Six Friends, Five Years, One Last Chance: How Patrick Kugler Became Michigan’s Man in the Middle

Submitted by Adam Schnepp on November 17th, 2017 at 2:07 PM

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[Upchurch]

We’re standing in the shadows to the side of the sun-soaked center of Schembechler Hall. Henry Poggi’s eyes drift over my shoulder and narrow in an unnerving manner if you are the object of attention of a 257-pound man with a penchant for Stone Cold Steve Austin t-shirts. “Look at him,” Poggi says. “He’s so sassy. That sassy walk.” I look back to see Patrick Kugler turn down a hallway to his left, his shorts swaying, his beard straining to reach a sleeveless block-M hoodie that he’s thrown on over a t-shirt.

I ask Poggi about Kugler’s beard, specifically whether it’s some kind of follicular revenge plot to get back at Jake Butt, Ben Gedeon, and Poggi for, respectively, the Snidely Whiplash, Wolverine-plus-a-mustache, and Undertaker looks they famously deployed for their 2016 team photos. “Pat thought he looked good in his picture and he thinks his beard looks good even though he looks disgusting,” Poggi says. “Pat was making fun of us about it.”

It’s the kind of barb you’d expect from someone’s brother. “I love his beard, personally,” Robert Kugler, Patrick’s older brother says. “I used to rip on him because I can grow a decent beard, my dad grows a good beard, and his has just been disgusting. This is the first time it’s been thick enough that he can grow it out. I know he’s pretty proud of it.” Okay, maybe Poggi’s comment is more like something you’d expect a friend and housemate who’s almost as close as a brother to say.

At the very least, he’s uniquely qualified to talk about the beard’s progression. Kugler and Poggi started living together their freshman year in West Quad. They’re now on their fifth year of living together and their third year in a house on Vaughn Street that, like the Michigan program in April 2017, lost quite a few guys to the NFL.

The Vaughn Street house is nothing spectacular; it’s a typical college-town house on a typical college-town street. Its importance, though, is difficult to overstate. From running up the On Demand bill with bad movie rentals to silently sitting in the living room, from watching too much American Ninja Warrior to making life-altering decisions, the house saw it all and was the catalyst to a bond between seven guys—Patrick Kugler, Chris Fox, Henry Poggi, Jake Butt, Ben Gedeon, Shane Morris, and Chris Petzold—who came to college from all over the country and left closer than most families.

Before their group could form each of the seven had to decide Michigan was the right place for them. The seeds of that decision were planted more than a decade ago for Kugler. Unlike most recruiting stories this one doesn’t start with a letter or a call or a DM but a golf course, a tailgate, and an extra ticket.

[After THE JUMP: “I wanted to be a four-year starter, wanted to be All-Big Ten, wanted to be an All-American, and just as time went on I just wanted to prove to everyone that I did belong here at the University of Michigan, that I wasn’t a dud or someone who they wasted a scholarship on.”]

While Patrick was growing up his father, Sean, was an offensive line coach for a number of college and professional teams; he was most recently the head coach at UTEP, where Patrick’s brother, Robert, is a graduate assistant. The nature of the job kept the family moving every few years, and Kugler and his siblings used sports as a way to make inroads with whatever community they had just settled in. In 2004, the Kuglers were living in Clarkston and Sean was coaching for the Detroit Lions. Kugler was a three-sport athlete at this point in his life, and though being a coach’s son put the impetus on football, Kugler preferred to hoop. “Loved playing basketball. Pretty damn good at it, too,” he says. “Then I grew into this body and ended up being a football player instead of a basketball player.”

That fall he played little league football. A teammate offered him a chance to participate in a ritual well-known to midwesterners with ties to Ann Arbor but foreign to a nine-year-old who had moved to Michigan a couple of years prior: he gave Kugler a ticket to the 2004 Michigan-San Diego State game, and they were going to tailgate.

Kugler was anything but a Michigan fan when he said yes to going, though. He had only been to Lions games since moving to the state; going from the Harrington-era Lions to the Henne-Hart-Edwards Wolverines was like going from, uh, the Harrington-era Lions to the Henne-Hart-Edwards Wolverines, which is to say the game was much closer than the line predicted but the tailgating atmosphere was outstanding.

