ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The yellow school bus came closer, and Chase Winovich sprinted out of his house in the south suburbs of Pittsburgh, intent on not missing his ride.
As Winovich was mid-stride, his foot got caught in a tie on a garbage bag that sat on the front steps. Suddenly, Winovich twisted and fell backward. When he hit the ground, the left side of his head, just above his ear, struck a concrete step.
Winovich fractured his skull and developed a subdural hematoma. He was airlifted to a hospital in Pittsburgh, where he stayed for a week, and he couldn’t play baseball that spring.
A few days before the accident, a guidance counselor at his junior high school gave Winovich some cautionary advice.
“A buddy of mine and I both said at an assembly at school that we wanted to be a professional football player,” Winovich said. “The guidance counselor said to me, ‘Do you know the odds of making it into professional football? You have less than a 1 percent chance.’ She told me that, right to our faces. And I wasn’t really deflated. I’ve never really been one to care what people say.
“But it stuck with me. It wasn’t to discourage me but to encourage me to focus on academics, because it was a longshot, in a sense. But I took it as a chip on my shoulder. And me falling down the steps? That also put me in that 99 percent category of people who wouldn’t make it.”
A few days in March 2009 gave Winovich the drive to chase his dreams. Now, he is one of Michigan’s most fearless, productive and gregarious defensive linemen.
“It definitely made me more appreciative of life,” Winovich said. “Literally, in a moment’s notice. Nobody expects to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Well, this is going to be the day.’ For me, it almost was.
“They tried to kill me, whatever forces those were. But I was brave. And I was alive. And it makes the journey all that more interesting.”
Life of the party
Winovich always was energetic, engaging and extremely driven. Even after being moved to three different positions in his first three years at Michigan, he has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive linemen and is one of four players tied for seventh in the nation with 5 1/2 sacks.
2017 statistics for Chase Winovich
|Sacks||5 1/2 for 35 yards|
|Tackles for loss||7 1/2 for 38 yards|
“He has always faced a tremendous amount of adversity,” said Peter Winovich, Chase’s older brother by 10 years. “It’s amazing how many people told him he couldn’t do something, and he went and did it.”
Chase Winovich has become one of the more effervescent personalities on the Michigan football team. He has discussed everything from his favorite kind of bread (raisin bread at a local Ann Arbor diner) to his respect for the United States military to the ballet lessons he enrolled in earlier this year to help with his agility and balance, qualities that one wouldn’t necessarily consider in a defensive end.
He didn’t arrive at Michigan as a wallflower or meek personality. Winovich always had an interest in people, and he also has harbored a desire to do things his way.
Peter remembers a fence that surrounded the family’s backyard in the Pittsburgh suburbs. The 4-foot fence was gated, but even as a toddler, Chase wasn’t going to sit and figure out how to unlock that fence.
“He was going to figure out how to climb over it,” Peter said. “And he’s not going to quit, at all. He’s going to keep going until he figures out what he needs to do in order to do what he wants.”
Sherry Meucci teaches mathematics and accounting at Thomas Jefferson High School in Clairton, Pa., about 10 miles south of Pittsburgh. The first thing she noticed about Winovich was his competitive nature, even in a 10th-grade accounting class. Winovich, she said, wanted his teachers to know what he was doing to solve a problem and that he was trying. And that he never settled for something he did simply to be acceptable.
“He wanted to be first in the class,” Meucci said. “He wanted to be first on the field. That’s the determination he has.
“And I think of him as a salesman,” she continued, laughing. “But he also always wanted to know the reasons why. Why do we have to do something? How do you do it? He wanted explanations for everything. And he never sat back and took anything for granted. He was very inquisitive.”
Michigan’s gift of gab
Winovich was extremely chatty, whether he was wandering the halls of Thomas Jefferson, roaming the field during a football game or running through the streets of New York City, where he took a school-sponsored trip during his junior year at Thomas Jefferson.
Chaperones gave the high school students a window of time to explore the city on their own. At the United Nations building on the east side of Manhattan, Winovich and his friend Anthony Rash realized they had 15 minutes to return to Times Square to check in with their teachers and classmates.
“We started walking and started talking to people and told them, ‘We have to be back in Times Square in 15 minutes,’ ” recalled Rash, who is now a senior at Penn State. “People told us, ‘That’s impossible!’ but Chase wasn’t going to hear it. And as we walked, Chase just kept talking to people, asking them, ‘Hey, excuse me, do you know how to get to Times Square?’ ”
Winovich and Rash made it back to Times Square in a brisk 13 minutes. (It was one of their many notable endeavors.)
As Winovich became a football standout at Thomas Jefferson, he always talked. Once, he broke a rule of longtime coach Bill Cherpak: don’t talk to referees.
“He would talk to the officials and ask them, ‘Hey, how are you?’ or ‘What is your name?’ ” Cherpak said. “One time I yelled at him and told him not to, and he insisted, ‘Oh, no, I’m just asking about this.’ ”
Once, Winovich high-fived an official after he scored a touchdown. Cherpak attributed that transgression simply to being caught in the excitement of the moment.
“It’s not that he doesn’t have a filter,” Rash insisted. “He just doesn’t have any inhibitions, as far as talking to anybody.”
Running a race
Inspired by a political science class in the fall of 2012, Winovich and Rash decided to run for junior class president. Fueled by an ongoing dialogue in their Advanced Placement U.S. History class that overlapped with the presidential election, as well as a teacher who encouraged his students to think for themselves, they spearheaded a campaign.
They created a simple slogan. Then, they decided to take it a step further. Some day, they decided, they were going to run the country. They would be eligible to do so in 2032.
Thus began Winovich/Rash 2032.
Winovich always has had an interest in history and social interactions — his major is evolutionary anthropology, an intersection of people, history and science.
Rash and Winovich printed T-shirts. They created #WinovichRash2032 on social media.
They made stickers. One is on the refrigerator of Rash’s home in Pittsburgh. Another is affixed to a red Ford F-150 pickup truck in southwestern Pennsylvania.
When Winovich was younger, he wanted to do one of two things: become president of the United States or make it big in sports.
Running for class office was a way to realize his dream of becoming president, or at least achieving the status.
He described it as a “sweeping victory.” In fact, he still has a plaque from Thomas Jefferson High School that proclaimed him junior class president. Five years later, his interest in politics hasn’t waned.
“I try to be a leader on the football field, so, hopefully one day I can try to be a leader in politics,” Winovich said.
Then, he added, with a wry grin, “I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else besides Anthony Rash.”
Bargain to uphold
Michigan has allowed Winovich to blossom even more. In his fourth year in Ann Arbor, he said he believes that he owes it to the university community to hold up his end of the bargain.
“I’ve learned to accept people for who they are, and I’m as focused on myself, too,” Winovich said. “It sounds selfish, but people are what they are and it’s liberating for me, like bleaching my hair! When you don’t really care if people call you ‘Crazy.’
“The role that Michigan has in my life, and not the role that Michigan has in my life, it’s almost a give-and-take. Michigan has invested a lot in me, to make sure that I am the best football player possible. And I’m appreciative of that. Not only in being a football player but a good person. Any university that does this, it requires that commitment and it wants to get everything you’re worth out of you, but it also wants to give you everything that it can back to you.”
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