This is the first story in this series that features a guy I was not teammates with. He graduated two years before I got to Ann Arbor. Although we shared a lot of mutual teammates, I never had to go against him in practice (thankfully). I was a little concerned about writing this one because I couldn’t interject any personal interactions from our playing days like I did in all the other stories. The good news is, he's an attorney and damn near wrote the piece for me. I've always had great admiration for this guy. He’s got a great story and one I’m happy to share with you.
In this day of roster management, red/blue/gray shirts, satellite camps, poker chips, and the need for immediate impact players, we as fans have a tendency to write kids off if they don’t contribute by their 2nd year. Just 5 years ago, it was taboo around here to say someone was “taking up a scholarship”. I’ve never liked that term or its connotations. We’re so caught up in stars and rankings and offer lists and immediate results that we sometimes forget these are 18 year old kids fresh out of high school.
There’s a chance that if “processing” occurred back in the 80’s, you might not have ever heard about this next subject. He came here as a tall, skinny tight end who transitioned to tackle his sophomore year. He battled homesickness, injuries, and a handful of All-Americans, but finally, in his 5th year, he finally got his due. That year - 1982 - he won a starting spot, made another trip to Pasadena, earned All-Big Ten honors, and lived out his boyhood dream.
Rich Strenger was the youngest of 4 growing up in Wisconsin, where he was a 218 pound end for the Grafton High School Black Hawks. He was recruited by Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan. The Badgers were never much of a factor because they were going through a coaching change. Northwestern was a surprisngly serious threat. Northwestern was coached by first year head coach Rick Venturi. The Wildcats hadn’t had a lot of success on the field winning just 12 games combined the previous 5 years, but they had one of the best recruiters in the business. This guy wasn’t flashy or cut throat. Rather he was honest, personable, and trustworthy with unwavering character and a knack for closing the deal. Rich’s parents knew right away this was a coach they could entrust with their youngest son. They knew he’d get an outstanding education at NU, he’d be closer to home, and with this particular assistant coach, their boy would be well watched over.
You all know who I’m talking about.
Coach Swag Mattison served as defensive line coach and recruiter extraordinaire for NU from 1978-1980. He knew how to find players and get them to commit. He made a hell of a pitch to the Strengers. Turning him down was a tough choice to make, but Rich knew it was the right one.
Michigan had their own secret recruiting weapon: former Wolverine great and (then) Defensive Backs coach, Dennis Brown. Coach Brown made an equally memorable impression on the Strenger family. He was honest, hard working, and a great man loved by Mr.&Mrs. Strenger. Coach Brown was busy in the Grafton area in 1978. Not only did he get Rich to say yes, he also got Mike Lemirande, Tom Garrity, and Dave Brewster to come to Ann Arbor that same year! The 4 guys were all good friends but they never discussed attending the same college. It just happen to work out that way thanks to the remarkable efforts by Coach Brown.
When Rich arrived in Ann Arbor and moved to Offensive Tackle his sophomore year, he had to compete against future All-Americans Ed Muransky and Bubba Paris who were in his same class. It's hard enough switching from Tight End to Tackle, but when you're undersized AND have to battle All-Americans, it can become a little disheartening. Back then, guys didn't transfer because of who was in front of them on the depth chart. Sure it happened, but not with the same frequency or publicity as it does today. Guys like Rich looked at the depth chart as a challenge. We had two All-Americans on the line, one at Wide Receiver, and a couple others on defense. He knew he'd have to take his licks on demo. Luckily, he had his friends from back home there with him along with Coach Brown, and Coach Paul Schudel who helped keep his head straight and his spirits high. He was not backing down.
Back home – a small town of about 10,000 people 35 minutes north of Milwaukee – people didn’t think he was tough enough or good enough to play at Michigan. Sure he could cut it at Northwestern, you just had to be smart to play there. But Michigan was the big time - "out of his league" according to some know-it-alls. Many of the naysayers predicted he'd be back in Wisconsin in no time.
It was tough for him, no doubt about it. He was a long way from home, playing behind future Hall-of-Famers, and barely able to bench press more than some of the kickers. Legendary Strength and Conditioning coach Mike Gittleson paid extra special attention to the skinny kid who was switching over to the offensive line. Mike was known for pushing guys to their absolute limit. With Gittleson's help* and "encouragement", Rich packed on the muscle, gained his confidence, and ultimately became the player he would be. As a testament to his toughness, Rich never missed a full day of practice (Fall or Spring) in any of his 5 years. That is a remarkable feat for an Offensive Lineman.
“I often think they (the coaches) were part psychologists and part coach. Here they were dealing with kids from all walks of life, different personalities, different races, different religions. Some poor kids, some rich, some middle class. Some over-confident, some lacking confidence. We all felt that we were being treated alike, and I think we were on the field, but off the field, the coaches did subtle different things to help us succeed.”
