ORLANDO, Fla. — Travis Wooley isn’t one to give up. Michigan cheerleading coach Pam St. John knew that as well as anyone, but she still needed the flag back.
The Michigan football team had just stomped all over Florida in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, 41-7. At halftime, St. John had promised Wooley — a former cheerleader — that if the Wolverines won, he would be able to wave the flag around the field. Wooley had also requested to keep the flag after the game, but St. John thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Wooley got an inch and took it a mile, running the flag back into the locker room with full intentions of keeping it.
St. John was far from the first person to dismiss one of Wooley’s sky-high ambitions, and like the thousands before her, she would end up eating her words.
There are many underdog stories in sports, but none like this. From growing up in Brazil to beginning organized football at 14 to being a benchwarmer on a winless high school team to majoring in musical theatre at Saginaw Valley State to joining the Michigan cheerleading team, not one part of Wooley’s journey indicated that he belonged on the Michigan football team.
But there he stood, with sweat-soaked pads on his shoulders and a winged helmet in his hand, celebrating Michigan’s 10th win of the season.
He eventually gave the flag back, but that was a minor loss. His mystifying journey full of rejection, enthusiasm and one seized opportunity was complete.
In a story unlike any other, against all odds and criticism, Wooley had lettered with the Michigan football team.
* * *
Wooley’s introduction to football parallels that of a foreigner, and in many ways, he was.
Despite being born in Texas, Wooley spent his formative years in Brasilia, Brazil, as his father, John, served as a deputy attaché for Homeland Security and the U.S. Embassy. For the most part, Wooley grew up Brazilian, but U.S. government workers overseas are required to come to America one month out of the year on a program called “Home Leave” to stay in touch with and embrace American culture. In the Wooley family, that culture included football.
Though football was not offered in Brasilia, Wooley would watch “Friday Night Lights,” “Remember the Titans” and other sports movies religiously. He not only loved the intensity of football and its ability to bring a community together, but also its ability to make him feel less like an outsider in a foreign land.
“I was picked on a lot in Brazil, and I was in America so little that it felt like vacation to come here,” Wooley said. “So football gave me a chance to go back to the United States and feel normal. I was big for my age, so (the football players) were like gods to me.”
Eventually, he got the itch to play, but resources in Brazil were short. So before he moved back to the United States in 2006, Wooley learned the game of football by playing NCAA Football video games, watching movies and reading 1950s playbooks found in his principal’s attic.
But Wooley’s mother, Shelley, knew her son would pick it up. In the same year, she had seen Travis — seen as too large and inexperienced to ride horses competitively — defy conventional wisdom and become a medal-winning endurance horse-racer in Brasilia through sheer will. A game he had actually practiced a little bit and was built for? No problem.
“When he came back to the U.S., these other kids had been playing for several years, but Travis didn’t blink,” Shelley said. “The best thing you can do if you want him to accomplish something is to first tell him no. … For as long as I can remember, he has been unwilling to hear the word ‘no.’ He will absolutely turn that no into a yes.”
When Travis was 14, the family moved back to America. Armed with little more than a love for the game, Wooley tried out for the eighth-grade football team. In many towns in America, he wouldn’t have gotten the shot. He would have been too old and too raw to join a competitive team.
But he wasn’t in one of those places. His father had become Homeland Security’s special agent in charge of Northern Michigan, and Wooley’s introduction to football came in tiny Sault Ste. Marie. In the 14,000-person, upper-peninsula town, Wooley would get a shot at football.
And that was all he needed.
* * *
Of all the people to be surprised when Travis Wooley made the Michigan football team, his high school coach considers himself among the most shocked. Scott Menard spent 10 years at the helm of Sault Area High School, and his worst two seasons were in the falls of 2009 and 2010 — Wooley’s two years on varsity.
His Blue Devils went 1-17 those two seasons, and the second player in school history to go on to play Division I football couldn’t even crack the starting lineup.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, he didn’t play a lot,” Menard said in a phone interview. “He was as raw as you’re going to get. … He was always a little behind.”
And it wasn’t as if the team was that far ahead. In a good year, Menard says his team might have a handful of Division II players on his roster. But neither year was a good year, and Travis was not even a starter.
