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Stephen's Report

Michael Nysewander, Life of a walk-on turned national champion

Former Alabama TE Michael Nysewander (Photo via Twitter)

All photos courtesy of Instagram (@NYSEANDEASY46)

“It was a feeling of ultimate accomplishment.”

A quote like this makes it worthwhile to drive to The Lofts versus taking a two-hour nap, in attempts to fight off a head cold. The equivalent to this apartment complex would be Beverly Hills, a wonderful construction coupled with nice buildings and a parking garage.

Room No. 2325 is simple. No television or game system in the living room, yet a couch was provided. Despite only being there a month, its resident continues to re-live emotions that happened a month prior.

Michael Nysewander happens to be the subject behind the quote, a former Alabama tight end who became a big name last season after battling his way through the scout team.

He earned a starting role at H-back/fullback last season, blocking for Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. In the final moments during the national title game against Clemson, Nysewander found himself surrounded by his four favorite teammates.


“Once the confetti fell, tears started rolling down my face,” Nysewander said.

“It felt like Christmas morning. There was such a happiness going on. I turned around and the first people I saw where [Jake] Coker, Cam Robinson and ArDarius Stewart. Their emotions were the very same ones that I was feeling.”

Alabama had defeated Clemson 45-40 at University of Phoenix Stadium, earning its fourth national championship under head coach Nick Saban and its 16th in school history.

Prior to attending UA, Nysewander’s first education in football came from a high school version of the University.

Life at Hoover—Nysewander’s entrance to football

Birmingham is a big place. It is Alabama’s version of Atlanta, Charlotte, Los Angeles and New York City. Some of its features include a Galleria Mall, Legion Field, University of Alabama at Birmingham and Splash Adventures (formerly known as Vision Land).

Spain Park, Vestavia Hill and Leeds, who produced NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, are three high schools that are starting to become huge in football. Regardless of their success, Birmingham’s main headquarters for the gridiron game lies at an institution that produced former Crimson Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and Michael Nysewander…Hoover High School.

He is spotted at every Alabama practice, despite being the highest paid head coach in high school. Josh Niblett pulls in a hefty $125,000 a year at Hoover. Since being hired in 2008, he has made the Buccaneers into a powerhouse, winning four Class 7-A state championships.

One of the Crimson Tide’s latest additions was the star behind MTV’s Two-A-Days at Hoover. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt got the facetime from 2006-07, yet it was Niblett that got the opportunity to mold Nysewander.

“Playing at Hoover was great,” Nysewander said. “It is always on the big stage and much like Alabama, the town really cares a lot about football. I grew up in Hoover, so not only was I watching the players at Alabama but I also watch the athletes at Hoover and thought they were larger than life. Once you get into Hoover, the atmosphere is much like that of Alabama.”

Niblett and Saban both became head coach of huge programs in Alabama at around the same time. “Do the little things right” is something Saban always refers to when teaching players.

Whether it was protecting the ball, follow an assignment or even getting classwork done, Saban cares about the full student-athlete. The very same was expected for Niblett’s group at Hoover.

“In the same way that it takes a special person to play at Alabama, it takes a special person to play at Hoover,” Nysewander said. “You have to be fully committed.”

As a child, Nysewander was ready for anything. He played every position except quarterback in pee-wee and elementary school. He was not the most athletic person, yet his drive delivered him to Hoover. He graduated in 2011, after playing at defensive end and linebacker in 2007-08 and 2010-11.

Nysewander did not win a state title, but he prepared the groups after him to win.

He would walk-on at Alabama in 2011 as a linebacker, but a late position change would alter the course of his career. A simple adjustment that led to him becoming a leader.

University of Alabama—Nysewander begins life as a walk-on 

“I felt like I had to throw my body at brick wall to prove that I could compete.”- Nysewander

Maybe that line from rap artist Young Jeezy’s “Soul Survivor” song is true. No nuts, no glory. My biography, you damn right, the true story. It is a hustler’s anthem from his album Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, but let us channel all attention on the first four words…No nuts, no glory.

Toughness personifies the life of a walk-on. Nothing is given and even when one wants to quit, it has to focus on achieving something bigger than itself. Nysewander walked on in 2011, yet it would be three years before he would set foot on Bryant-Denny Stadium for playing time.

“It is really difficult when you don’t get to play right away,” Nysewander said.

“It is human nature to complain, but what helped me was stepping back and taking a mental picture. I was getting a chance to do something that some people only dream of. I used to think that the Crimson Tide players of old where superheroes and for me to be able to play in an Alabama jersey dropped all complaints.”

The week of Alabama’s match-up with Penn State was when Nysewander had his first practice. Penn State was a historic program and under head coach Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions served as Alabama first road test in 2011. Nysewander said that “he had to prove himself.”

