SportsMonday Column: I tried out for the Michigan football team

Daily sports writer Max Cohen tried out for the Michigan football team over the weekend.

Daily sports writer Max Cohen tried out for the Michigan football team over the weekend. Buy this photo
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Sunday, January 24, 2016 - 4:17pm

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You’ve all heard it before. The Michigan football season ends, either in victory or defeat, and the team’s seniors, after playing their final game in maize and blue, talk about what a privilege it is to wear the uniform of one of the most storied programs in college football.

Saturday, I found out it has nothing to do with tradition or a history of excellence. The jerseys are just impossible to get over a human head.

I put on my No. 6 Michigan football jersey Saturday morning at 9:15, right before I tried out for the Michigan football team in Al Glick Field House. Any full-time student at Michigan could try out, and I was one of about 55 to take up the opportunity.

I figured putting the jersey on would be the easiest part of the event. But it turns out the bottom of the uniform is actually some sort of elastic contraption that is almost impossible to stretch. My head is enormous (physically, but I’ve been told metaphorically as well), and it took me a minute or two to figure out how to actually get the jersey over my head and onto my body.

I tried to look cool and play it off afterward, and I don’t think anyone else noticed. They were too busy discussing their chances of actually making the team. I was just hoping to survive the tryout.

Playing football has never really been on my radar. In elementary school, I was usually picked last in recess. But now that I’m a second-semester senior and have more NCAA eligibility than college newspaper eligibility, I thought I’d give it a try.

In practicality, it probably wasn’t a wise decision. I’m 5-foot-7 (and one quarter-inch, according to the official measurements at the tryout) and 150 pounds. I’m basically Dennis Norfleet without speed, dance moves or any semblance of hand-eye coordination. (For full disclosure, I’m not even exaggerating about the hand-eye coordination issue: I recorded a grand total of zero hits in my final season of Little League when I was in sixth grade.)

My last foray into organized athletics came in eighth grade, when my friend Zach and I decided to join the middle school track team. We thought it would be a good way to stay in shape and hang out with our friends. We ran the mile at every meet, and it was a rare occasion when the two of us didn’t finish last.

During the final race of the season, our coach gave us a pep talk for the ages as we finished our third out of five times around the track: “Don’t get lapped!”

I figure the most practical purpose I could serve on the Michigan football team would be as a third-string long snapper. Starter Scott Sypniewski got hurt last season and also had to play through a 103-degree fever against Indiana. The Wolverines only have one true backup at the position in Andrew Robinson. What if both of them get hurt? Michigan will have a new starting center next season with Graham Glasgow gone, and you can’t have his replacement worrying about snapping the football on special teams.

However, I didn’t see long snapper as an option on the tryout list, so I opted to try out as a fullback. With Joe Kerridge and Sione Houma out of the picture, maybe Harbaugh would be so desperate for a sixth-string fullback that I could make the cut. With an offseason to get ready, I could definitely turn 150 pounds into 210 pounds.

But first I had to make it through the tryout.

We were informed early on that we couldn’t use footballs, per NCAA rules. Since I struggle to catch a football and run at the same time, it was welcome news.

We started the tryout by warming up with strength coach Kevin Tolbert. But warming up like a Michigan football player isn’t a casual hobby. If you’re even so much as a few inches out of position, you’re promptly called out and told to even out the lines. I, somehow, avoided scolding.

It turned out that some freshman and sophomore walk-ons who were already on the team participated in the tryout, so I just looked at what they were doing during stretching and hoped I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot. I only partially looked like one.

That changed a few minutes later. We started doing high knees for 20 yards, and I struggled to correctly keep the pace. One second I’d be going too slow, the next I’d be going too fast. We were supposed to be perfectly in sync, and I wasn’t.

Next, we had to run 20 yards at 75 percent in large groups. The problem was, I could tell immediately that my 75 percent would be nothing compared to everyone else’s 75 percent, so I ran at 100 percent. I still finished last.

I was already panting, before the actual drills had even started. Just the fact that we had to jog every time we moved was enough cause for heavy breathing.

At some point in the middle of all of this, Jim Harbaugh appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I mean, he probably came from somewhere, but I was too tired to notice.

Of course, the first thing Harbaugh talked about was a competition — the 40-yard dash. He invited the guys already on the team to run first. Then he asked attendees who thought they were fast enough to keep up to step forward. I stayed put.

Harbaugh personally administered the 40-yard dash, blowing the whistle and telling his assistants to pick out the fastest guys in each heat.