When asked to size up Wooley’s abilities, Menard admitted his former player was hardly above average in anything. At 6-feet and around 200 pounds, Wooley never really found a position he could thrive in.
But it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
“What stood out to me, though, is that he wasn’t afraid to try anything,” Menard said. “When one guy was injured or another needed a breather, he would immediately come up to me and say, ‘Hey coach, I can go in, I think I can do that.’
“He wasn’t afraid to work for something if it helped the team or it helped him get better. Whatever opportunities came up, he would take them and seize them, or at least try to.”
Wooley’s enthusiasm and energy left him confident that he would be able to walk on to a football team in college, but the try-anything mantra applied off the field, too. Midway through high school, Wooley became a fan of the hit musical show “Glee.” With no prior experience, he auditioned for his high school’s production of the musical “Chicago” senior year and was cast in the lead role.
With natural charisma and enthusiasm, he fell in love with the performing arts. After seeing the YouTube hit movie “A Very Potter Musical” performed by University of Michigan students, Wooley fell in love with Michigan’s musical theatre program, too. While researching the University, he discovered the history and prestige of Michigan football.
His walk-on dream had a destination.
“As someone who moved around a lot as a kid and never had that many close friends, Michigan was a big draw to me — no matter what the program,” Wooley said. “People were just unapologetically supportive and appreciative of each other, and that was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Wooley was rejected by Michigan in the spring of 2011, his senior year.
He later called the moment a “tipping point” in his love for Michigan to prove the doubters wrong. Just as before, telling him no was all the encouragement he would need.
* * *
When asked about Travis Wooley, just about everyone will discuss Wooley’s enthusiasm. And that’s warranted — no one can go through a journey like his without enthusiasm, but where does it come from? No one is really born with enthusiasm, and it’s a hard trait to teach. To have a high level of enthusiasm, it must be bred into us as children.
Fortunately for Wooley, that’s exactly what happened. Even before his days fighting for the Navy in the Vietnam War, John Wooley believed that everything can be accomplished if the energy and passion is there. He entered federal law enforcement, pushing himself and his comrades to take on large-scale drug trafficking. He constantly told his three sons that every challenge served as an opportunity.
Even after he retired in 2012, his values stood tall. Travis Wooley remembers sitting in the car with his father as a radio talk show discussed automotive bailouts. By that point, Travis had settled on Saginaw Valley State, where he would studying musical theatre and training with the intentions of transferring to Michigan.
His grades struggled first semester, and even his revised plan looked bleak. But as the bailouts were discussed, John turned off the radio.
“He turned to me and said, ‘When you get into Michigan, it’s going to feel so good knowing that you did it all by yourself,’ ” Wooley recalled. “That was one of the most memorable things anyone has ever said to me.”
And it stuck. Wooley increased his weightlifting regimen immediately. To improve his grades, Wooley cut out ice cream — his favorite food — until he got a 4.0 grade-point average.
He never had ice cream (and still hasn’t to this day), but after two years at Saginaw, he got the next best thing: admittance to Michigan.
For the first time, Wooley’s dream had some legs. But the already average football player hadn’t played in more than two years, and the Wolverines don’t tend to take those kinds of players, so Wooley needed to find a way to get his foot in the door.
He only needed an inch.
* * *
In the real world, the majority of career advancement results come from networking and connections made along the way. Whether it’s a friend, colleague or even just a fellow alumnus, jobs are given in large part based on who you know.
Wooley remembered this very thought when he tried out for the Michigan cheerleading team in the fall of 2013. The football team wouldn’t take him, so he tried to get as close to the program as possible.
“I wanted people to Google ‘Michigan football’ and see my face,” Wooley said. “And with the cheerleading team, you can do that.”
That wasn’t the only benefit of the cheerleading team. As perennial contenders for the national championship, the team trains year-round as seriously as any. They have access to special weight rooms along with several other facilities for student-athletes.
And perhaps most importantly for Wooley, no experience was required to join.
“We don’t have a lot of men go out for our team, and none of them come in with the skills for this sport,” St. John said. “So part of our vetting process is, are they a good person? Are they nice, are they enthusiastic, are they flexible?’
