Ann Arbor is known for college football, but not this kind.
The brand of pigskin they play at Michigan is one of full scholarships and bowl games, of 109,000-seat stadiums and their $226-million renovations.
Ann Arbor’s hidden college football program — the one that calls Concordia University home — is an infant, in relative terms. The school just completed its fourth year of varsity football competition, and the campus it belongs to boasts a very different vibe.
Perched on the western shore of the Huron River, Concordia students are treated to sweeping views of a slow-moving waterway, Midwestern foliage and no hint of urbanism whatsoever every time they walk to class. The football field sits on a former patch of farmland across the street — games are played in the shadows of a red-and-white barn and a pair of accompanying grain silos.
The students haven’t, however, been treated to success on the football field. The Cardinals went 0-11 in their inaugural season, 0-9 the year after, 1-9 in 2013 and 3-8 in 2014.
Unlike Michigan, football players here might work overnight shifts selling croissants and coffee in Ypsilanti to pay the bills. They might find themselves caring for Alzheimer’s patients in the last stages of life in the middle of the night, just hours before they have class and practice and film.
This is Concordia, and things are different in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an athletic association of 255 member schools precluded from NCAA competition by enrollment, budget or simple lack of interest.
At Concordia, along Ann Arbor’s eastern edge, you wouldn’t know that a 40,000-student University is a 10-minute drive away. You wouldn’t even know there’s a highway exit within a mile.
The campus’ centerpiece isn’t a plaza or a football stadium, or even an academic building. It’s a chapel of soaring angled ceilings extending from an ornate band of stained glass, blues and reds fading into a distractingly beautiful backdrop for worship, a choir performance or a nativity scene reenactment at Christmas time.
The school’s tiny size changes things, too. Football players are interwoven into every aspect of campus life. Some coaches teach classes. Head coach Lonnie Pries moonlights as the University’s director of athletics.
But when it comes to moonlighting, Pries’ second job doesn’t hold a candle to those of his players.
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Three times a week, give or take, Mario Hinojosa works an overnight shift at Tim Horton’s along Interstate 94 in Ypsilanti, beginning at 10 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m.
It isn’t the craziest routine in the world, really. Plenty of people work night shifts. It’s just that most of them don’t have class at 8 a.m. the next morning. If they do, they’re probably not taking 18 credits of upper-level college coursework, well over the recommended 15 or 16.
Even fewer have football practice in the afternoon, following class, and they probably don’t have film to watch after practice, either.
Hinojosa also has a student organization to run. A senior criminal justice major, the linebacker and son of a former Detroit police officer is the president of the University’s criminal justice club, which he helped found early this semester. He’s interested in attending the Detroit Police Academy before pursuing a career with the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But the routine is normal for Hinojosa, whose career at Concordia ended Nov. 15 with a 17-6 loss to Robert Morris College. Hinojosa was credited with three tackles in the game, one solo and two assisted, plus 1.5 sacks for a total loss of eight yards.
Now Hinojosa’s attention has shifted from life as a football player to life as a non-athlete. Of course, he needed surgery on his torn anterior cruciate ligament first, and it came just in time. After playing on the torn ACL for a full season, the meniscus in the same knee was wearing thin.
Hinojosa sustained the injury during a pickup basketball game in the spring, an incident that didn’t do much in the way of pleasing his coaches.
“Oh, they were pretty ticked,” Hinojosa said. “I was supposed to get surgery, but my surgeon said, ‘You know what? You can play if you really want to.’ ”
The postseason surgery was successful, but the healing process is far from over. It’ll be at least eight months before Hinojosa is back at full health.
And before jumpstarting his career outside of football, he’ll have the pleasure of taking 21 credits in his final semester. For Hinojosa, sleep is apparently overrated; pain thresholds are overemphasized.
Football, though, is what makes it all worth it.
“Football is the only time I actually feel awake,” Hinojosa said of his nonexistent sleep cycle.
And the leg?
“I suck it up.”