Mind you, some of the top recruits in the country were in town this weekend. And yes, Jim Harbaugh was watching a few of his players and a bunch of random students run the 40-yard dash.

I believe I ran it twice, but it could’ve been three times. It doesn’t really matter. If worms had machine guns, then birds would be afraid of them, right?

Sadly, I performed poorly. I’m pretty sure I finished last in all of my races, but I was too focused on not completely embarrassing myself to take a full look around.

Harbaugh gave the group some advice, too. He said you can play football by being one of three things: fast, tough or smart. I know I’m not fast or particularly tough (I stood and watched the last time I saw a brawl at Rick’s), but I figured there’s a slight chance I could be smart.

That notion was quickly dispelled when we broke into position groups and took a water break. I couldn’t figure out how to spray the hose contraption we were supposed to drink out of, so I just went without water until I could figure out how to get the water out of the hose (I ended up not drinking until much later in the tryout, so maybe I am tough after all).

The next portion of the morning wasn’t so torturous. We went around to four stations in our position groups. At the first station, we completed lateral high-step drills. I made it through without major incident, just like I did in the second station, where we ran around cones. I was slower than everyone else, but I didn’t fall flat on my face. Huge win, and a little bit closer to becoming a Michigan football player.

I really starred in the third station, where we ran the 40-yard dash again. We got to run it twice. The first time, I ran a 5.7. I could hardly breathe afterward, but I must’ve recovered nicely. I didn’t even hear them call out my time after my second rep, so I assume they must’ve been extremely impressed and didn’t want to embarrass everybody else. I probably ran a 4.2.

Some problems arose in the fourth and final station. Running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley stood in the middle of two sets of cones. He motioned for us to either run forward or backward or to hit the ground and pop back up. I tried it three times, but messed up horribly on each try. He motioned for me to go off to the side, where another staff member asked if I was feeling OK.

I told him I was just bad at football. I think he tried to reassure me for a second that I wasn’t bad, then realized there was no point in lying.

I knew I’d have to impress in the final stage of the on-field portion of the tryout: position drills. I was hoping that as a fullback, I’d just get to smash my head into things, but that wasn’t the case.

We did a bunch of offense-defense drills in which the runner had to evade the defender in a small area. I wasn’t exactly Drake Johnson. I was two-hand touched down every single time. Once, the defender decided to throw me to the ground. I should’ve gotten up and punched him in the jaw, but I was just too worn out. He also probably had 60 pounds on me and would’ve destroyed me in a fight.

My highlight of the day, for a moment, came on the defensive side of the drill. On one rep, late in the drill, I two-hand touched my opponent perfectly in the shoulders. If I had been allowed to tackle, I probably would’ve bodyslammed him.

The glory only lasted for a moment, though. Wheatley immediately started coaching the kid on how the running back should always win one-on-one every time when a defender stops moving his feet, which I apparently did. Whoops.

After the position drills, Harbaugh gathered us as a group. He had the walk-ons who were already on the team stand up, and said they probably stood out throughout the tryout. He then added they would likely take a few other kids from the tryout, too.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about me.

Harbaugh rhetorically asked us if we would be ready to jump right into winter conditioning if we were selected. I nodded vigorously, figuring that could definitely increase my chances.

Then, he had current players stay out to evaluate the punters, kickers and quarterbacks with footballs since the coaches weren’t allowed to. He sent the rest of us to take more physical tests, and we were told we would likely hear if we made the team by the end of the weekend.

I don’t think I helped my chances in the long jump. I failed to stick the landing on my first two tries, so I went conservative on the third try. I didn’t hear the final number, but I jumped 4-foot-something. I didn’t hear any other results under 6-feet.

Then they tested how high we could jump. I jumped 14 inches, which is why my friends call me the Jewish Jordan (Editor’s note: Nobody calls him that).

Finally, I could see the finish line. For the final drill of the day, we went into the weight room to bench press. I figured I could easily bench the bar, maybe a little more.

Unfortunately, the only test was to see how many reps you could do of 225 pounds, so I sat off to the side with another kid who also couldn’t bench 225 pounds.

He commented that this probably wasn’t good for our chances. I don’t know about him, but I still haven’t gotten a call that I made the team.

I’ll probably stick to writing.

Cohen can be reached at maxac@umich.edu or on Twitter @MaxACohen. If he doesn’t respond to your emails and tweets immediately, it’s probably because he’s still sore.