“We want them to be athletic and strong enough to perform the tasks we ask them to, but a large part of it is what kind of person you are, and it was apparent pretty early on that Travis had that.”
With plenty of enthusiasm and energy to his credit, Wooley was a natural fit. He cheered for two years, and the Wolverines took home the national title both years.
But Wooley wasn’t shy about what his end goal was. Once he arrived in Ann Arbor, he e-mailed the football team at least once a week for two years. He would get responses, but they usually mentioned an unspecified open tryout, until they said it was canceled or had already happened.
Undeterred, Wooley simply worked harder to ensure that when he finally did get a chance, he wouldn’t miss it. After cheerleading practice and lifting, Wooley would run sprints, go through agility drills and push himself to get into shape for when the football team came knocking.
“He worked harder than a lot of kids I’d ever seen,” said cheerleading co-captain Evan Hampton. “I just don’t think it was in his blood to take it easy.”
Off the field, he used his presence on the cheerleading team to join clubs for student-athletes, where he met members of the football team. Players like wide receiver Jehu Chesson and defensive lineman Chris Wormley were drawn to his energy and fearless charisma right away, but when he brought up the fact that he was trying to make the team, they — like St. John with the flag — thought he was kidding.
“I didn’t think he was serious,” said Chesson, who met Wooley through student-athlete Bible study while Wooley was still on the cheer team. “Or even if he was, I didn’t think he would go through with it. A lot of guys talk and even think about trying out, but it’s another thing to actually do it. I didn’t think much of it at the time.”
Wooley wasn’t joking, though he did need to wait for a new head coach with equally unheard-of enthusiasm to take over.
* * *
When Jim Harbaugh returned to Ann Arbor to become the Michigan football coach, to say he was a popular guy would be an understatement.
Many people wanted to talk to him, but Wooley had something others didn’t — Harbaugh’s attention in the front row.
During a Michigan women’s basketball game in January 2015, Harbaugh was seated along the baseline of Crisler Center as Wooley performed a routine with the team. While Wooley held a female cheerleader over his head, Harbaugh — as has proven to be typical of the eccentric coach — began to coach Wooley on his form and muscle placement.
Despite the absurdity of the situation, Wooley knew he had the chance he was looking for.
“He’s bugging me during the routine, but I just go, ‘Hey coach, I’m looking forward to trying out for you next week,’ ” Wooley said. “Then mid-routine, he starts asking about my height, weight, 40 time and so on.”
It was only a few minutes, and it was unclear if it actually helped his chances, but a week later, Wooley made it through tryouts and was invited to join the Michigan football team.
Four years and two schools since he last played a down of organized football, Wooley had realized his dream.
“We questioned it all the time,” Shelley said of the family’s doubts along the way. “The joke in our family was that the stars aligned for Travis — perfect time, perfect coach, perfect grades. … When he called to tell us he had made the team, he was just beside himself. It was a special moment.”
It was extra special for John, who had grown ill with cancer since reigniting Wooley’s dream three years prior. The elder Wooley told Travis he had never been prouder.
But for the younger Wooley, the journey was only just beginning.
* * *
Beyond simply the financial burden, life as a walk-on football player is substantially harder than that of a scholarship player. While Michigan has financially committed to its scholarship players, the walk-ons are owed nothing and are often seen as dispensable parts, complete with training regimens designed to make athletes quit.
But four years into the relentless pursuit of his dream, Wooley couldn’t even fathom quitting.
“Oh, God no,” Wooley said. “Somehow they gave me a shot, and then I just kind of stuck around. I truly believed that they were going to kick me off the team, that they were going to say, ‘You can’t help us, please leave.’ ”
But that loyalty also applied to the cheerleading team, which trains through the first week of April. Wooley had made a commitment to the team and maintained that commitment — no matter the cost.
“He was doing four-a-days, if you think about it,” said cheerleading co-captain Alex Snow. “But he got a whiff of his dream, and I think he loved it. … Being on the team, being a part of Michigan football, that’s all he ever wanted.”
Added St. John: “I could tell he was exhausted, but he was keeping his commitment to our team. I wish I could tap into that (energy). I could use a little bit of it.”
Working out for up to six hours per day for the month of March, Wooley tested the limits of his dream. He not only passed, but won over his new teammates in the process.
