Twenty-two members from the Michigan football travelled to Newport Beach, Calif. last week for a three-day senior leadership trip.
They saw, heard and experienced plenty of things they never expected.
There were closed-door senior meetings. There was a brutal three-hour workout with Navy SEALs in Coronado, Calif. There was a visit to the Rose Bowl.
And there was Big Will.
Fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs can’t describe the scene without laughing. The seniors were conducting a youth football clinic in Pasedena, Calif.
Kovacs remembers turning to see 6-foot-5, 322-pound lineman Will Campbell bolting down the football field with 35 kids in tow.
“I was thinking, ‘How is he gonna get away from all these kids?’ ” Kovacs said.
Well, he didn’t. One of the youngsters brought Campbell down and the rest dog-piled on top.
But it wasn’t all fun and dog-piles for the Michigan seniors. There was praise and ridicule, relaxation and pain, but it was all for a purpose.
“It was overwhelming,” Kovacs said. “I think a lot of people probably think it was just a senior trip, but that’s not at all what it was. It was a leadership-building trip and it was an opportunity to see the rest of our senior class in a different light and understand their stories and where they’re coming from.
“Not only was it building us for the season, the main thing is it developed us as leaders and improved us as men.”
A business trip
A three-day trip to California sounds more like a vacation than anything else. The players, though, can assure you it was anything but.
Michigan officials told ESPN that the Big Ten had cleared the trip because of its benefits in developing leadership and life skills, which under NCAA rules is permissible. The trip was funded through a special fund in the Michigan Athletic Department’s operating budget.
With one quick look at the itinerary, the seniors of Michigan’s Team 133 knew one thing for certain:
“That this was a business trip,” Kovacs said. “And that’s exactly what it was.”
Michigan strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman joined the seniors for the extent of the trip, with head coach Brady Hoke stopping in briefly on the second day.
There were several senior-only meetings in which players aired their shortcomings, goals and frustrations. The focus was on three questions:
“How have you developed as a leader so far?”
“How have you developed as a man?”
“What do you still need to improve on?”
“A lot of us said, ‘You know, we’ve taken baby steps but we’re still nowhere near where we want to be as leaders on this team,’ ” Kovacs said.
He added: “We’ve been together for four years so we know each other pretty well, but there were some stories that will stay in the room that made me feel like I didn’t know my teammates half as well as I thought I did.”
But that’s all part of the process of building a senior class.
“I think it created a tighter bond for the senior class. You saw guys start to connect a bit – guys who are from completely different backgrounds but realized (they) had a common story,” Kovacs said.
Smelling roses for the first time
On Thursday morning, the seniors boarded a bus and began the hour-long trip to Pasedena to visit the Rose Bowl.
It was an opportunity to visualize for a team that hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl since 2007.
“It was my first time and I was dying to see it,” Kovacs said. “That’s a special place. I understand now why they call it the granddaddy of ‘em all.”
The team took a tour of the locker rooms and stepped inside the bowl to snap pictures.
“It was unreal,” Kovacs said. “I left that place thinking, ‘I’ve gotta be back here in six more months, because I can’t go too long away from this place.
“We’ve had this vision of playing in the Rose Bowl, but this gave us a picture, something tangible to see to make that vision even clearer.”
The group went to a nearby park to conduct the youth coaches camp, splitting up into position groups and rotating the kids through.
“Anytime that you get an opportunity to work with kids, you understand that it’s something they’re going to remember for their lifetime,” Kovacs said. “It’s an opportunity that you have to send a message to them and get to work with them to not only develop them as football players but also as human beings.
“They’re not just watching or listening to what you say as a football player but how you carry yourself as a person as well.”
With the benefit having played EA Sports’ NCAA Football video game, the youngsters correctly identified a handful of Michigan players.
“Oh yeah, well that’s pretty easy,” Kovacs said.
“He got dog-piled.”
“The kids said, ‘Vince Smith … is that No. 2? Is that the running back? Aw, he’s good.’ ” Kovacs said with a laugh. “It was really funny.”
Training with the SEALs
On Friday, the seniors earned a trip to the beach in Coronado. But it was no picnic.
That’s because this beach was at the Naval Amphibious Base just outside San Diego. The Wolverines were there to meet Rob Stella, the SEALs’ chief special warfare operator, who ran their workout.
Stella summed up the workout by explaining a common military motto: Embrace the suck.
That suck was brought on by three hours of log carries, sit-ups, push-ups and grueling team-building exercises.
The seniors were then split up into teams to create a competition atmosphere and Stella would give orders to one person from each team. They would sprint back to explain the drill to their team. The first team to finish wins.
“At times we were doing the complete wrong thing and obviously that’s where communication was a little broken down,” Kovacs said.
The workout emphasized concepts the coaches drill everyday: accountability, toughness and perseverance even through a rough set.
“You were only as strong as your weakest link, really,” Kovacs said. “That really hit me during that trip because I might be cranking out my 15 pushups but if my partner isn’t doing it, then we’re going to start right over.”
“And we did that a lot, I can promise you that. If the guy next to me isn’t carrying the log, I’m going to be feeling the brunt of it.”
There were highs and lows. Some teammates yelled, others helped. The trip was designed that way.
“We showed our true colors in the SEALs workout, whether we liked it or not – a snapshot of who we are,” Kovacs said. “Some of it wasn’t pretty, but some of it was.”
The seniors finished drenched in sweat and covered in sand. They posed for a team picture on the beach and then collapsed once they got back on the bus.
“It wasn’t the most relaxing trip to the beach, but it might have been the most rewarding,” Kovacs said.
“We slept good that night, I promise you that.”
Hoke, whose relationship with the SEALs is well-documented, has worked closely with them as head coach at San Diego State, and he had three SEALs visit before the Nebraska game on Nov. 19.
The SEALs gave three tridents to the team, which stay with the team to this day.
Last week, with the seniors visiting just days before Memorial Day, the Wolverines were quick to point out that they aren’t comparing football to what the SEALs do.
“Coach Wellman the first night told us, ‘What we do is nothing is nothing compared to what they do,’ ” Kovacs said. “If they go out there and lose, they lose men. If we lose, we just lose a game and we’ve got to come back on Sunday and get those corrections.
“But there are some parallels with the training, as there are with many team sports, and we learned how to control ourselves when we’re not comfortable, how to stay mentally strong and how to overcome adversity and how to communicate better.”
Now a week removed from the trip, Kovacs said it has already paid dividends. The seniors met this week to set goals and benchmarks for their final season at Michigan.
“This senior group is tighter than any group I’ve ever been a part of, and I’m excited to see how far we can take it,” Kovacs said.