It was Sept. 18, a half hour or so after the Wolverines’ close victory over FCS opponent Massachusetts, and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was frustrated.
He was frustrated with the game and the close score, his defense and a host of other things. But the problem with his special teams, it was unique.
So Rodriguez made an announcement at the podium — one that many people, on campus and in the building, heard loud and clear.
“Any student out there who’s enrolled at the University and is in good academic standing and a good guy and can kick field goals and can kick the ball into the end zone, we’ll have another tryout for you,” Rodriguez declared. But his message brought more questions than answers.
For Seth Broekhuizen and Brendan Gibbons, both redshirt freshman kickers, it seemed to be a warning.
After Gibbons began the season as the starter, he quickly fell out of favor with the coaching staff. He had made only one of four field goal attempts and even had an extra point blocked. Things just weren’t going his way.
Broekhuizen came in against Notre Dame for the first time to kick the final extra point. Following that point after, Broekhuizen took the starting duties, but he missed his only field goal try.
For two games now, the Wolverines haven’t attempted a field goal. And Rodriguez seems to like it that way.
“It’s nice for me,” Rodriguez said last Monday. “I’d rather score touchdowns. Fortunately for me, we’ve been pretty good in the red zone as far as efficiency, getting touchdowns instead of field goals, and we need to do that.”
But the day will come, Rodriguez knows, where the team will need the kicker to deliver a victory on the end of his foot.
When Rodriguez spoke with the media at his Monday press conference, he began with a grin. A student had stopped him in the parking lot of the Junge Family Champions Center. He told Rodriguez that he had read what the coach said in the paper that day and asked if he could try out for kicker.
Maybe that kid never made it to the practice field. But it made one thing clear, the kicker position, one of the most dramatic and agonizing in all of sports, which for Michigan had been held by the likes of Jay Feely and Hayden Epstein, was wide open.
Troy Clack always thought of himself as more of a wide receiver.
But there was no mistaking that the senior at Swan Valley High School in Saginaw, Michigan was a kicker and a punter — and a pretty good one at that.
In the 2006 regional finals, a night that Clack describes as “mucky and muddy,” Clack lined up for a 43-yard field goal with the game basically on the line. With Swan Valley trailing by just one point, a comeback would seem plausible, but the weather had kept the Vikings out of the end zone for much of the day. This was it.
He lined up and put it straight through the uprights to secure the win. Later that season, he was named second team All-State at the kicker position and offered a full ride to local college Saginaw Valley State.
He turned it down. Instead, he opted to go to Michigan, his mother’s alma mater.
“I had kind of abandoned the prospects of playing football,” Clack says. “I came here to be part of the college experience, do straight academics. Michigan was always the school I wanted to go to.”
It was hard to ignore Rodriguez’s first announcement in 2008, though. Rodriguez, having been a walk-on himself at West Virginia, relishes the walk-on program. At Michigan it turned out players like Jordan Kovacs, who has started for the last two years and Kevin Leach, who gets significant playing time at linebacker. Now, there would be a campus-wide tryout in Rodriguez’s first spring with the team.
So Clack decided he would do it. It would at least be a good story to tell, he figured.
Among the masses who turned out for the tryout, Clack says 18 came to try out for the Wolverines’ open kicker spot. The practice began, and after kicking a few balls to get warmed up along with the other kickers, Clack unloaded and nearly made a 55-yard field goal. But it hit the crossbar.
Rodriguez noticed the extraordinarly long kick and approached the young kicker. “Almost had it, son,” he told Clack, who still glows when he tells the story.
He didn’t make the team that year though, and the next year he was forced to miss tryouts because of a previously planned ski trip with a few of his friends. In the spring of 2010, however, the junior made a call to Brad Labadie, who at that time was the director of football operations. Labadie had known Clack’s high school coach and got him a tryout: that Thursday at 5:30.
Clack showed up for practice early that day. He parted through the chaotic gathering of monstrous athletes, where he says he “stuck out like a sore thumb,” and he began the tryout, with just him and another guy.
He kicked four balls in kickoff format to show Rodriguez that he had potential, with the first three landing around the 10- or five-yard-line. But he really wanted to bury one in the back of the end zone, so he asked the coach for permission to get one more chance.
His next kick went just how he had planned. After the boot, Rodriguez walked over to him.