“I thought it was cool to see him really push through that month,” said Wormley, who met Wooley while the two lived in North Quad in 2013. “Travis isn’t the most athletically gifted kid when it comes to football, but his heart and determination and passion for Michigan as a whole is something I wish more of our players had.”
Added Chesson: “A lot of guys who are on the scout team are like, ‘Damn, I’m on the scout team’ and have a bad attitude about it. But that was never the case with him, ever.”
Most importantly, he made the dress list for the Spring Game on April 4, 2015. His father, who had grown more ill in the month since Wooley made the team and was using a walker, was able to make it to the game to see his son in uniform for the first time.
Wooley didn’t play, but it didn’t matter — he had made it.
Above all else, his father, who had a bone marrow transplant and had been in the hospital for a month, was able to see his son finally make it. Unable to walk on his own or withstand the cold, he got a box seat.
“He didn’t have to fight the lines,” Shelley joked. “He had blanket after blanket and hat after hat, but he got to see his son down on the sidelines in a Michigan uniform.
“It was really a dream come true.”
Neither John nor Travis Wooley took the moment for granted, and for good reason. John’s condition grew worse, and July 14, 2015, the man who taught Travis about football, enthusiasm and had reignited his dream when he needed it most passed away.
* * *
For the first time, Travis Wooley’s dream was put on hold. After spending half the summer studying abroad at Oxford and the other half grieving his father’s death, he missed fall camp.
The absence eliminated his opportunity to learn the playbook and make it off the scout team, but Wooley wasn’t fazed.
“They told me I wasn’t going to be able to learn the defense or make the full roster, so I decided I was going to be the best tackling dummy on Earth,” Wooley said, “that no matter where they put me, I was going to approach practice as if I could earn a starting spot.”
With his new goal in mind, he hit the ground running at practice. He made the dress list for the Wolverines’ game against UNLV just over a week after being cleared to play again, and once again won over his teammates.
As the season went on, his enthusiasm spread. Though he was listed as a defensive back, Wooley was everywhere during practice.
By mid-season, the entire team had taken notice of his inspired play.
“In the aspect of being one of the most talented guys out there, Wooley was certainly not,” Chesson said. “But to me, one of the biggest things that he brought to the program was that he gave a lot of perspective as to how people should work. His work ethic stood out. How serious he took every rep stood out.
“I didn’t get to watch him in practice much, but the little things he did really stood out.”
Wormley remembers a specific moment when those little things put the whole team in Wooley’s corner for good. As practice becomes monotonous and injuries begin to pile up, it can be easy to loaf through practice. But as Wormley and the first team took some reps off and the scout team took over, Wooley made some uncharacteristic plays at defensive back.
Visibly upset with himself, Wooley responded with even more intensity, tackling senior fullback and team captain Joe Kerridge for a five-yard loss on the next play.
“It kind of took us all by surprise, and I know us guys on the sidelines all started getting hype around him and thinking that he was one of us — that he was really a part of the team,” Wormley said.
Eventually, there even started to be a push to get Wooley on the travel roster. No one put his jersey on Harbaugh’s desk, but the spirit was there. At the annual Football Bust following the regular season where the seniors received their varsity letters, Wooley garnered one of the loudest cheers from his teammates, despite the majority of his teammates not knowing who he was.
“If everyone on our team had his type of mentality, we would be undefeated instantly,” Chesson said. “I’m being serious. To have that type of mentality to be resilient and do what the team needs over yourself no matter what, a lot of people just don’t have it.”
* * *
For all of his spirit, Wooley lacked the experience and talent to be put into the games. In Orlando, with teammates chanting his name and the team up by 35, it looked like he might have a real shot.
But Harbaugh didn’t budge. Competition is competition, and putting in a never-before-used walk-on would detract from the statement win at hand.
In hindsight, that’s the way Wooley liked it. He didn’t battle through years of anonymity for a moment in the sun. He did it because his dream was to make the Michigan football team.
“I sit in the locker room before games and I just stare at the wings,” Wooley said. “I just stare at them and think about all these legends that wore the same wings, and how for the rest of my life, I’m able to say that I’m one of them. That I’m a Michigan man.”
And you can be sure he won’t give that title up.