The maize and blue tents and copious amounts of extravagant grilled food, the people tossing footballs between row after row of cars and the block Ms stitched or screened or painted on everything, the passion for the school that was passed down from generation to generation—it was unlike anything Kugler had experienced around football. The game itself was secondary in impact to the gameday environment, and Kugler suddenly had a new team to watch on Saturdays. “Honestly, I always rooted for Michigan State when I was younger because I always liked rooting for underdogs,” Kugler said. He had no idea he was on the path to becoming one.

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[via Scout/247]

To understand the arc of Patrick Kugler’s Michigan career one needs to look not just at his time on campus but the two years immediately preceding, years marked by letters and phone calls and all-star games and interview requests. Kugler started to garner significant national attention after his sophomore season, and that attention only increased in intensity by his junior year. He quickly tired of the constantness of the process, so one day that winter the Kuglers held a family meeting. Patrick sat down with his mom and dad and they decided that he would pick five schools and take his five official visits. Patrick thought he would make his decision soon after; true to the recruiting process’ form, things went even faster than expected.

Official visits to Columbus and East Lansing preceded Kugler’s trip to Ann Arbor. Patrick’s visit fell on an average February day at a time where the program felt anything but. It was late February 2012 and Michigan was just over a month removed from the completion of Brady Hoke’s first season, an 11-2 record and BCS bowl victory still fresh in fans’ minds.

Kugler’s visit began with an academic presentation—“Which I thought was crazy compared to how other schools emphasize it,” he says—and ended with a visit to Michigan Stadium. By the time he walked into The Big House, Kugler was blown away by the atmosphere around Schembechler Hall, the academic side of the program, the strength staff, and the coaching staff.

Former offensive line coach Darrell Funk and two recruiting assistants then handed Kugler a jersey to put on and walked him down the tunnel. A highlight video playing on the video board in the background, Kugler’s mother turned to him and asked, “Do you think this is the place?” He recalls in that moment “just knowing in my heart that it was definitely the place I needed to be.”

Kugler committed on the spot, cancelled official visits to Florida and Florida State, and made the decision public the next day. Tired of a constant stream of interview requests, he also stated he was done doing media. He was ready to focus solely on his senior year.

That doesn’t mean that he could keep the attention away, though. Kugler ended the recruiting cycle ranked as a four-star prospect, the top-ranked center nationally, and the 68th-ranked player overall in the 2013 class per the 247 composite. He was selected to participate in the 2013 Under Armour All-American game, where he grew closer to eventual housemates Henry Poggi and Shane Morris. “We had kind of texted a little bit but we became boys then,” Kugler says.

Scouting services practically waxed poetic about his potential, and this site’s recruiting profile was unabashedly excited about him. Even so, it looked like Michigan’s newfound depth on the offensive line would result in Kugler redshirting, and he helped temper the buzz around his arrival by telling recruiting reporters that he’d love to redshirt.

Kugler needed the time a redshirt allowed to adjust on both academic and athletic fronts. He had torn his labrum at some point during his senior season and played through it, but the tear required offseason surgery. His brother Robert noted that Patrick was very strong before the surgery and was set back by the repair in 2013 because of the work required just to get back to how strong he was his senior year of high school. “I definitely should have taken weights more seriously in high school. I was just undersized and the first camp was very difficult,” Kugler says. “I was out there and I was thrown into the fire. I did well but not well enough and I knew that, and I needed to get stronger and all that.”

This is the extent of his on-field memories of 2013 shared during our discussion. It seems that his time rooming with Poggi is at least as memorable as what happened in practice for them that season. The two lived together in West Quad and somehow managed to fit a big-screen TV and two recliners into their tiny dorm room. The comforts of home drew others to their part of the hallway, with Jake Butt a frequent visitor.

“For me, what I remember with our friendship growing is movie night in the West Quad dorms,” Butt says. “We’d watch a movie. Wouldn’t always be a good movie, and we’d just sit around and talk and it’d be awesome.”

