Michigan football seniors get lesson in leadership with Navy SEALs
Jordan Kovacs knew the moment things changed on Michigan football’s leadership trip last week.
After two days of travel, meetings, running a youth clinic and a Rose Bowl visit, the Wolverines’ final day in southern California began with a bus ride to Coronado Beach outside San Diego to match the physical skills to their mental skills with the Navy SEALs.
“We got there probably about 9 a.m.,” the senior safety said. “When they got us off the bus, we get in three different lines, they jogged us over this hill of sand and along the beach, and we’re still holding our bags. Some of us have shirts and hats, and guys are dropping their iPods. We were not expecting this. He was just winding us around the beach — he wasn’t taking the most efficient route on purpose.
“We finally got to the classroom, looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, shoot, this is going to be a long one.’ “
For an hour of prep, then 3 more on the ground, in the sand and in every combination of the two, they realized an entirely new level of “long.”
The first indication came in February that there may be a spring leadership trip for the senior class, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the final stamp of approval arrived.
The 22 senior Wolverines were headed to California to learn, grow and unify concluding the leadership class coach Brady Hoke and strength coach Aaron Wellman began with them in January. What started with Wednesday meetings after arriving continued into the arduous physical test the Navy SEALs put the Wolverines through Friday.
“It was a great culmination for them to be with some guys who understand mental toughness, who understand pressure and being there Memorial Day weekend was really special,” said Hoke, who took the Wolverines to the San Diego area to enhance the connection he and Wellman built with the SEALs when they were coaching at San Diego State.
Hoke couldn’t watch the SEALs work out with the seniors because of NCAA off-season rules, so he spent the time inside a nearby building, getting to hear about it from the players after they emerged exhausted.
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Though these players have been through the workout ringer with Wellman and previous strength coach Mike Barwis, this was a different approach with a different voice.
“It’s different because it was more team-oriented,” Kovacs said. “The main thing I learned throughout this experience is you’re only as strong as your weakest link. I’m only doing as many push-ups as the weakest link can and, if he’s not doing them right, we’re starting over.”
That happened “more than a couple times” and Kovacs recounted that “it hurt, it burned, and you just realized it’s going to take mental toughness and I learned not to be selfish. At times when you start hurting, you think about yourself, getting yourself through the reps. But you’ve got to look around and everybody’s hurting. How am I going to pick these guys up?”
Enduring through the standard fare — push-ups, pull-ups, rope climbing, log lifting — was its own challenge.
The one that resonated with Kovacs, though, was the bear crawl up a hill of sand with a partner hanging off his back. Add that the sand felt like quicksand and the added dimension of being as part of a six-man team — three smaller players and three big men — and the competitive instincts flowed.
Yet the lesson was about teamwork, setting small markers as goals, then strategizing together. At first Kovacs and fellow defensive back Floyd Simmons took off as a pair, only to quickly realize they and quarterback Jack Kennedy needed to split up with a big man each, allowing Craig Roh, Patrick Omameh and Ricky Barnum to take each of them to distribute the load.
Since they’ve returned to Ann Arbor and their regular off-season work, they’ve had time to reflect.
They appreciated what they went through and the senior-only meetings without coaches have taken a unique turn.
“On the trip we talked about where do we want this team to go, what are our goals?” Kovacs said. “Then the meeting (after) went really well. Guys are opening up and communicating much better. Before you had 22 guys who think they’re all leaders.”
Now there are more accepted roles with vocal players steering the ship and the rest finding their niches.
This trip served its purpose as the players bonded in a way only this three-day experience could.
But there was something else.
“More importantly, my life is going to be different,” Kovacs said. “I think this developed me as a man outside of football. … As in life, it’s not just about yourself. It’s about others and helping them get through what they’re going through as well.”
Contact Mark Snyder: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @freepwolverines.
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