On Super Bowl Sunday, Vassar’s Ricardo Macon Jr. was living a dream.
Macon, 17, a Vassar High School senior, was in bed, actually, texting with the coach at the school where Macon decided to play college football.
The coach, University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh, was at the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh had given Macon and other recruits his phone number Feb. 2 when they visited the university and its facilities.
On Wednesday, Macon read an Advertiser reporter the text he received from Harbaugh on Sunday night after Macon texted the coach to commit to joining Michigan’s football team.
“He said ‘That’s great news, Ricardo. It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine. Welcome aboard, and Go Blue. Please contact (recruiting coordinator) Matt Dudek again, as well, to let him know, and thanks for a great decision. Coach Jim Harbaugh,’” Macon said.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Macon became something of a rarity: a Thumb-area student-athlete joining a football squad in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division 1 – the highest level of intercollegiate athletics sanctioned by the NCAA.
Less than 2 percent of high-school athletes went on to play at NCAA Division 1 sports programs in the 2016-17 school year, according to the NCAA.
Macon, a 6-foot, 211-pound quarterback for a Vassar High team with a 1-8 record in 2018, had been courted by a number of NCAA Division 2 and Division 3 schools before Michigan made its offer.
“My first thought was ‘God works in mysterious ways. He does everything for a reason,’” Macon said of the text exchange with Harbaugh on Sunday night.
Macon, who joins Michigan as a running back, announced the news on Twitter, but even friends and supporters have been caught off guard by it, according to Macon, a second-team pick on the Greater Thumb Conference’s West Division all-conference football team.
“They’re all pretty surprised, but they said they saw it in me all along,” said Macon, who last fall tied his cousin – 2003 Vassar High School graduate Daniel Smith – for a school record by scoring six touchdowns in a single game.
“And (supporters) say ‘Congratulations,’” Macon said. “They hope they see me excel.”
There’s plenty of work ahead for Macon, son of Crystal Smith, who as a preferred walk-on football player receives no financial scholarship at Michigan.
“Basically, he gets a roster spot and a chance,” said William Germain, Vassar High School athletic director and assistant football coach at the school.
“They’ll have a locker and equipment for him.”
Putting in the work
Vassar-area residents figured Macon would play college football somewhere, Germain said.
“He told everybody that he was going to play college football,” Germain said. “He was working to make that happen, but he was visiting Olivet (College) and talking to the Alma College coach on the phone.
“Or the Kalamazoo College coach, who came up and visited, and sat with (Macon) for a long time in the office. Adrian College was very interested, and Indiana Tech – where (Vassar graduate) LaTonya Wilson went as a pole vaulter – showed a little interest.”
On Friday, though, Macon signed a document stating he’s a member of the University of Michigan football team. If folks around Vassar are surprised, Germain figures there are reasons for Macon’s success.
“A lot of people are shocked, because we haven’t had many D1 athletes,” Germain said. “But Ricardo deserves it, and he did all the things that we asked him to do. He wanted to play college football someplace, and so we told him what he had to do, and he did it.
“I remember his freshman year he played junior varsity football, and he said ‘Coach, I really want to be on varsity next year; what do I need to do?’ And I said ‘Well, you just do everything that a varsity football player does.’ And he said ‘What do you mean?’
“And I said ‘It’s not a trick. You just do everything that a varsity player does.’”
So Macon, as a sophomore, attended all varsity football team weightlifting sessions and 7-on-7 games, and extra workouts done by the varsity.
“He did community service projects with the varsity team, he did everything that we asked the varsity kids to do and then he just showed up the first day of a camp for defensive players, before the season started,” Germain said.
“Varsity coach (Jason) Kiss rotated him in with the varsity linebackers, and at the end of the day he said ‘Man, Macon looks OK. What other juniors are gonna play?’ I said ‘Well coach, he’s only a sophomore.’ And (Kiss) said ‘Why is he with the varsity?’
