Only the most talented athletes play sports at an NCAA Division I school, and that's just what Cardinal Stritch Catholic alumnus Mike Blazevich is doing right now.
Blazevich, a three-sport star for the Cardinals, is currently a freshman safety with the University of Toledo football team. He was a late walk-on, but hopes to have a long college career with the Rockets.
“It's kind of like being a freshman in high school again,” Blazevich said. “I think there were only three freshmen who get any playing time at all. That's where I have to earn my stripes and work my way up. They throw you on scout team and all the special teams.”
He credits UT coach Matt Campbell, who happens to be the youngest head football coach in D-I at 32 years, with making the walk-ons feel like they were part of the team.
“I really like Coach Campbell,” Blazevich said. “I was worried about being treated like a walk on. But the coaches said to us at the beginning of the year, 'We understand that you're a walk-on and we're going to treat you like a Toledo football player.' (Coach Campbell) treats us like everyone else and gives us a good shot at making it.”
The most difficult thing, says Blazevich, an accounting major, is learning to balance academics with athletics.
“It's extremely hard,” he said. “We have to maintain a 3.0 GPA. There were a couple people who didn't maintain a 3.0 GPA and they were gone. I'm doing OK but it's extremely hard with workouts in the morning and having practice and meetings and then games on weekends.
“I'd say the regular schedule for a game week is workout at 6 a.m. for the freshmen,” continued Blazevich.
The Stritch grad estimates that he spends roughly 35 hours per week doing football-related activities.
“Then we have your (position) meeting at 1:40. We do that until practice at 3 p.m. and get off the field at 5:30, 6. We meet together as a team, go over the scouting report and then meet with the special teams and then the secondary coach, Coach (Bryce) Saia.
“It's tough to wake up at 5 a.m. every day. Every single day is tough. There's a little bit of stress with the homework and practice. I just have fun being a part of the program. That's how I look at it. I like the team atmosphere and I'm trying to get better at this position. If I want to play, I've got to be committed.”
This season, the Rockets have gone 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference. Toledo accepted an invitation to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 15 against No. 22 Utah State.
Their three losses, which came against teams with a combined 28-9 record, were each by seven points. Had UT defeated Northern Illinois on Nov. 14, they would've earned a spot in the MAC championship. The Rockets did defeat Bowling Green, 27-15, and had a big 29-23 victory over then-No. 21 ranked Cincinnati in October.
Blazevich still has an appreciation for what he learned at Stritch, where he received 10 varsity letters (four in football, three in basketball, three in baseball) and how it has shaped him into the person he is today.
“(Former Stritch) Coach (Joe) Gutilla helped with the process and he was definitely a great coach,” Blazevich said. “(The coaches) taught us that everything we did on the field was for a reason and it showed in the film room. Some of the stuff we're doing at Toledo, I now understand what we were doing at Stritch.
“Some aspects with the drills we did, it got me motivated a lot to where I was working all year long. Playing high school football helps you to get better and a lot of the playing experience I got at the high school level helped me to get better.”
Blazevich credits his all of his coaches at Stritch, especially Dave Rieker (basketball) and Craig Meinzer (baseball) with helping him to develop a strong work ethic and for teaching him about some of the important details and intricacies of the game. He also notes the contributions of Father Eric Schild, St. Kateri Schools president, who he says was very relatable and helped to teach Blazevich and his fellow classmates important lessons.
“A lot of the prayer stuff we did helps us to keep a good outlook on life,” Blazevich said. “Father Schild was a guy I could talk to. He was inspiring. I still talk to him. He's definitely one of the most relatable guys (at the school). He understood that sports are a part of school.”