Andrew Vastardis was out with friends when he got the call from his parents.
“You need to come home right now.”
Vastardis, then a senior at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va., knew something was up. It was January, and he’d been verbally committed to Old Dominion since mid-June. His offer list was decent enough, mostly consisting of FCS and smaller FBS schools like Delaware and Air Force. He’d expressed some interest and taken unofficial visits to some larger schools like Maryland and Virginia Tech, but his meager 2-star rating meant the scholarship offers just weren’t coming in.
When he arrived home, Andrew’s parents explained the situation. Jim Harbaugh — fresh off 10 wins in his first season as Michigan’s head coach — had just called. Andrew needed to call back right away.
Harbaugh was quick with his reason: He wanted Vastardis in Ann Arbor, but didn’t have a scholarship to offer him.
Just weeks before National Signing Day, Vastardis had a choice: should he stick with Old Dominion, where he’d have a full-ride scholarship and almost certainly see the field within his first few seasons, or bet on himself and take a preferred walk-on offer at Michigan, sight unseen?
On Jan. 26, he made his decision.
“I had always had a love for Michigan,” Vastardis told The Daily in a phone interview. “My family’s from up here, my uncle played here way back when and I was always a fan growing up. When I got the offer to come here as a walk-on, it was just one of those things that I would always look back on if I hadn’t done it and thought, ‘what if?’ So I made the switch a couple days after.”
At the time, Vastardis’s commitment hardly made a blip on the Wolverines’ radar. By the end of Signing Day, Harbaugh’s first recruiting class was eighth-best in college football, led by blue-chip recruits like defensive lineman Rashan Gary — the No. 1 recruit in the country — sixth-ranked quarterback Brandon Peters, cornerbacks David Long and Lavert Hill, linebacker Devin Bush and No. 4 running back Kareem Walker. Even some of the lower-ranked players would go on to have impressive careers (you may have heard of defensive end Josh Uche and linebacker Khaleke Hudson).
A preferred walk-on offensive lineman? Not particularly exciting.
Vastardis arrived in Ann Arbor as a 2-star freshman on a team that would end up on the cusp of a College Football Playoff. Anytime he forgot that, it didn’t take long for a gentle reminder to come from Michigan’s defense.
In the early Harbaugh and Don Brown years, the Wolverines assembled some of the toughest defenses in college football. 2016’s unit — which graded out as second-best nationally, behind national runner-up Alabama — was the best of them all. All four starters on the defensive line (Chris Wormley, Maurice Hurst, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton) went on to have NFL careers, as did two of the backups on the edge (Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary).
Every day in practice, Vastardis had to line up with the scout team against that defensive front.
“The tempo going from high school to college — it’s night and day,” Vastardis said. “Completely different. And you know that going in, but until you start, you really don’t understand it. Like, you accept it, but once it happens then you’re just like, okay, it’s more than you thought.”
For those first few months, it was pure punishment. Less than a year prior, Vastardis had been gearing up to take on Conference USA defensive linemen. He would spend a year or two on the bench, then almost certainly take on a starting role within a few seasons
Instead, he spent every day taking hits from Maurice Hurst, with no guarantee of playing time. Over time, though, the personal wins started to come.
“Starting then, it’s just the little victories, and then they keep stacking up,” Vastardis said. “You begin to feel more comfortable in doing what the coaches are telling you technique-wise and assignment-wise, and then you keep stacking the good things together until you become consistent.”
Slowly but surely, life became easier for Vastardis. The benefits of a Division I weight program started to take shape, and the impossibly huge men who’d been blowing him off the ball started to face some pushback. Near the end of his sophomore season, he began to see a path toward playing time.
Soon enough, his coaches would notice it, too.
Once again, after his junior year, Vastardis received a call from Harbaugh.
Michigan’s 2018 season — his first seeing significant playing time as a backup center — had just finished with a pair of crushing losses to Ohio State and Florida. This time around, Vastardis had heard the rumblings around the locker room. He had a good idea what the call was about.
That didn’t make the conversation that followed any less memorable.