* * *
Three times a week, give or take, Takari Johnson works an overnight shift at the Brookdale Place of Ann Arbor — a live-in community for elderly patients suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease — beginning at 10 p.m. and ending at 6 a.m.
Johnson’s routine, like Hinojosa’s, isn’t inherently ridiculous. It’s just that most people working with elderly Alzheimer’s patients at 4 a.m. don’t have class in five hours, and they don’t plan to attend NFL Regional Combines in the coming months.
The juxtaposition between Johnson’s work and play is striking. Spending so much time in an environment where patients’ deaths are a matter of when, not if, can take a toll.
“I have about 15 residents, and I feel like they’re all a part of my family,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to see someone go, especially when you’ve been working with them for such a long time. They become part of your family.”
One such death took place in the middle of the football season and hit Johnson particularly hard.
“I had a lady who passed away not too long ago,” Johnson said. “She would always give me relationship advice, football advice … a little lady, too. She passed away recently, and that was probably one of the hardest I’ve had since I’ve been working there.”
Emotional or not, Johnson was forced to turn his attention back to football within days. He was the star of Concordia’s defensive unit in 2014, and he recorded 10 tackles in his final game.
Johnson led the entire NAIA in total tackles, sacks and tackles for loss. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed — the Mid-States Football Association named him its Defensive Player of the Year following the regular season.
Johnson was also named NAIA All-American First Team and is a finalist for the Cliff Harris Award, given to the nation’s best small-college defensive player.
The Lansing native hopes that his standout status as an upperclassman means his football playing days aren’t over.
He has at least one more game to play — the NAIA Senior Bowl in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Dec. 20, in which the NAIA squad will face off against the standout seniors from the NCAA’s Division II.
“They say NFL scouts come,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, that’ll be a good chance.”
Johnson isn’t counting out a career north of the border, either.
“Some (Canadian Football League) teams, I guess, have been contacting our coaches,” Johnson said. “So hopefully I’ll try out for a couple of them.”
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Of Johnson and Hinojosa’s original class, the one that will graduate in 2014 after four or more years with the program, less than a quarter remains.
Johnson said “eight to 12” players stuck around from an initial class of close to 40. Some weren’t content to sit through years of losing, some weren’t willing to play for a team without a home field, and others couldn’t hack it in terms of athletics, academics or both.
Those who stuck around helped earn Concordia three wins in 2014. Those wins aren’t much to brag about, but 2014’s senior class achieved milestones that are forever theirs. It was the Cardinals’ first multi-win season. The first road win in program history came in September.
Johnson nearly wasn’t a part of that class — he began his career at Saginaw Valley State, but was cut after spring ball his freshman year and didn’t use up any of his collegiate eligibility.
Things quickly took a turn for the better.
“I came here for a visit, and I loved it,” Johnson said. “Now I’m a Concordia Cardinal.”
For four years — five, in many cases — Hinojosa, Johnson and dozens of teammates, coaches and trainers didn’t sleep. They began with a program based on an empty field next to a barn, sandwiched between two Division I programs that would always dominate recruiting, and more generally, the football landscape in Concordia’s backyard. In the end, they built a college football program.
* * *
Despite everything, Hinojosa manages to get up in the morning and haul his 235-pound linebacker body to class. But getting up isn’t the same as waking up — waking up would imply he went to sleep at some point.
“I wouldn’t wake up,” Hinojosa said. “I mean, I’d take a couple energy drinks and then I have class at 8 a.m.”
Though Hinojosa is clearly a champion at managing his time, he’s remarkably casual about the fact that he’s a full-time college athlete, a full-time college student and close to being a full-time employee. He’s all of these things, and he’s somebody who goes three nights a week without sleep.
“I catch up on Sundays,” Hinojosa said. “I’m just wired all week. That day, I just crash.”
Of course, it’s never that simple.
“On Sundays, we do our injury rehab. That’s pretty much it.”
Hinojosa claims to sleep between 13 and 15 hours on his lone day off, a figure would be higher if it wasn’t for the ACL tear.
