When Ryan Van Bergen played football at Whitehall High School, most of the stories written about him were very positive. But, when one particular story discussed how the current Michigan defensive lineman was undeserving of an award, that’s the clipping that made the refrigerator at home.
Van Bergen’s mom, Toni, started defending her son at an early age. She would bring his birth certificate to his football games. He started playing when he was eight or nine years old, but he was always bigger than the other kids. Other mothers protested.
As he’s grown up, Toni’s tough love has been a constant motivation for Van Bergen. Toni will see a small line in an article that’s negative about Van Bergen’s play, she’ll highlight it and e-mail it to him. The message is understood by now: keep your head on right, and prove the doubters wrong.
“She tries to do her best to motivate me,” Van Bergen said. “I’m her baby, so she’s gotta do something. She’s like, ‘You gotta do something, this is what they said about you.’ I love her to death, but she’s a good motivator. She sends me stuff all the time.”
Van Bergen reads every single one. He knows that when he calls home it will come up in conversation — often about once every other day.
After last Saturday’s 30-10 win over Connecticut, the lessons that Toni had taught her son could apply to the entire Michigan football team.
“The whole coaching staff is emphasizing to stay hungry,” Van Bergen said. “Last year, we started out 4-0, everybody was very excited about our season, then things started to head south. So staying hungry and staying motivated is something our team is going to preach all year — just to continue to try and prove critics wrong.”
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez isn’t getting too high after the season-opening win. At Monday’s press conference, he noted several areas where he felt the team could have done better in the 20-point win. Even with the outside world spinning throughout a summer of NCAA allegations and then a week one win, internally the Wolverines are calm and steady — so Rodriguez says.
“You’re just one bad day away from everybody else saying what they were saying about you last week,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like poison — it’s okay as long as you don’t swallow it. They won’t be swallowing it, because they know it’s still out there.”
As for Van Bergen’s effort in the win, Toni might not have a lot of ammunition to motivate her son. He finished with four tackles. He made the less-than-glamorous plays that won’t show up on the stat sheet, but are vital for any team.
The redshirt junior is now in his second year as a starter on defense, but Van Bergen switched positions in the offseason. Last year, he played as the three-technique defensive tackle and now he’s playing defensive end — filling Brandon Graham’s void after he graduated and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Before Graham left, Van Bergen looked to him in different situations to learn what to do and how to grow from his experience. But now, Van Bergen is one of the defense’s mentors and he’s the one handing out pointers.
“I think it’s something that hopefully, Me, Mike (Martin) and Craig (Roh) can use to rub off on some of the guys who haven’t had that experience, and be able to bring them through it,” Van Bergen said of his experience. “Because you don’t want anybody out there who isn’t getting help who needs it.”
Already, after just one week, Van Bergen and Martin have already stamped their play on defense. With the Huskies’ running game pushing to the outside, the duo had to routinely get off blocks and make tackles down the field. With a three-man front on defense, Van Bergen said that the Huskies shifted their protection to his and Martin’s side — freeing up Roh for one-on-one opportunities to beat a blocker and make plays in the backfield.
“We kinda gave him a gift in that way,” Van Bergen said. “But he did really well with it. And if he’s going to keep doing things like he’s doing, we’ll take the bullets.”
Roh finished with five tackles, two of which were for a loss. Martin had two tackles and shared a tackle for a loss.
The Wolverines’ ability to tackle and get pressure on the quarterback — even without Graham — could be a lifesaver for the defense: protect a young secondary and have your experienced players carry the load.
Van Bergen’s not worried about letting up this year. He said the gas pedal was still hitting the floor, even when Michigan was up big on Saturday. Toni would probably like it that way.
And despite her motivational tactics thus far, she doesn’t send the clips to her son’s teammates — at least not just yet.
“If they wanted it, my mom would probably get their e-mails and forward it,” Van Bergen said.
“Gotta love a mom.”