“Coach (Harbaugh) basically called me into his office and was like, ‘Hey, we have a few (scholarships) for this semester,’ ” Vastardis said. “And then he said, ‘We’re gonna give it to you, just because of your work ethic, how you lead the scout team, all that.’ I was driven to tears. I felt very blessed, called my parents right after. It was a great moment.”
That wasn’t the end of it. Harbaugh told him that, to keep his scholarship entering the next season, he would have to earn it in fall camp.
This time though, there was even less doubt. When Harbaugh made the announcement to the team at the end of camp, his teammates hounded him. The tears flowed again.
That gamble from when he decommitted from Old Dominion had paid off.
Growing up, Vastardis wasn’t a particularly vocal player.
Playing at Stone Bridge, he’d earned himself somewhat of a reputation: quiet, studious, polite and hardworking.
“He kept to himself in high school,” Mickey Thompson, his high school coach, told The Daily in a phone interview. “I think he’s become a much better leader at Michigan than he was in high school. In high school, I wouldn’t call him a leader. I would say that he had a great deal of respect among the team because of his play. He led because of that.”
He could also hit. Really hard. At Stone Bridge, he earned first-team All-State honors two different times. The single-wing offense favored by Thompson gave Vastardis plenty of opportunities to trap — essentially, pull around the line and hit defenders in space, as opposed to just blocking the player in front of him — and he took advantage of every single one.
“He would be first one in the weight room, last one to leave,” Thompson said. “He did all the hard stuff. He did all the squat work, the core work. … Other people would just bench and get out of there.
“He was really a different breed when it came to his discipline.”
In that regard, it’s easy to see those first three years at Michigan, from the slow progress as a walk-on to his eventual role as a backup offensive lineman on scholarship, as an extension of his time in high school. Every step along the way, coaches saw the way he worked — the extra hours in the weight room, the attention to his diet and the undying willingness to take more hits — and rewarded him for it.
What came next, though, nobody saw coming.
After those first few seasons with the Wolverines, Vastardis started to take on a new personality. He brought energy to practice. He told dad jokes. He went out of his way to mentor younger players. By the time he earned his first career start last season against Minnesota, he wasn’t the quiet, studious person he was when he arrived.
He was, effectively, the team dad.
“We call him Gramps,” junior offensive lineman Trevor Keegan said Aug. 31. “He’s got all the energy in the world. He loves the game more than anybody, and he shows it. He works his tail off, and he’s really a true leader on this team.”
With that change — and considering he’s now in his sixth year at Michigan — it should’ve come as no surprise when, at the end of fall camp, “Gramps” was selected by his teammates as one of the Wolverines’ four captains. Nor should it have come as a surprise when, after his performance against Western Michigan in Week 1, he was named to Pro Football Focus’s national team of the week.
At this point, Vastardis doesn’t surprise people anymore. It’s just who he is.
Ever since high school biology, Vastardis knew he wanted to study medicine. It was why he committed to Old Dominion in the first place.
“I thought he had some higher offers coming, but he wanted to commit to ODU at that point,” Thompson said. “Because he went down there, and he got a chance to meet with the medical people, and they had a great program, and it was all going to be a great opportunity for him to (become a doctor).”
At Michigan, Vastardis had those same opportunities. After exploring some other classes early in his freshman year, he found that, when his playing days finally came to an end, medicine was the right path forward for him.
Just as it does for every athlete, that day is coming soon for Vastardis. It’s been almost two years since he graduated with a degree in Movement Science, and by the end of this school year, he’ll have his Master’s in Physiology. His first MCAT score is already in.
Much like that day when Harbaugh called his house to offer him a preferred walk-on spot, Vastardis isn’t sure where his path will lead him next. Unsurprisingly, Michigan is at the top of his list of preferred medical schools, but he’s still breaking down his options to make sure he finds the best fit.
“I’m going into it with an open mind,” Vastardis said. “I want to try a bunch of things. Who knows, I might not know what I want to do yet … but I would say sports medicine is definitely the (field) I’m most interested in going into.”
Going into the future, Vastardis is betting on himself.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.