Other visitors included Shane Morris, Chris Fox, and Ben Gedeon. Fox felt like he was fulfilling his destiny; “Before I even met Pat, [Darrell Funk] said we were going to end up being best friends,” Fox says. “So that’s kind of weird that he said that but it held true.” Gedeon started hanging out with Kugler for reasons far less starcrossed. “I remember first workouts how hard of a worker he was right off the bat, so we kind of gravitated to each other,” he says.

The newly formed group of friends pushed each other on the field, but they found time to enjoy themselves off of it, as well. “We lived a very good, healthy lifestyle our redshirt year. We had a lot of fun,” Fox says. “Maybe drank one or two beers… but yeah, we were just kind of into shit together. We had all those workouts and everything that no one likes and it was just kind of a grind freshman year.”

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[Fuller]

The grind paid off immediately in 2014 despite Kugler not earning the starting job at center. That went to senior Jack Miller, who was as close to a captain as a player can be without being officially named one; he was trotted out at seemingly every possible media availability even as things went sideways during that season.

Even so, the proverbial playing-time carrot was dangled in the season opener. “Kugler was center, I was the right guard, it was against Appalachian State. We had literally one snap that game,” Fox says. “I got a minus on it and just once that ball was snapped, we had been wanting that for so long we both saw red. So that was actually my one and only snap that I played at Michigan, so to say that I had a double team with Kugler is something I’m never going to forget. That was pretty special for me.”

Then, It Happened. Brady Hoke and his staff went out, Jim Harbaugh and his staff came in, and the new normal was practicing for four straight hours three times a week, which somehow sounds more torturous now that the haha-that’s-so-Harbaugh sentiment has morphed into the norm. Kugler badly wanted to impress the new coaching staff, but like in 2013, his body had other plans.

Kugler had what his brother termed a torn hamstring, and he tried to keep practicing. “I remember him calling me and being like ‘I can’t block anybody,’ because he can’t. When I saw him over spring break, his hamstring was completely black and blue,” Robert said. “And he’s tough, so he wanted to play on it to kind of show the new staff that he was tough, but I think that might have set him back because he didn’t perform as well that spring with that injury.”

“I think that spring was pretty rough for everyone, and I think Pat was battling through some injuries and when you’re not playing well because you’re injured it’s just what it is on tape, so it’s tough,” Poggi says. “It was really tough for Pat because that’s what he had to do, that’s the film that they based everything off of and that’s the first film that they got to watch of him. He battled through it.”

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[Upchurch]

Battling through it wasn’t enough, though, as Kugler lost out on the starting job in favor of eventual third-round NFL Draft pick Graham Glasgow. Kugler’s dream of starting at Michigan would have to wait at least one more season once again. He still gained quite a bit that season in a few new roommates, as Morris, Butt, Gedeon, Poggi, Kugler, and Petzold moved into a house together on Vaughn Street (Fox didn’t technically live there but slept on the couch often enough to be considered a housemate).

Petzold fell into the group serendipitously. Harbaugh instituted a new rule when he arrived: freshmen and sophomores must live in the dorms. Mason Cole was going to live in the Vaughn house, but the new rule forced him to drop off the lease. Petzold, a childhood friend of Morris’, had just gotten into Michigan as a transfer student. Morris posted on Facebook that he was looking for a roommate just as Petzold was starting to look for housing. He messaged Morris, Morris brought it up to the housemates, they had no objections, and Petzold had a place to live that fall. “I took a huge leap of faith and now they’re all like my best friends,” Petzold says.

“We talk about it all the time that we’re gonna be best man and part of the groom’s party in our weddings when that day finally comes,” Petzold says. “The guys that we’ve lived with the last couple years, that bond is never gonna get broken.” There was now a literal in-house support system that each player could rely on when needed.

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[courtesy Chris Petzold]

“It was a close group of dudes, no doubt,” Gedeon says. “We all kind of stuck together, held each other accountable whether it was football or anything going on with academics or personal life.”