“You have to give the guys that start on Saturdays a good look. Penn State was a good team and our guys were going to compete against players of their same caliber. I wasn’t as fast or as big as the Penn State players, but I had to give our guys a look and it was a damn good look.”

The emulation given by Nysewander served as a good test as the Crimson Tide defeated Penn State 27-11. Alabama ended up winning its second national title under Saban, but the number of walk-ons that came with Nysewander started to dwindle.

Alabama’s 2014 season—Unleash Nysweander

Change was in store for Alabama in 2014, especially at the quarterback position. AJ McCarron had departed to the NFL after leading the program to two national titles as a starter.

Blake Sims was the frontrunner to replace McCarron, until the Crimson Tide landed a 6-foot-5, 240-pound graduate transfer.

The battle between Sims and Jacob Coker would go deep into fall camp, before Sims eventually secured the spot.

Quarterback was a issue, nonetheless, Alabama had staples at wide receiver, running back and fullback to even out problems.

One of its staples was Jalston “Nudie” Fowler. He is one of two true fullbacks to play under Saban. He enrolled at Alabama in 2010 and had a good freshman season, totaling 111 rushing yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Fowler would emerge as a prominent backup to Trent Richardson in 2011, collecting 385 yards and four touchdowns on 56 attempts.

He entered the 2012 season under high expectation, but a knee injury against Western Kentucky ended his season in week two. A fierce rehab brought Fowler back in 2013.

He did not carried the ball as much in 2013 and 2014; however, he became a superior blocker and pass catcher.

Fowler was deadly in the red zone in 2013, amassing five touchdown receptions. He would end his career with seven and was selected in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans.

Fowler served as Nysewander’s teacher in 2014 as both played on the field together. Nysewander said it was the way Fowler responded to adversity that won him over.

“Here was a guy [Jalston] that had so much promise who sat in 2012 with an injury. He never got frustrated. He never complained. Jalston always kept his head up and had a smile on his face. I will always respect him for the type of player he was, but also the friend that he is.”

A game against Western Carolina in 2014 was a moment that Fowler and Nysewander will cherish. Alabama was ahead 38-14, when Saban started to bring the subs in for the fourth quarter. Coker came in to run the offense for Sims and Nysewander enter the game too.

Coker took the team downfield in nine plays for 85 yards, but something special happened with 1:04 left in regulation.

Coker fired a pass to the middle of the field. Neither Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims nor Chris Black was on the opposite end for the reception.

Nysewander, the battle-tested walk-on, caught the ball and saw nothing but the end zone ahead of him. He walked into the painted grass untouched and for the young man who did not play a down for the first three season at Alabama, Nysewander had recorded his first touchdown catch.

“I get unbelievable chills every time I think about that play,” Nysewander said. “Coker released the ball slow, but when I caught it I saw nothing but grass in front of me. Seeing all my teammates congratulate me and tap me on the helmet was cool.”

Fowler was the first player to greet Nysewander when he made it to the sideline. He and teammate Derrick Henry both jumped on top of Nysewander in celebration of the touchdown.

At Alabama, one must work for the good and brace itself for the bad. Nysewander recorded his first collegiate touchdown in 2014, yet the team as a whole did not win a national championship.

The Crimson Tide ended poorly in 2013 and 2014, falling short in both postseason games.

Saban had been exceptional bowl games with the exception of the 2009 Sugar Bowl (loss to Utah), prior to the 2013-14 seasons. The term “Finish” would become a fixture in the locker room during the offseason.

The 2015 season—Coker’s shot to start, Ole Miss loss and championship

“We must collect a legacy for ourselves.”- Nysewander

This statement was sparked from Alabama not winning a bowl game in 2013 and 2014. Crimson Tide football was dominating in the 1960s and 1970s. Legendary coach Paul Bryant expected to win and engraved this mindset into his players. Two seasons of falling short was not Alabama football and Nysewander was ready to help earn this team a national title.

Media personnel continued to question Coker’s toughness and mechanics, but he got the nod to start against Wisconsin.

Nysewander Levels MTSU Kick Returner

A strong outing against the Badgers and a mediocre performance against Middle Tennessee State do not mix well for Alabama’s fan base. Saban wanted to do two things in preparation for Ole Miss, give his team a different wrinkle and light a fire under Coker.

Both objectives were accomplished in starting Cooper Bateman, but the latter took on a broad appeal. Coker came off the bench in the second quarter and multiple times led Alabama on drives that cut Ole Miss’ lead down to six. Mississippi defeated the Tide 43-37, but Coker’s performance earned him respect in the eyes of fans, players and coaches.

“Coker came in under high expectations and it was not fair,” Nysewander said. “He had to make new friends, learn a new university and basically start all over again. He always stood behind Blake in 2014 and helped him every way he could. Everyone on the sidelines felt like we were going to comeback and win against Ole Miss with the way Coker was leading us.”

