Big Blue brotherhood: The Glasgow brothers' paths from overlooked walk-ons to standout Wolverines
In August 2011, Michigan center Graham Glasgow had a moment that resonates with walk-ons in any sport. "We're in practice, in some awful drill, and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, I'm paying to get beat down every day? I'm paying to get my ass kicked by guys like Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen? What is wrong with me?'"
Then he had this thought: "Well, I'm already here, why not just try my best?"
Ryan Glasgow, Graham's younger brother and a Wolverines defensive tackle, can relate. After walking on in 2012, he went through his share of those same situations. Likewise for Jordan, the youngest of the Glasgow brothers, who joined the Michigan program as a walk-on safety this season.
On Saturday against Ohio State, Graham and Ryan will be honored along with the other Michigan seniors—Graham is a fifth-year senior, Ryan a fourth-year who hopes to return for his final season of eligibility in 2016—in what their parents are calling the latest chapter in a storybook journey for their family. And befitting a Michigan football fairy tale, this one has an Ohio State twist.
Five years ago, Graham had just wrapped up his high school career at Marmion Academy in Aurora, Ill., with plans to walk on at Ohio State. Though he played on both sides of the ball and had a college-ready frame (6' 6", 295 pounds), he held only a handful of small-school scholarship offers. While at Marmion he caught the attention of Kurt Becker, then the Cadets offensive line coach and a former All-America guard for Michigan who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. "My first impression was, 'Holy cow look at the size of this kid!'" Becker says. In Graham's ear "from day one" about how he might fit in as a walk-on at Becker's alma mater, it was Becker who first told Graham he had the talent to play Power Five football, and he shouldn't settle for competing at a lesser level.
Before that, Graham and his brothers assumed their futures lay in the MAC, because it's all they knew: Steve, their father, worked for 18 years as the Northern Illinois team doctor. An orthopedic surgeon who specializes in reconstructive knee procedures—his wife Michele works on shoulders, and both are fellowship trained in sports medicine—Steve raised his boys on the Huskies' home field, letting them tag along to practices and games. Ironically, the first time Graham and Ryan attended a game in the Big House, they sat in the visitors' section. On Sept. 3, 2005, the Glasgow brothers showed up in itchy red and black body paint, hollering for NIU. "We didn't drive all that way to watch [Northern Illinois] lose, that's for sure!" Graham cries.
When Jerry Kill left NIU for Minnesota on Dec. 6, 2010, he went hard after Graham. But then, "just when I was ready to shut it down" and commit to Minnesota, Graham got a call informing him that Ohio State coaches were coming to one of his basketball games and wanted to talk to him about joining Jim Tressel's program as a preferred walk-on. Brady Hoke and Michigan also put out feelers, but by that point Graham had fallen hard for one of college football's legendary programs, smitten by talk of winning championships. He committed to the Buckeyes and packed his bags for Columbus. Then, on May 30, less than three weeks before Graham was scheduled to report for summer classes, Tressel resigned amid an NCAA scandal.
"I remember my dad sat me down and said, point blank, 'Do you want to be a leftover walk-on?'" Graham recalls. "He told me, 'You don't know what the new staff is going to look like, if they're going to want to keep you, you don't know how many years they could miss bowls, you might not ever have a chance to earn a scholarship if they get sanctioned. I strongly encourage you to think about your other options.'"
Graham had roughly two weeks make a decision. When he called Hoke, Michigan still had an opening. He switched course and headed for Ann Arbor.
"I think about it every once in a while, how I pretty much cast Ohio State aside," Graham says. "I've got no regrets, it's just funny to think back. Talk about a weird sequence of events."
In practice, Graham suffered through the typical first-year adjustments—there's truth to the cliché that everyone is bigger, stronger and faster at the next level, he says—without the reward of paid meals or respect from veterans. He redshirted in 2011 and found himself left behind when Michigan went to Cowboys Stadium in Dallas to open the '12 season against then-defending national champion Alabama. He calls it a tipping point. "I was down on scout team again and pretty upset about not traveling," Graham says. "But I told myself I could pout about it or use it as motivation and an opportunity to get better."
By Sept. 15, he had worked his way off the scout team and on to the field, making his Big House debut in a 63–13 win over Massachusetts. "We were blowing them out, people were streaming for the exits and frankly, it felt like a million people were there cheering and watching me." He was hooked.
Awarded a scholarship during a 2013 team meeting, Graham celebrated with fellow walk-ons Joe Kerridge and Joe Reynolds as "everyone in the room went nuts." But before that validation, Graham took on another role: recruiter.
The pitch was simple and direct.
"Listen," Graham told Ryan. "You're gonna get your ass kicked at first. Scout team sucks. On Fridays, you're gonna lift with the non-travel guys and the strength staff is gonna demoralize you. You don't get respect from veterans until you prove yourself. It seems like a lot, but I'd love to have you. It would be a lot of fun if you came here."
Looking back, Graham acknowledges that his persuasion tactics could have been softened. "I basically told him all the bad things," he says. "But, hey, it worked."
A two-star offensive lineman, according to Rivals.com, Ryan narrowed his college decision to Vanderbilt and Michigan, ultimately opting to follow his brother. In hindsight, he admits it wasn't much of a choice. "Graham and I are really close," Ryan says. "We've been on the same sports teams since I can remember." In high school they were even on the same line, with Graham starting as Marmion's left tackle and Ryan playing right guard. But also, Ryan says, the atmosphere drew him in. "It was Michigan. It was the biggest stage possible, and I believed I could play here."
He was right. After redshirting in 2012, Ryan appeared in 11 games as a backup defensive lineman in '13. Along the way, he and Graham both had "aha" moments in which each realized their brother absolutely belonged in the Big Ten—and they often came while smashing into one other at practice.
