ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) - Jordan Kovacs was stuck in the stands as a fan at Michigan Stadium as a freshman, stewing about having his dream delayed by a lingering knee problem.
"It ate at me because I knew I was so close to making it on the team," Kovacs recalled recently in an interview with The Associated Press. "It made me hungrier."
Four years later, Kovacs will start the 45th game of his storybook career Saturday when the 20th-ranked Wolverines travel to his home state to play No. 4 Ohio State.
"I'm still pinching myself," Kovacs told The AP. "It's quite a story and it's been quite the ride, but I don't want it to end and thankfully the story isn't over yet."
He grew up in Curtice, Ohio, about 15 miles southeast of the Michigan state line, hoping to follow his father's footsteps onto the field at the Big House.
College football's winningest program, though, didn't recruit him. Smaller schools such as Hillsdale, a Division II program in Michigan, didn't even want to offer the undersized safety without blazing speed a scholarship.
Kovacs sent in an application to attend Michigan and his father sent a highlight tape to Schembechler Hall, where Rich Rodriguez was getting ready for his first season as coach, and was put on a waiting list by the school's admissions office.
In June of 2008, running out of time to find a place to take classes and play football, Kovacs accepted an offer to be a preferred walk-on at Toledo. Remarkably on the very same day, then-Michigan director of football operations Brad Labadie called his father to say his son could get into the school and would have a shot to try out for a spot on the team.
"Jordan's tape didn't make him a slam-dunk to be on the team, but what helped him was it was obvious that his dream was to play at Michigan when he called or emailed me," Labadie, who now works in the insurance business, said Tuesday night. "With walk-ons, we'd ask the question internally, 'Does the kid or the dad want this?' And without a doubt, Jordan wanted it as much as much as any walk-on ever at Michigan."
Kovacs then went through walk-on tryouts and earned a spot on the team.
Another obstacle, though, turned his dream into a nightmare.
Kovacs told Michigan's head athletic trainer, Paul Schmidt, who he knew as a kid, that he was still having problems with his surgically repaired left knee and that knocked him off the roster.
"He let me walk out the back door because he could tell how upset I was," Kovacs recalled. "That was probably the most disappointing moment of my life because I reached my ultimate goal, my dream, and it was taken away from me just like that because I was honest about my knee."
Kovacs walked back to his dorm, tears rolling down his cheeks, and called his parents to schedule another surgery on his knee in the hopes of getting healthy enough for another tryout the following spring.
When he and his mother showed up for the appointment in October of 2008, they were told that he wasn't scheduled for surgery, but she wouldn't take no for an answer and the procedure was done that day.
"So many weird things like that happened along the way," Kovacs said.
Kovacs made it through tryouts a second time in 2009 - and passed his physical - and quickly went from backup to key contributor that fall when safety Mike Williams left a game against Notre Dame.
"I remember standing on the sideline right next to him, he grabbed his helmet and had that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face," senior center Elliott Mealer recalled this week. "You were kind of like, 'Geez, I don't know how this guy is going to take this.' But he went out there and he hasn't looked back since."
Kovacs ended up starting eight games as a freshman and has stayed on the field as a starter - earning All-Big Ten honorable mention recognition as a sophomore and junior - and earned the honor of being voted as a captain this season.
Lou Kovacs said he played only in "mop-up duty" from 1980-82 for Bo Schembechler at Michigan and is beyond proud of what his son has been able to accomplish at the same storied program three decades later.
He took his son to Ohio State for a few games against Michigan when he was a kid and will be in the stands at the Horseshoe with mixed emotions as he watches his him play the Buckeyes in his last regular-season game.
"Jordan had a great career, but it's a little sad that it's coming to an end," Lou Kovcas said Tuesday. "He's a determined young man - and always has been - and has been very focused on reaching his dream. And the attributes that helped him do it, will serve him well for the rest of his life."
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