There was a simple reason why Tom Kowalkoski decided to enroll at Ann Arbor Richard when he began high school.
“I wanted to play three sports my freshman year,” he said. “My freshman year was my first year of playing football, and to be honest with you, I wasn’t even sure I was going to like it.”
Before that, he mostly was a hockey player — and at 6-feet-4, you can imagine the intimidating figure opponents faced when they headed into his zone.
“I was probably 6-feet-6 on skates,” he said. “It was easy, but I was so tall, whenever I hit someone, I’d get called for a check to the head. It was a double-edged sword.”
Kowalkoski also played lacrosse, but he was hoping he might like playing football more than hockey.
“I didn’t think I was going to get any better in hockey,” he said. “And I have a football pedigree in my family.”
Not only did his father, Steve, play at the Naval Academy, his grandfather, Ben Pederson, played at Michigan in the early 1950s and his uncle, Chip Pederson, played there for Bo Schembechler. His cousin, Scott Kowalkowski, played at Notre Dame and for the Lions, and Scott’s father, Bob, also played for the Lions.
A football pedigree doesn’t guarantee a football passion required to reach the same level his relatives reached, but all it took was one season on the gridiron and Kowalkoski was sold.
“I loved it,” he said. “It was just so much different. You could hit guys and wouldn’t get penalized for it.”
After his sophomore season, Kowalkoski realized that with his size and natural strength he could have a shot at playing college football, so that January he transferred to Novi Detroit Catholic Central.
When he arrived at CC, Kowalkoski was 6-4, 235. He is now 6-4, 282 and a dominant two-way tackle who has helped CC reach tonight’s Division 1 regional championship game at Romeo.
Kowalkoski has improved so much the past two seasons that he has committed to play at Boston College, even though he barely registers with some recruiting services.
But there was an initial shock factor when Kowalkoski joined the Shamrocks and began playing in the Catholic League’s Central Division.
“The first year was a great learning experience for him,” CC coach Tom Mach said. “You could see that he wasn’t used to going up against guys that could be just as good or better than he is.”
Mach was encouraged that Kowalkoski could become an overwhelming force on offense and defense, in part because of what the youngster gained from playing hockey.
“The first thing that impressed us was what he could do with his feet,” Mach said. “He can run, he’s got great agility. At first he didn’t understand the physicality of the Central Division. The teams that he played against before probably weren’t as strong.”
Another benefit from growing up a hockey player was that he was around Chris Terry, now of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Rickard Rakell, now of the Anaheim Ducks, when they lived with the Kowalkoski family as members of the Plymouth Whalers.
“He was around kids, who at a young age were on that NHL track,” said his father. “He saw how they trained, he saw how they ate. He saw how they practiced. When you’re 9, 10 or 11, that kind of rubs off on you.”
Kowalkoski realized he needed to increase his strength, and that is where CC strength coach Guy Monarch came in. Kowalkoski wasn’t weak, but he nearly took up residence in the CC weight room.
“He’s a hard worker, and he’s really, really coachable,” Monarch said. “He ate this up. When he started learning stuff, he wanted more and more and more. During the off-season, we work out here four days a week and then he comes and sees me at the Powerhouse gym in Novi. We do technique work and footwork and more strength stuff.”
In his time at CC, Kowalkoski has increased his bench press from 225 pounds to 500 pounds and has gone from squatting 275 pounds to 525.
But Monarch did more than make him stronger. He improved Kowalkoski’s lifting technique, making him more appealing to college coaches, who film prospects lifting in the CC weight room.
“College coaches like to classify linemen as waist-benders or hip-benders,” Monarch said. “He was a waist-bender, and I made him into a hip-bender. College coaches like it when they bend from their hips when they lift. If you’re a waist-bender, you lack power.”
Power no longer is a problem for Kowalkoski, and he attributes much of that to the countless hours he spent in the CC weight room.
“I enjoy the weight room; it’s where you get a lot stronger,” he said. “It’s where all the work is put in and you can see it on the field on game day. Coach Monarch has us do a lot of power lift, power cleans, hand cleans, and that translates into your explosiveness on the field.”
If you saw CC run for 497 yards in last week’s 49-35 district championship victory over Novi, you understand all about Kowalkoski’s explosion.
The interesting aspect to Kowalkoski’s recruiting experience is that he did not attend a single combine, which are in vogue today. People who run these combines sell gullible parents that this is the only way for their kid to gain exposure to college coaches.
And those combines aren’t free.
“It’s just a cash grab, really,” Kowalkoski said. “All the coaches recruiting me said they don’t need an analyst from Rivals to tell them who the top recruits in the state are. They have the guys they want, and they know who they’re looking at. They don’t pay attention to that.”
At the Naval Academy, Kowalkoski’s father played for Bobby Morrison, who later was a longtime assistant coach at Michigan and now lives in Plymouth, near the family.
“Bobby would tell me that we needed to get focused on Tom getting bigger and stronger,” said his father. “He said Michigan and big schools don’t need Scout or 24/7 or any of those guys telling them who the good players are. They know who they are.
“He also said if you can play, they will find you.”
Rivals has Kowalkoski rated a two-star recruit, one of only two or three two-star players from the state committed to a school from a Power Five conference.
When you consider J.J. Watt, Le’Veon Bell, Russell Wilson, Connor Barwin and Joe Staley are only a few of the numerous former two-star recruits to wind up in the NFL, you understand why Kowalkoski never has been concerned about the ratings or the number of stars assigned to his name.
“I didn’t go to any of their camps, so I guess it’s all kind of a game — if you go to their camps they’ll give you three stars,” he said. “I don’t really know how it works. It doesn’t bother me.”
Besides, earning stars or even a college scholarship are not why Kowalkoski chose to play football.
“It’s a man’s game,” he said. “It’s a test of who’s better, a test of wills. It’s tough, and I like that. You don’t see the Packers wearing long-sleeve shirts when it’s negative 20 degrees at Lambeau Field.”
Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.