“He said, ‘We’re going to keep you around for two weeks, kind of test you out, like a trial period.’
“Obviously, I was on cloud nine. I was in the door.”
With football practice consuming his life, Clack dropped one of his engineering classes and tried to work around his mandatory three-hour labs.
But he speaks fondly of his first days with the team — getting his helmet fitted, being handed his jersey and seeing his name on a locker next to freshman running back Stephen Hopkins.
“You’re like the new guy at school,” Clack says when asked about those first days. “It’s definitely an interesting transition from being a normal kid, going along on campus, to being a varsity athlete. You meet all these guys who you read about and see on ESPN. All of a sudden, those guys, the Tates and the Denards, you’re eating next to them.”
He was surprised about one thing he noticed in that first week though. The team, Clack says, doesn’t have a coach who knows the nuts and bolts of kicking techniques, or one who knows what to look for when his players kick in practice.
So the specialists, at times, end up coaching themselves, he says.
“When you have kickers that are doing their own thing at practice, it’s great because we can self-coach and coach each other,” Clack says. “But that can only take you so far. I didn’t have a kicking coach in high school either, but you come to a big school, you think you’re going to have some sort of coach that knows how to kick and will give you a few pointers.”
Even Zoltan Mesko, a former Michigan punter and now in his rookie year with the New England Patriots, taught him a thing or too about the science of punting and kicking. Clack says he never saw the same from special teams and secondary coach Tony Gibson.
Rodriguez says that lack of a kicking coach with specific expertise on staff is not that uncommon though, “at any level of football.”
“Coach Gibson and I certainly aren’t going to be the experts as far as kicking expertise is concerned,” Rodriguez said in his teleconference Wednesday. “A lot of our (coaches) have experience. When you coach some years at the college level, all of us have dealt with the guys in some respects. But just to be a pure ‘kicking coach,’ I don’t know.”
Clack felt like he was on his way to impressing his coaches, until a quad problem began to nag in practice, an injury he thinks he sustained in the first tryout. The injury limited him at times, giving the other kickers more opportunities to show their potential.
“They saw that I had potential,” Clack says. “But I wasn’t able to bring it on a consistent basis because of this plaguing quad injury. I’d kick a few, and I’d just have to stop. It felt like someone was taking a knife and stabbing it in the middle of my leg.”
But he was able to play through the injury and remained neck-and-neck with fellow walk-ons Jake Matelic and Curtis Beachum. All three were invited to the spring game.
“Finding out I was going to dress for the spring game, that was the culmination of this whole process,” he says.
The Wolverines still had no clear No. 1 kicker. Gibbons, Michigan’s scholarship kicker, seemed to have a slight edge. Broekhuizen was a relative unknown at the time, and Justin Meram, a forward on the men’s soccer team even held the starting job at one point, according to Clack.
The door was wide open, and Clack was ready to walk straight through it.
He knew he probably wouldn’t kick during the game, but he still held out hoping that out of some off-chance his journey could come full circle. He talks about how cool it felt to sign autographs for kids, even if they didn’t know his name, and about the photos he wishes his mom would have taken of his banner jump. “I got high up,” he jokes.
But Clack never got into the game.
Afterward, he knew that the team’s spring meetings were coming. It was then, in Gibson’s office, when he and the rest of the kickers would find out if they indeed were going to be Michigan Wolverines.
Clack didn’t have a good feeling about this.
After he missed a practice during the week leading up to the spring game for a mandatory exam, Matelic had taken a slight lead among the walk-on kickers, but Clack took it in stride.
“That Thursday (before the spring game) was my opportunity to beat him out. I knew they were going to give it to Jake (Matelic). But I loved that kid. If anyone was going to get it, I wanted him to.”
So Clack, along with the rest of the kickers, all convened at Schembechler Hall that Monday, waiting to hear their fortunes. Nervously, he set up a meeting with Gibson, and soon after, he was sitting in his office, across from the coach who held his football fate in his hands.
Gibson started by telling Clack how much the coaches loved his power, which was competitive with the rest of the team’s kicking prospects. He had potential, Gibson told him, and it was too bad he had hurt his quad early on, they really wanted him on the team.
“Where do I stand here?” Clack asked his coach.
“Well, if we were going to cut you,” Clack recalls Gibson saying, “We would’ve done it by now. We really want you to be on the team.”