"There were times, especially right before his sophomore year when I'd think, 'This kid is actually legit, this guy is a big-time football player,'" Ryan says of Graham. Says Graham: "Ryan surprised a lot of people, because coming out of high school he was an offensive lineman and now, he's an unbelievably good nose tackle. I'm proud that he's doing as well as he is. I think he's proved a lot of people wrong."
By 2014 Ryan had secured a starting spot on the Wolverines' defensive line, recording 22 tackles, including four for loss. His favorite highlight came in a 34–10 win over Indiana last Nov. 1 in the Big House, when he stuffed quarterback Zander Diamont for a five-yard loss, stripped the ball and jumped on it for a fumble recovery. When he came off the field he thought to himself, I'm really glad I took a chance here.
If Graham's memory of receiving a scholarship qualifies as a celebration, Ryan's would more aptly be labeled anticlimactic. In Michigan's "weird limbo period where we didn't have a head coach," after Hoke was fired but before Jim Harbaugh came back to his alma mater, Ryan got a phone call from the football office that he need to stop by and sign his scholarship papers. "I was like, 'Oh, I'm getting a scholarship?'" he laughs. "No one really knew what was happening. It was a strange, but good, day."
He says Graham will retain bragging rights for now, as he was awarded a scholarship earlier in his career than Ryan. (They both believe Jordan, a current redshirt, could set a new family record.) Ryan is especially grateful for his parents, who never demanded their boys get jobs to help pay for out-of-state tuition.
"They bet on me," Ryan says, "and they were right."
Michele Glasgow laughs wryly, but it's true: She didn't want her boys to become football players.
As orthopedic surgeons, Michele and Steve spend their days repairing injuries that happen because of violent games. Michele didn't want her babies on the operating table, but realized early on that she was fighting a losing battle. When the boys were little, Steve—who played football and wrestled at University of Pennsylvania from 1974-78—would sit on the couch, TV tuned to an NFL game, sports section in hand and "three boys in a pile at my feet" wrestling and laughing and shrieking. Once, Michele walked over, pulled his newspaper down and motioned to the boys. "You don't have a problem with this?" she asked.
"Honey, you better get used to it," Steve replied. "I'm one of three boys, too and this"—he pointed to the heap—"is my earliest memory."
In Aurora, a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago, boys had to be in the fifth grade to participate in football. Ever cunning, Ryan first approached his father in second grade and tried to work the sentimental angle. "We really want to play football," said Ryan, with big, hopeful eyes, "because you played it."
No dice. "Any other reasons?" Steve asked.
Ryan lit up. "Dad, we wanna run into people! We wanna knock them down!"
Steve relented. "If you get excited smacking into people, that's great," he told Ryan. "Truth is, you're going to be doing that if you play football or not, so we might as well harness that energy."
Fifteen years later, Michele still struggles with the boys' decisions. "I'd much rather have them play a non-collision sport," she says. "To be honest, I hate watching the games [live]. I'd much rather watch after I know everyone is O.K." She spent the first few years sitting in the Big House stands "with my eyes closed a lot," but loves that her boys want to hang out with each other nonstop.
No one in the family fully appreciates the rarity of three brothers walking on at the same Big Ten school, much less one of the most storied programs in college football. They're too busy traveling to every game, caught up in the ecstasy of a surprise 9–2 season. "Before this year you'd read and hear everywhere how no one was afraid of Michigan anymore," Ryan says. "Well, it's nice to have that reputation back."
There are no more Glasgow brothers waiting in the wings (younger sister Anna is a high school sophomore), but they have big plans for Jordan, who everyone in the family agrees is the best natural athlete of the bunch, and who has already picked off his share of passes as a scout-team defensive back. "I hope we're not setting the bar too high for him right now," Ryan muses, before laughing. "No, but seriously, he's way further ahead than Graham and I were at his age."
Even with his oldest brother set to leave, Jordan will still have two family members to lean on in Ann Arbor. One is Ryan. The other is a sassy, 5' 1" Italian woman who could be considered an honorary member of the Wolverines: his grandmother.
Carmella Glasgow, 81, enjoys Michigan football, celebrity gossip magazines and Dancing With The Stars marathons. When any Michigan fan compiles stats this season, they should credit Carmella with an assist.
Graham was arrested in March 2014 for DUI, and was placed on probation that July. He got dinged again this March after failing a random drug test, a violation of his parole. He was at risk of losing his scholarship, so coaches brainstormed an alternative arrangement. Harbaugh said Graham could stay on the team only if he agreed to live with a chaperone who could keep his off-field shenanigans to a minimum. Enter Carmella. When Steve and Michele asked if she'd be willing to move to Ann Arbor to help take care of the boys, she responded with an enthusiastic, "I'd love that!"
"My mom has been what I call repurposed," Steve says. "Her doing this, it's taken 10 years off her life."
Carmella does the boys' laundry, cooks dinner and asks Graham to join her for Dancing With The Stars, which he sheepishly admits he enjoys. She attends games, visits Ryan at his off-campus house and relishes her role as the boys' biggest fan. She is their most optimistic one, too. When Graham and Ryan were awarded scholarships, Carmella seemed puzzled. "You know, it's about time!" she told the boys. "I mean, you're the best players on the team, right? Why did they not give you scholarships to begin with? Honestly!"
When Graham and Ryan try to help Michigan take down rival Ohio State on Saturday, Carmella will dress in maize and blue and sit in the stands next to Steve, Michele and Anna. They'll cheer with more than 110,000 others as the Wolverines seek to put an emphatic cap on a year in which little was expected. For brothers whose careers have followed a similar trajectory, it's only fitting.
Know a good walk-on story in college football? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.