The group helped each other make big life decisions, too. Jake Butt needed to decide whether it was the right time for him to jump at his NFL future after his junior season, and he relied on his housemates to do so. One day a few of them went on a walk to talk it over, and by the time they were back Butt had made his decision: he would stay at Michigan for his senior season.

They helped Kugler make a decision to stay as well, though he was contemplating transferring. “I didn’t play well in spring ball when [the new staff] got here and I was just like, I don’t know if I’m ever going to play here. But honestly, my group of friends is what kept me here,” Kugler says. “Us six, we were so close. They were like, ‘You got this. I know you’re going to stick it out and you’re going to play here.’ If I didn’t have that group of friends here I probably would have ended up leaving at some point, but I couldn’t leave them because I knew I wouldn’t find a group of friends as close or as good as them.”

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[Barron]

Most days didn’t involve life-altering decisions, but they did involve a lot of silently hanging out, making fun of each other, and entertainment decisions of questionable quality. “After you’re done with all your stuff at night, whatever time that may be, everyone just goes to Vaughn and sits on the couch and watches really shitty movies or watches like American Ninja Warrior. That was a big hit for us,” Fox says. They would sit around the TV, throw something on in the background, and then get on their phones. 

“Someone would say a comment and like ten minutes later someone would laugh about it,” Poggi says. “Just very slow, dumb people being around a television. Actually, we’d try to watch a movie—our On Demand bill was friggin’ through the roof—so Pat was always in charge of picking the movies because me, Ben, and Jake and Shane and our non-football player roommate were just way too indecisive about the movies.”

In other words, they were typical college students doing typical college-student things in a typically college-student house inhabited by seven guys; it doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out how the house looked most of the time. “He’s actually a very good housemate. He’s definitely one of the cleanest dudes in the house,” Gedeon says of Kugler. “Once every two or three weeks I think he would get fed up with how messy the place was and we would come back in the afternoon and Kugler had cleaned the entire house up, and he would let us know. Rightfully so.”

“I like to cook, I like to clean, and next to me, Pat’s probably the most cleanliest. If the house is dirty he’ll get up, he’ll clean,” Petzold says. “Definitely takes care of stuff when it needs to get done. Super reliable. He’s waking us up if we’re not up on time. Like if I’ve got class and he knows I’ve got class and I’m still laying in bed not getting up and he hears my alarm go off through the wall, he’s getting me up. Or Poggi, if they need to go check in for breakfast. He’s super responsible.”

“He’s kind of like a get-things-done kind of guy and I would definitely say he’s a little bit sassy as well. He’s kind of a sassy guy” Poggi pauses. “He’s a very sassy guy. He’s not one to put up with much junk around the house. He keeps us in line. He’s just a no-BS kind of guy. He can give it, he can take it, but he’s quick with the comebacks.” Fox doubles down on Poggi’s take: “Outside of football, he’s pretty sassy. I mean, he’s sassy. It’s a good way but it’s an annoying way. He kind of gives you that silent treatment if he’s mad at ya.”

That frustration seems reserved for a select few and only on rare occasions; I’ve often seen Kugler bouncing around Schembechler Hall and never with anything less than an ear-to-ear grin on his face. In fact, Kugler and the other offensive linemen don’t listen to music before games. Instead, they chat and joke. “I’m just like this, I’m just talking,” he tells me. “Until we run out of that tunnel, it’s pretty much all fun and games until we get out there. There’s nothing to be tight about so you’ve just got to be loose and play ball.”

Preparation is the only antiseptic that can stem the growth of worry, and that’s something Kugler has embraced wholeheartedly during his time at Michigan. Kugler watched what Jack Miller did in 2014 and realized that to play center you need to be the smartest player on the field. He spent that season absorbing every bit of football knowledge he could and learning the playbook inside and out.

Then the system changed with the new staff’s arrival in 2015, and the adaptation process was a rough one. “I remember a lot of yelling,” Kugler says. “Yeah, coach Drevno was rough on me that year and I think that he was rough on a lot of us, trying to find out who’s really a competitive player and stuff and some people folded and others didn’t and I don’t think I folded it in. I think that was kind of the weeding-out process of every new coach, what they’re trying to do to bring in their guys and forge along with the guys they think are hard-nosed guys of the old staff.”