His spirits lifted.
“But we have these number caps. You can only have so many people going to practices and workouts during the summer. You’re not going to be able to participate in those.”
And then crashed.
He was off the team, but according to Clack, Gibson said he should expect a call at the end of the summer for a re-evaluation. He still had a chance, but now he was conflicted.
“I was trying to figure out what the hell to do,” Clack says. “I have to work out, I have to kick, but at the same time, I should be doing an internship. I really should be focusing on my career, but I decided to live this dream of football. I had to give stuff up. It’s an investment. It’s a real time investment. It’s not something to be taken lightly. I thought I was committing to something that sounded attainable.”
His dream was looking further and further away. And over the course of the summer, he began to lose contact with the coaches. They didn’t return any e-mails or phone calls, he said, and it became clear to him that this might be a sign.
“They forgot about me,” he says.
Clack finally got ahold of the team in September and scheduled a tryout for the week before the Massachusetts game.
So in the week before Rodriguez’s comments following the Massachusetts game, soon after Gibbons’s rough outing against Notre Dame, Clack made his way back to the field. Could someone really walk on and become Michigan’s kicker? He had watched the Wolverines struggle in their first two games. He thought he could do it, and a private tryout was the perfect way to show the coaches he should have been there all along.
But it wasn’t a private tryout. The tryout was public, campus-wide, and Clack stood in front of a host of new wannabe kickers.
Clack let the emotions get to him. And when the coaches called over the preferred players to kick extra field goals, Clack wasn’t one of them. He ran over to Rodriguez and asked for a chance. The coach remembered him and gave him an extra shot, but it wouldn’t be enough.
“So here I am, a guy that was legitimately on the team from March till the end of April, they all knew me by first and last name. They called me ‘Click, Clack,’ as a nickname. These guys knew who I was, they knew my face, they knew I was a good guy.”
“They didn’t even call me. I had to show up at the front door of Schembechler Hall, and there was a list of the people being asked to come back. It was like high school.”
Needless to say, Clack’s name wasn’t on the list. And a few days later, he saw Rodriguez’s call for kickers.
When Clack read the quote on his friend’s Blackberry that night, he shook his head. Was it even possible to walk on and be the guy? He didn’t know, and he probably never would.
Today, he’s back in the swing of being a normal student. Last week, he spent time at engineering career fairs, which he says would have never been a possibility if he were on the football team.
“It was kind of like chasing a dream,” Clack says. “I dreamed my whole life of playing for the Michigan Wolverines. But at the end of the day, I’m here for school. But you know, I wouldn’t trade that moment: the spring game, the players, being on the team, I wouldn’t trade that for the world … All things come to an end I guess. At the end of the day… maybe this happened for a reason.”
Clack would be one of many to try for that revolving door at the kicker position.
Mark Rulkowski, a trombonist in the marching band, spent all his high school days playing soccer and only started kicking footballs during the band’s touch football league. He tried out at Clack’s most recent tryout and didn’t make the cut.
Adam Mael, a senior from Potomac, Maryland and another prospective kicker, was pretty sure he’d never make the team, but that didn’t stop him from trying out at every tryout since Rodriguez’s first in the spring of Mael’s freshman year. They were all faces in a fairly large crowd now, ordinary guys with an extraordinary experience.
Mael’s efforts were rewarded when Rodriguez approached him at the team’s most recent tryout. The coach told him that he had “seen (him) around here before” and that his “leg is definitely getting stronger.”
“It’s been one of if not the best experience I’ve had in my four years here,” Mael said. “It’s an opportunity to be a part of Michigan football … how could you possibly pass that up?”
For Mael and Rulkowski, it was about a love for the game, for the art of kicking and for Michigan football that kept them coming back.
For Clack, it was those moments: touching the banner, kicking in front of his friends at the spring game, that made everything worth it, despite the heartbreaking finale.
Broekhuizen may very well kick the rest of the season, and the Wolverines will surely need someone as Big Ten season gets into full swing.
“There’s going to come a point in time where we have to make field goals,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s probably going to come down to a game or two where we have to make one to win it.”
But until then, walk-ons like Jake Matelic, who made the final roster, wait for their shot at kicking inside the Big House.
“You’d think that if ever there was a time to get on the team, it’s right now,” Clack says. “But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
“But I gave it hell, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”