An example of those “subtle things” was giving Rich his first game action against his hometown team, the Wisconsin Badgers. You never forget that first time you step on the field. It’s surreal. You’re so hyped you damn near forget how to hear. It’s a big deal for anyone whose ever played. But it’s all the more special when the coaches give you that first taste of action against your hometown team. It’s a little thing but it goes a looooonnng way.
During his 3rd year, Rich starting seeing some action on the special teams. He recalls a couple games that stuck out.
Against Illinois, Rich ran down on the punt and laid a hit on a guy trying to block him that knocked him off his feet. The guy fell into the punt returner who muffed the punt due to the distraction. Rich’s momentum carried him right through the receiver and he pancaked him, too. The ball was loose and a teammate recovered the fumble. As was tradition back in then, the coaches would award Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams players of the week. The defensive coaches also recognized the “Big Lick” - the biggest hit of the game. They used to put a projector outside the defensive meeting room that would play the Big Lick on a reel-to-reel, literally looping the play over and over. Rich was surprised to see his play on loop that week. He wasn’t even a defensive player but he was recognized for that week's Big Lick Award. It was the first time he felt like he was contributing to the team.
Later that same year, he given the Special Team’s Player of the Week for his play against Ohio State. They beat the Buckeyes 9-3 that year which clinched the Big Ten title and trip out west where Bo earned first Rose Bowl victory.
At the start of his 4th year, Rich was competing for a starting guard spot. Unfortunately, he would injure the arch on his foot, which was excruciatingly painful. An injury like that won't heal unless you get off your feet and give it a rest. Of course, that wasn’t an option. He went and got treatment before and after every practice, but he never missed a day. Despite his grit and best effort, he didn't earn the starting position. You could blame the injury, but the fact of the matter is, Rich was competing against Stefan Humphries - another All American who was later a member of the Super Bowl Champion ’86 Bears. (If you’re keeping count, that's THREE All-American’s Rich was behind on the depth chart. Remember that the next time you think of "processing" a player).
Rich made his first start at tackle in the opening game of the 1982 season against Wisconsin. He had a good game in the win but the following week against Notre Dame (in their first night game ever), things would not go so well. The offense failed to score in the first half, and despite a second half charge, the Irish prevailed 23-17. Rich didn’t have a good game and was fearful that he might lose his starting position. But Bo, Coach Schudel, and Coach Hanlon stuck with their guy and he rebounded with a strong performance against UCLA the following week. That team would go on to play in its 3rd Rose Bowl in Rich's 5 years. In all, he would be a part of three Big Ten Championship teams and amass an overall record of 45-15. He fought through pain, adversity, a loaded depth chart, and plenty of doubters along the way, but in his fifth and final year, he proved to everyone he could play at Michigan.
When I asked him if playing in the pros was always a goal of his, he replied that “Yes and no. What kid doesn’t want dream about playing in the NFL? But I never gave it a thought because in the back of my mind, I did not think it was an achievable goal. A kid from Grafton Wisconsin just does not go on to play pro ball.” His opinion would change about ¾ of the way through his 5th year.
Rich had improved every week following the Notre Dame game and could tell he was getting better, but not enough for the scouts to notice. Then one day, Bo walked up to him and said matter-of-factly, “You’re going to play in the NFL.” That’s a conversation that’ll change your your life.
The following year, with the 40th pick in the draft, the Detroit Lions select in the 2nd round….Rich Strenger - Offensive Tackle, University of Michigan.
He earned the starting left tackle position his first year in the league, but a season-ending knee injury cut the season short. The following spring, the Lions drafted consensus All-American (of course) tackle out of Florida, Lomas Brown. Since playing behind All American’s had become old hat, Rich simply moved over to Right Tackle, where he would finish out his career.
Following football, he went to work for Oakland County prosecutor (and now County Executive) L. Brooks Patterson. He worked in Risk Management as well as on Patterson’s personal security detail which required him to attend the Police Academy. Rich found the Academy interesting, particularly the criminal law classes. After 8 or so years with the County, in a job that didn’t have much upward mobility, Rich considered other career options. He thought about physical therapy, but Oakland University didn’t offer evening classes (and regular daytime classes were out of question). So he harkened back to his Academy days and the law classes he liked so well. After talking it over with is wife, he decided to apply to and was accepted at Detroit College of Law. He started practing at Butzel Long, and now owns his own firm in Lake Orion, Michigan.
He’s been married to his wife Karen for 32 years and has one daughter who's a junior on the high school basketball team. He sits on the board for the Orion Area Youth Assistance Program and the March of Dimes for Southeast Michigan. He also participates in Clay Miller's "Mentor Program" for current Michigan football players (which just held its 10th annual event last night).
Those who stay…..
Rich wore #68 at Michigan.
If he had a son he’d let him play football and support him all the way. He wouldn’t push him if he wasn’t interested in playing, though. Rich believes that sports teach so many life lessons. He says that the people he encounters in daily life that impress him the most all have one thing in common: they played a team sport.
And in case those naysayers from back home in Grafton need a little more convincing, check out the Grafton Wikipedia page.