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[Fuller]

Kugler’s dedication to learning the entirety of the playbook and all the line calls paid off early in 2016. The staff repped Kugler at all three interior spots in fall camp, though Mason Cole eventually took hold of the starting center position. Kugler did well enough to earn the first start of his career, though, as he was tapped to be the left guard in Michigan’s season opener against Hawaii.

With a former left tackle starting at center snapping to a first-time starter at quarterback and protected on the left by a first-time starter at left guard who had primarily been a center and a first-time starter at left tackle, things were understandably frenetic; despite the chaos, Kugler had been waiting so long for that moment that he still ranks it as one of his favorite football memories. “I remember me and Grant Newsome, it was our first start together and we had like a rollout the first play and we were freaking out,” Kugler laughs. “Drove the guy like 20 yards this way, the play’s over here, Wilton ended up throwing an interception, we’re like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ but that was probably the coolest memory.”

The comedown from that moment, though, was dramatic. Kugler says he didn’t play well enough at guard to get another opportunity there, and he didn’t play the next week against UCF. In one week he dealt with the emotions of three years of work manifesting in a first start to then having to watch from the sidelines. “I just remember feeling really down in the dumps that whole week, especially on that gameday,” Kugler says. “Afterwards, I just left. Didn’t talk to anyone. I remember that being a very low moment.”

“Obviously it was tough for him but one thing about Pat is he’s a team-first guy and he understood the situation,” Poggi says. “He understood that maybe the position he was playing wasn’t best for him, and he knew what was expected out of that position and he kept his nose to the grind. A lot of guys who may have got demoted like that may have kind of gave up but not Pat. That’s not the type of player Pat was and you can see that.”

“Even though that happened to Kugler it didn’t change his preparation week in and week out. It didn’t change anything about that guy,” Butt says. “He was ready to go, he was ready to help. I mean, look at the way he’s preparing this year. It’s basically a little deposit here and there and it’s all coming back to fruition here.”

Part of Kugler’s attitude was attributable to advice his father gave him during a phone call after the UCF game. When Patrick expressed his frustration,his dad told him he needed to find a way to be a leader however he could. “He was like, this is not an audition for this year but for if they want to keep you for a fifth year, and I wanted to stay at Michigan so I just tried to lead as much as I could, tried to help out as much as I could, and then tried to be an extra set of eyes on the sideline,” Kugler says.

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[Fuller]

The academic portion of the game was never an issue for Kugler—that likely has something to do with being a coach’s son, and it makes him well suited for his future goal of getting into “the family business”—and he spent 2016 learning gameplans inside and out, ready to step in if needed. “He’s going to always be prepared,” Butt says. “He’s not going to know just what his job is but he’s going to go the extra mile; he’s going to know what everybody has to do around him. And he does a good job of leading the guys around him and getting them directed, lined up. I know he’s playing with a lot of younger guys. That’s the best thing to have right there is Kugler in the middle because even though he hasn’t played these past few years Kugler’s been like another coach where he’s always been available and ready and had to know his job.”

Poggi states it more simply. “He’s one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” he says. “Coming out of Michigan I’ve been around a lot of smart guys and he’s right up there.” Gedeon echoes this and throws out a bit of supporting of supporting evidence, noting Patrick is “[p]robably one of the smartest players I’ve ever played with. We would just casually watch NFL football or college football and he would call out and know exactly what the protection was the offensive line was doing and things like that.”

Robert, Patrick’s older brother, pulls off a flawless sibling move and finds a way to both compliment and insult his brother in the same sentence. “Patrick’s very football smart. I wouldn’t say he’s the most academically inclined person, but when it comes to football he’s very smart,” he says. “If he’s lacking in a physical way or an athletic way he can make up for it with his intelligence on the football field. You can see that when he’s playing. You see him communicating and he does a great job with it.”

