Stephen Schilling heard the crowd for his first home game at Michigan, and it was like nothing he had ever imagined.
That’s because he was laid up in his dorm room, diagnosed with mononucleosis the day before his season was supposed to begin and sentenced to six weeks of bed rest.
“I could hear the crowd at what was supposed to be my first college game,” Schilling said. “I could hear it as I was watching from my dorm room.”
Five years later, he can laugh. He’s a 302-pound NFL prospect, a graduate of Bellevue High School who attended college in the Rust Belt and forged himself into an interior lineman likely to be chosen in the middle to late rounds of the April draft. This week he is participating in the Senior Bowl, a college showcase, playing on the North team that includes Washington’s Jake Locker and Mason Foster.
But in 2006, Schilling was a blue-chip high-school recruit who watched his freshman season whither right in front of him because of illness. He dropped 20 pounds, his throat swelled so much he couldn’t eat and he went to the hospital with a fever of more than 104 degrees. By the time he was healthy, half the season was gone, so he underwent shoulder surgery to repair an old injury and took a redshirt year, declaring the season a washout as far as football went.
Consider it a false start to the college career for a player considered one of the top high-school linemen in the country during his senior season at Bellevue in 2005. He was the one who got away from the Huskies. The one who chose Michigan over staying close to home to play at Washington or heading south to Pac-10 destinations like California or USC.
Like any good lineman, Schilling wanted to clear his own path, to make his own holes.
“When it came down to it, it just had the best combination of football and academics,” he said of Michigan. “It felt like the right fit. I kind of wanted to get away from what was more familiar to me at home.”
It didn’t go quite like he had imagined. At least not the football portion of it. Bellevue lost four games total while he was enrolled at the school, and was 35-3 and won two state titles in his three years as a starter.
Michigan’s best season after Schilling enrolled turned out to be the first one. The Wolverines went 11-2 the season Schilling couldn’t play. Their string of 33 consecutive bowl appearances ended in 2008, Schilling’s sophomore season. The Wolverines went 3-9 that year, Rich Rodriguez’s first as coach. They had another losing season in 2009.
Schilling was named captain this year, and while Michigan went to a bowl for the first time since 2007, the Wolverines finished 7-5 after a loss in the Gator Bowl.
“The football didn’t turn out the way we wanted,” Schilling said, “but I don’t really regret going there at all.”
He began as a tackle at Michigan, but moved to guard for his final two seasons, a position he was always told he’d more suited for in the NFL. He has been training at Athletes’ Performance in Arizona. He has been joined by Jeremy Newberry, an 11-year NFL veteran who is now helping in draft preparation.
“The kid is a hard worker,” Newberry said of Schilling. “He’s a sponge. Anything you tell him, he’s willing to listen.”
Easy might be a way out, but it’s not the route Schilling has ever chosen. Not when he decided to head to Michigan for school and certainly not when he stayed there and stuck through that first year when he never got a chance to really get going.