John Kolesar was in a meeting at work when his phone started blowing up.
Long removed from his days as a Michigan wide receiver — and a favorite target of a certain Jim Harbaugh — John had since entered the business world, trading in his cleats and shoulder pads for loafers and a sport coat. Now, he works as a sales director at a consulting firm.
John, for his part, was a four-year letterman for the Wolverines, racking up 1,425 receiving yards over the course of his career. Most famously, he caught a 77-yard bomb from Harbaugh in 1985 that sealed Michigan’s win over Ohio State, then returned a kickoff 59 yards and caught a game-winning touchdown against the Buckeyes in 1988. To this day, he holds the Wolverines’ all-time record with 23.4 yards per reception over his career.
The Kolesar family built a legacy at Michigan even before John arrived on campus. John’s father, Bill Kolesar, played tackle at Michigan under head coach Bennie Oosterbaan from 1953 to 1955, earning three varsity letters and finishing with a career record of 19-8. During Bill’s time in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines never finished lower than 20th in the AP poll.
That day, John’s phone kept buzzing, so he stepped out to see what was going on.
It was his son, Caden. He’d just been offered to play football at his alma mater.
With that long a legacy behind him, when Caden got the offer to play at Michigan, it wasn’t much of a choice.
“I wouldn’t say (family) is the only reason I’m here, but it’s a big reason why I’m here right now,” Caden said. “Growing up, I’ve learned almost everything from (my dad) — from football to life — and it just means everything.”
Committing, of course, was the easy part. Caden had received a “grayshirt” offer from Harbaugh, meaning that he would enroll as a part-time student in the fall of his freshman year and transition to a full scholarship in the spring. In the pecking order, he was effectively in a gray area between scholarship player and walk-on. He’d have to compete for playing time with players far more highly recruited than he was.
At that point, his last name didn’t matter.
“I told coach Harbaugh, ‘You gotta think he can play and don’t do him any favors,’ ” John told The Daily in a phone interview. “That’s kind of how I positioned it so there wasn’t any (favoritism) going on.”
Luckily for Caden, it wasn’t the first time he’d bet on himself.
Entering high school as a defensive back, Caden wanted to change things up. He’d been doing well at his public middle school in Westlake, Ohio, but knew he could be playing at a higher level. So, he went to his dad and asked to play football at the nearby St. Edward High School — a private school known for churning out top college prospects, such as former five-star Michigan offensive lineman Kyle Kalis.
John was understandably hesitant. Caden was good, no question about it, but he knew it would be difficult to compete in that tough of an environment.
“Kids come from all around,” John recalled telling Caden at the time. “You’re gonna have to compete, you may never play. … (Caden said) ‘No. I want to see if I can do it. I want to see if I can try.’ What father’s not gonna just eat that up?”
A few years later, it became clear that Caden had made the right choice. He wasn’t on the level of the elite, NFL-caliber players St. Edward had produced in previous years, but he was strong enough to earn first-team All-Ohio honors his senior year. In the process, he picked up a decent offer list — mostly MAC and Ivy League schools — but Michigan gave him a chance.
And just like he had at St. Edward, Caden took that chance.
Once at Michigan, Caden met each situation with a new approach: If he couldn’t be a world beater, he’d help the team in any way he could.
So far, that’s meant playing on special teams. Even before taking over as punt returner earlier this year, he’d been helping to block on returns and cover on punts and kickoffs.
“He’s so valuable at the other positions on punt return,” Harbaugh said. “… We’re gonna be a better punt return unit if Caden’s rushing or holding up because he’s just so good at those things.”
In that role, he appeared in three games his freshman year and all six games his sophomore season. In every game where he was allowed, John was in the stadium, wearing the Michigan blanket Bill had earned in his third year lettering for the team.
He was there, too, when Caden’s moment to return punts came.
From talking to his dad, Caden knew he’d have to be ready.
“He told me that they’d moved him up to second punt,” John said. “We talked about it in the first week, and I said, ‘Well, you’re playing Western, and if we do our job that we’re supposed to, you’re probably going to get a punt return or two.’ ”
Of course, that opportunity didn’t come in the way anyone had hoped.
After senior receiver Ronnie Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second quarter against the Broncos, Caden filled in for the remainder of the game as a punt returner.
Though the playing time didn’t amount to much in terms of excitement — each punt was downed by a Western Michigan player, and Caden’s late-game snaps at defensive back amounted to only one tackle and one pass breakup — it offered John the opportunity to share a little football knowledge with his son.
“After that Western Michigan game, he was there,” Caden said. “We went back to my house and we sat on the couch, and we were on the iPad going over the film for like a half hour. He was giving me different tips and stuff.”
Now seeing a regular role in his junior season, Caden stands in a unique position of carrying his family’s legacy while still working to forge a path of his own. It even comes through in his number; his freshman year, he wore his dad’s No. 40, but he had to change it to 35 when he was placed on the same special teams unit as Ben VanSumeran, who already had the number.
“I said, ‘That’s okay, I like 35,’ ” Caden recalled with a smile. “… My grandpa wore 75 here. My dad wore 40. 75 minus 40 is 35, so there’s something there.”
Caden has carried that family legacy in a way that can make his predecessors proud, but has found his own unique road in doing so. Still, after all these years, one lesson encompasses all the others:
“I’ve learned over the years that it’s best to listen to Dad.”