Nysewander said every game after the loss to the Rebels was a “playoff game.” The entire squad took on the personality of its coach. Alabama grew into an “us against the world” team.

“We had a team meeting after the game,” he said. “We determined within ourselves that no one outside of this meeting will decide our fate. People kept talking about how the dynasty was over. We paid no attention to it. It wasn’t even about a championship at that point. We were taking it one game at a time. It was tough to do, though. It was hard to not listen to ESPN.”

It was the major media sites that were doing the negative spewing against Alabama, including ESPN College Football analyst Danny Kannell and Fox Sports radio host Colin Cowherd.

Cowherd said Alabama was no longer a “great team” and that Saban’s brand of football was boring. The Crimson Tide ripped off four straight wins after the Ole Miss games, including three SEC victories over Georgia, Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Coke Zero Athlete of the Week

The “Third Saturday in October” rivalry rolled around on Oct. 24, 2015 for Alabama vs. Tennessee at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The Volunteers had not beaten Alabama since 2006, yet it found itself winning 14-13 in the fourth quarter.

With 5:49 left in regulation and national title hopes on the line, Coker guided the Tide on a drive lasting eight plays for 71 yards. Perfect dimes to wide outs ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley kept the drive alive. Derrick Henry capped off the possession with 14-yard touchdown run, giving Alabama a 19-14 advantage with 2:24 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“That was the game that made Coker a quarterback in my opinion,” Nysewander said. “We were not playing well at first and Coker was not throwing well, but he made two perfect throws to ArDarius and Calvin under pressure. The Tennessee game showed us that there was nothing that he couldn’t handle.”

Alabama defeated Tennessee 19-14 and would finish the regular season strong at 11-1.

It knocked off Florida in the 2015 Southeastern Conference Championship Game 29-15, to advance to the College Football Playoff for a second straight year. A dominated performance from Coker, Ridley, Alabama’s defense and defensive back Cyrus Jones led to a 38-0 shutout win over Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl. The Tide accomplished both victories with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart by its side. He was hired as Georgia’s new head coach on Dec. 6, 2015, but decided to stay at Alabama to finish a promise made to his players.

“I already had a lot of respect for Coach Smart, but his decision to stay at Alabama when he could have left verified my respect for him,” Nysewander said. “It showed me what type of man he is and what type of character he has. He gave his word to the team and University that was not leaving.”

The coaching staff—Nysewander’s thoughts on Saban and others 

Nysewander now feels like a man after being a part of three national championship teams. Thirty-five walk-ons came in with him in 2011, but he was the lone one standing during its national championship run in 2015. Much of the credit he gives to Saban.

“When you come to a big time school like Alabama, it all about getting into a routine,” Nysewander said. “Aside from my parents, I learned the most from Coach Saban. It wasn’t just about football, he was concerned about your school work, social life and relationships.”

Four of Nysewander’s five years at Alabama were spent with two of Saban’s longest tenured assistants, running back coach Burton Burns (2012) and special assistant coach Bobby Williams (2013-15). He said it was Williams’ energy that was compelling to him.

“Coach Williams’ meetings made you feel good,” Nysewander said. “He is such a great person and he had a funny way of doing things. Even if you had a bad day, just his words would put the focus on why you were at the meeting.”

He came as a tight end, but one could argue that Nysewander became Alabama’s second true fullback under Saban. He blocked for 206.6 rushing yards in 2014 and 199.9 yards in 2015.


Derrick Henry and former Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon both neared 1,000 yards in 2014, while Henry totaled 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns on 395 carries in his 2015 Heisman run.

“It’s unbelievable that I had the opportunity to block for them,” Nysewander said. “Just seeing someone else benefit off me doing my job was great.”

Fun topics—Nysewander’s top five and life after Alabama

He has been on the field with a lot of talented players, yet Nysewander does have a top five.

Donta Hightower, Trent Richardson, Michael Williams, Jalston Fowler and Henry stand as the individuals that he had the most fun with. He even gave a particular story on Richardson.

“I was doing the fraternity thing as a freshman and I decided to take Trent to one of the parties,” Nysewander said. “The guys saw him with me and they swore they thought God had walk in the room.”

“Jonathan Allen is going to be a leader next season,” Nysewander said. “The commitment he made to come back for his senior year was surprising because everyone thought he was leaving. He made so many big plays last season. As for Cam, he will be the face of the offensive line taking over for Ryan Kelly. I hope he is the one that will guide next year’s front line.”

Nysewander is currently preparing for Alabama’s pro day (NFL Draft), which is held in March at the player’s facility. He mentions responsibility and work ethic as the two things he will take with him.

“I remember when I came to Alabama, I wanted to quit because I wasn’t playing right away but I stuck it out,” Nysewander said. “When your mind is set on something and you are able to perform good things will happen.”

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.

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