“And I said ‘He wanted to play varsity.’ And (Kiss) said ‘He can now – he looked good.’”
In the same way, Germain said, Macon pursued a spot on a college football team, first by properly filling out NCAA clearinghouse documents on time.
“He helped put a highlight film together,” Germain said. “He helped pick out all his (videotaped) highlights, and then he gave it to Coach Kiss, and Coach Kiss shared it, back in October or November, with the University of Michigan.”
Many colleges ask high school coaches for highlight films of star players, though, according to Germain.
“If you have a kid with a good highlight film, you send the film back to colleges, and 99 percent of the time – zero times in the last 19 years that I’ve been coaching – has a U of M or any big school like that, ever called,” Germain said.
The film, however, caught the eye of Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh – Jim Harbaugh’s son – according to Macon, who said Jay Harbaugh liked the fact Macon ran straight into the holes created by Vassar blockers during plays, rather than avoiding a hole and scampering toward the sidelines.
“I’d always try to bounce it outside, but Coach Kiss always told me to keep it tight to the hole, so I could break arm tackles because I’ve put on 25 pounds since my junior year,” Macon said. “So I’m a lot stronger than I was.”
Germain figures training from Michigan staff members will beef Macon up more.
“He’s got a good frame, and he’s a good kid and a hard worker,” Germain said. “He might be signing to join the team as a running back, but when he ever sees the field, it will probably be as a fullback.
“He weightlifts really well, and he’s going to put on 20 or 30 pounds. He’s already (211 pounds) as a senior, and he’s only 17 years old. He was 16 when he started the school year. So by the time he’s 19 or 20, he’s going to be 245 or 250 pounds. He’s going to be a walking fire hydrant.
“They’ll line him up in the backfield, and he’ll just go smash people in the face.”
Germain said he and Kiss took steps with the Michigan High School Athletic Association to allow Macon to play in the Legends All-Star Game, a football game in late November featuring star players from around the state.
Macon’s coach was Mike Martin, a star defensive lineman for Michigan and a former National Football League player.
“Martin is still in contact with the U of M program,” said Germain, adding “(Macon) met coaches and practiced, and did stuff down there” before and during the all-star game.
While Macon doesn’t shy away from weight training, Germain said Macon – who played wide receiver as a sophomore at Vassar – can catch passes. He’s a centerfielder and pitcher on the varsity baseball team, and he’s also a good student, with a 3.5 grade-point average.
Macon said he changed for the better as a junior-high student after an encounter with Kiss, principal of Vassar High School and Vassar Middle School.
“I think I got called into his office for messing around in class or something like that, and he said ‘Hey, you’ve got to really mature because I see you being the leader of my football team one day, and the captain of my football team,’” Macon said.
“I took that to heart, and I matured a lot, and did a lot of good things.”
Germain figures even better opportunities are in store for Macon, regardless of the student-athlete’s playing time in games at the University of Michigan.
“All I can think about is all the opportunities he’ll have just from the people he’ll meet,” Germain said. “Just from being part of that program – whether he plays or not – he’s going to meet people and make connections that will help him out for the rest of his life.”
Macon was a baby when his father, the late Ricardo J. Macon, died in 2002.
Ricardo Macon Jr., grandson of the late Vassar police officer Jim Smith, said he’s been raised by his mother, Crystal Smith, and his late grandmother, Barbara Smith. He said Daniel Smith served as a mentor through the years, but that his mother, a beautician who works at The Rage Salon in Caro, went the extra mile.
“Daniel’s been a male role model in my life, but credit goes to my mom,” Macon said. “She used to come home from work and take me outside and play catch with me, and do all the stuff dads do.”
Macon, however, figures his late father could only be smiling, with a Michigan Wolverine as a son.
“Everyone tells me that we’re a lot alike, and if it’s true, he’d be very excited, and just silly-jokin’ around about this,” Macon said. “He’d be happy for a successful future, and happy for what’s coming next.”
Tom Gilchrist is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.