he’d make it through the first week. Then the next. Then the duration of camp. Then the first game. Finally, he ran out to midfield at Michigan Stadium, touched the banner and thought: “I’m going to do everything I can to do this for the next five years.”

Over time, Jocz took enough small steps to see where he was going in the end, though it took a while. He spent his first two years almost exclusively on scout team, going up against the starters, doing the hardest of work and receiving no recognition.

As he worked on the scout punt-block team, he presented a problem: He kept blocking punts. In drills intended to give the starters practice covering the kick, Jocz wouldn’t let it get that far. He once showed his mother a bruise on his arm from the impact of the ball.

Mary-Ann Jocz made her son a prediction: “One of these days, you are going to block a punt in a game, and it’s going to change the whole game.” Just like in that ice bath, Jocz wasn’t sure things would ever work out.

But he kept at it, eventually earning himself game reps on special teams. On Sept. 17, in the third game of Jocz’s fifth year, the Wolverines faced their first adversity of the season. Down 14-0 against Colorado early in the first quarter, they sent out Jocz and the punt-block team to try to shift the momentum.

As four Michigan players broke through the line against three blockers, Jocz charged at the punter untouched, once again sticking his arm into the ball’s path. Sophomore wide receiver Grant Perry turned the loose ball into a touchdown, permanently shifting the momentum. The Wolverines went on to win, 45-28. The man who never thought he’d play for Michigan had proven his mother right.

“Obviously, when it happened this year, I was like, ‘Mike…’ ” Ann-Marie said, “and he just smiled at me and he goes, ‘Mom, I know.’ ”

***

Strange as it sounds, Jocz faced that adversity in the classroom, too. Two years ago, Jocz had adjusted to Michigan football, proven himself on the scout team and even saw the field a few times. He had found a way to manage all of it, and yet he feared it could all come crashing down.

The more difficult mechanical engineering classes stressed him out. The pressure to perform in front of 110,000 people on Saturdays compounded that. He pushed his body to hold that spot on the field, but suddenly lost it. He spent long hours studying heat transfer in an Evanston hotel room, but the same week he struggled on an exam.

The student perceived as perfect experienced one of his first brushes with the stress most students know so well. Again, Jocz thought to himself: Man, this is getting to be a little much.

He called his parents again.

Ann-Marie remembers that call. She remembers her son sweating, his heart racing, his mind again doubting whether he could handle the workload.

Jocz went back to breaking things down. First he made it through that week, then back onto the special teams unit, then to an “A” in the class.

It was not his best semester. He did not sleep enough. He did not relax much. His team went 5-7, its worst finish of his career. And yet he grew.

“I learned that I can push myself further than I think I can,” Jocz said. “Your mind oftentimes gives out before the body, so your mind is telling you to stop well before your actual limits. Football, you can always take another snap, give a little bit more. And in the classroom, if you put your mind to it, you can retain more information, you can figure stuff out better. I think it’s just more that I can do both.”

Each time Jocz overcame one of those hurdles, he gained confidence that his work would help lift him over the next. In the end, he found perspective.

“It was a lot of self-induced stress, but then again, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be doing this,” Jocz said. “I don’t think I’d be able to push myself or put in the amount of time at any other school besides Michigan. It’s just kind of what I’ve dreamed about. So I don’t mind staying up later trying to get this stuff done, because I take a lot of pride in succeeding at both.”

Jocz plays his last game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday against Indiana.

Jocz plays his last game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday against Indiana.
Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

Saturday, Jocz will run out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium for the last time. His dream ride is almost over, not so much the one of being an engineer or the one of being a football player, but the one of being at Michigan, the school his family attended, the school he grew up at, the only school he’s ever known. Football and engineering are only parts of that.

Asked what more he’d want to be known for, Jocz paused before saying, “I guess it’s how much I care about my teammates and my friends. Some of my best friends I made on the team, I’m living with them now. Some of the friendships I’ve made with them will last a lifetime. Some of the memories, I’ll do anything for my friends. That’s what people don’t really know about me.”

Jocz’s intelligence and athleticism are just two facts about him. Here are some more: He is engaged to be married in July to Natalie Paul, his high school sweetheart who graduated last spring from Washington and Jefferson (Pa.) College.

He has a younger sister, Kathryn, 9, and an older sister, Jennifer, 25, who also graduated from Michigan and is now studying toward a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. “She got more brains than I did,” Jocz quipped.

He certainly got plenty. When he’s in the locker room, he stands out because of his academic ability. When Jocz is in the classroom, he stands out because of his football ability. When he’s with his friends, he’s just himself.

“It’s always nice, to get away from both,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be known as the smart guy and the athletic guy, but it’s nice to not be thought of as one or the other. When you’re with your friends, you’re just Michael, just as they’re Ben Braden, Ben Pliska, Juwann Bushell-Beatty, Greg Froelich.”

With those four offensive linemen as roommates, Jocz has good company for dinner. Jocz’s father calls him a “home body,” more interested in spending time with a small, tight-knit group of friends than going out and being part of a bigger party. He likes to tease his roommates and have them tease him back. He likes to laugh.

There, he doesn’t have to trumpet his status as an academic or a football player, either. (“If you talked to him and didn’t know that,” his mother adds, “he’s not going to tell you.”)

As his career winds down, Jocz may go down as one of the top scholars in the history of the football program. He hopes to be more than that, but in the end, he’s grateful for every part of his dream.

“When you’re at football, you’re focused on football. When you’re in class, you’re in class,” Jocz said. “But then you can really be yourself outside with your friends. It’s nice to not be thought of one as the other.

“But I guess (they’re) not bad things to be known for.”