That may be clear now, but even as a fifth-year senior, Kugler’s path to playing time wasn’t straightforward. First, Kugler would have to beat out the mirror image of a healthy version of his 2013 self. “I loved [fall camp] because it was my job to lose, so I just made it that I wasn’t going to lose it. I worked hard, I was getting in early, getting treatment every day just to keep my body right and yeah, there was definitely competition,” he says. “Cesar’s a great player. Stephen Spanellis put a really good run in at center; he’s been playing really well at center. But I was just determined to make it that no one was going to outwork me or outplay me at center and I ended up on top.”

Kugler started the season opener in 2017 as he did in 2016, though this time around he was at his more natural center position. It took 60 minutes of game action to show how far he had come. “I called him and told him, I said, ‘I was a four-year starter and you have one game and you have a better chance of playing in the NFL than I do,’” Robert says. The first question at Harbaugh’s Monday press conference the following week was about Kugler; he said that Kugler graded out the highest of all the linemen against Florida. Kugler was then named the team’s offensive lineman of the week, which got him an Aaron Bills-designed graphic that was tweeted out by Harbaugh. “It was good to just feel like I knew I belonged here and not only could I play here but I could be a dominant player here as well,” Kugler says.

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[Aaron Bills]

That sense of belonging is something that Kugler has worked for years to achieve; he hasn’t tweeted anything since September 2016, when he tweeted “Fueled by doubt.” He could easily have been consumed by it or burned out, but he kept striving to succeed, and he judiciously shifted what success could look like. “Definitely had bigger goals than what I’ve achieved. I wanted to be a four-year starter, wanted to be All-Big Ten, wanted to be an All-American, and just as time went on I just wanted to prove to everyone that I did belong here at the University of Michigan, that I wasn’t a dud or someone who they wasted a scholarship on,” Kugler says. “It’s hard to accept the fact that you’re not going to start for four years, three years, two years, but I’m just trying to make the most of the little time I have left here and trying to leave my print somehow.”

Players enter through the doors on the right side of the entrance to Schembechler Hall, every time passing a massive stone wall engraved with a saying that grew from words on a sign in the locker room to a slogan evocative of one of Michigan’s greatest eras: “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” The saying is so deeply ingrained in the culture of the program that it’s easy to assume that’s why a student-athlete would stick it out when the landscape has shifted a few years into their time at Michigan.

It’s never that simple, though. To come out of the crucible of domesticity and not only be on speaking terms with housemates but to have them as lifelong friends—even with Butt and Gedeon in the NFL, Fox working in the private sector, and Morris at Central Michigan, they all find time to FaceTime every day—has to be about as rare as starting for a Power Five football team. Of course, working for a chance at starting for a Power Five football team was another reason for Kugler to stay. These days, every snap is an opportunity for Kugler to push back the doubt.

Comments

His Dudeness

November 17th, 2017 at 2:43 PM ^

Cool shit, man. It's this type of stuff that makes me want to punch the Walmart Bros who boo these kids. They aren't NFL cogs. They're kids. I'm glad Pat found his pot of gold here. Life is a winding road. Have to keep walking it though.

rkfischer

November 17th, 2017 at 3:26 PM ^

Thanks Adam: Love the depth of this profile of a Wolverine. It is not easy to play any sport in college. This demonstrates how the mental toughness is just as important as the physical capabilities. I better appreciate Patrick as a student and as a player. Love the desire and perseverance. Now let’s go and ruin Wisconsin and Ohio’s seasons!

Goblue0205

November 18th, 2017 at 10:39 AM ^

Loved this story. I lived in the Vaughn house with 5 roommates from 2002-2004. Last year the six of us returned for a game Homecoming weekend. Around midnight we decided we'd stop by Vaughn to check out the old house and get a picture together in front. A guy came out while we were milling around and invited us in after we explained we lived there 12 years prior. Imagine our surprise when we discovered it was now inhabited by Jake Butt, Poggi, etc. These guys could not have been friendlier to our group of 34 year old ladies. They showed us around the house, gave us beer, and even said they could help us bypass the line at Rick's. We left feeling so proud to have these guys representing Michigan on the field. After reading this article, it seems the Vaughn house is just as special to these guys as it was to us. Go Blue.