The injury requires waking up in time for 2 p.m. rehab sessions, likely the only thing stopping Hinojosa from going for the full 24.
And as if there isn’t enough to distract Hinojosa from the other responsibilities of his day-to-day life, the pain is incredible, and the concern of further injury is ever-present.
“Ibuprofen gets me through it,” Hinojosa said, describing how the torn ACL stressed the meniscus and weakened his entire leg. “The risk for (every other leg injury) is about 100 percent higher.”
But it was senior year, and he wasn’t missing it for anything short of two broken legs, a concussion and a court order to stay away from the football field.
Hinojosa’s coaching staff and teammates are accommodating, at least — there are times when he’ll be excused from a team meeting to get his “couple hours” of sleep, and times when he’s allowed to catch up on film when it’s more convenient for him.
The management at Tim Horton’s is understanding, too.
“It’s football first,” Hinojosa said. “If I call work, they know my situation.”
For Hinojosa, Johnson and every other Concordia player balancing the challenges of work, school and football, “football first” is a mantra. Flexibility from those around them, hard as it may be on teammates, classmates or coworkers, is a given.
* * *
Though Johnson has his sights set firmly on football, he also has a few ideas in mind should a professional career in the sport not pan out.
An education major, Johnson will spend time in the coming semester as a student teacher. His other career interest — firefighting — is a bit more outside the box for an athlete with his academic background.
“My uncle was a fire chief in Lansing,” Johnson said, adding that the stories he heard at family gatherings made him dream of life as a firefighter from an early age.
“If I’m not able to find a job right away, I’m going to go into EMT training,” Johnson said.
He has three careers cooking — as an athlete, as a teacher and as a first responder.
Johnson, too, was often faced with the burden of a full night’s work followed by a full days work. His methods differed, but the end results were largely the same.
“I don’t do Red Bulls,” Johnson said. “I usually take a quick nap and go to class.”
Like Hinojosa, Johnson plans on spending the coming semester on campus, working out in preparation for various combines and tryouts. He has the blessing of being at least relatively healthy.
If all goes well, Johnson could represent a major step in elevating Concordia to some semblance of a regional reach.
Former Cardinals punter Tom Greenwood almost did it following the 2013 season — he made several NFL draft boards after placing 47 kicks inside the 20-yard line his senior season, but his career stalled post-college.
Johnson would be the first Concordia player to advance past the collegiate level. He isn’t holding his breath.
* * *
Whether you’re Takari Johnson, sights set on a career in football, or Mario Hinojosa, sights set on a career fighting crime, the here and now is a constant uphill battle: representing a small Lutheran school playing NAIA football in a town whose college football fans have come to expect Rose Bowls and Heisman Trophies. It’s something Concordia has had to deal with from day one, and has gradually adapted to.
“It’s a great recruiting piece to tell recruits you’re 10 minutes away in either direction from EMU and U of M,” Pries said.
Tough as it is playing small-school football in a big-school town, it’s even tougher when you don’t have a field to play on. For four years, Concordia practiced and played wherever it could, often turning to nearby Huron High School to host its home games.
“We knew what we were getting into as a coaching staff,” Pries said. “We have a very honest recruiting philosophy. You have to be blunt and honest about the current situation you’re in.
“We told recruits what the plans were (for a new stadium),” Pries continued. “We didn’t know exactly when all of it was going to happen, but we knew it was coming.”
Things are different now — prior to the 2014 season, the school finished building Cardinal Stadium, complete with a brand-new artificial playing surface and three sets of modest bleachers, all in the shadow of a red-and-white farmhouse that simply doesn’t seem to belong in Ann Arbor, and certainly doesn’t belong anywhere near Michigan’s campus.
The lack of a venue was the tip of the iceberg in the early going.
“Those first classes — what’s special about them — is that they’ve been told the honest truth,” Pries said. “They came here when we were pretty much on a farm field.”
As for legitimacy?
“Whether you’re playing in front of 110,000 or 1,000 or 2,000, it’s college football,” Pries said. “It’s legitimate college football.”