It’s been nine years since Mike Kudla suited up to play high school football, but the 2002 Highland graduate still feels the pull every time the last week of August rolls around.
Now an agent for the Twinsburg branch of State Farm Insurance, the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder smells the air this time of year and can put himself back in two-a- days under coach John Hopkins as the Hornets got ready for what became a magical 2001 season.
The Gazette caught up with Kudla this week to reminisce about the past, talk about life today and get a glimpse of what might happen in the future for the 26-year-old who now lives in Brunswick.
Kudla played linebacker and right guard for the Hornets during a senior season that saw him named the Associated Press’ Division III co-Defensive Player of the Year.
Highland ran the table to reach the playoffs for the second year in a row, won the Suburban League, beat Archrival Wadsworth and Kudla blocked an extra point to secure a 21-20 win over Oak Harbor in the first round of the playoffs.
That’s a closet full of memories, yet Kudla remembers opening night more than anything else. Highland was coming off a season where it beat Mentor Lake Catholic 29-28 in double overtime before bowing to Hubbard 6-3 in Round 2 of the postseason.
It was the first time in school history the Hornets made it to the playoffs and expectations were high as Highland rode into its 2001 campaign.
Akron North was the Hornets’ first victim in what became a dream season.
“It was an exciting time because you worked all summer long to get there,” Kudla said. “You went through two-a-days and through camp. Game time is what you got up for.
That’s when you put it together and executed.
“In a way, that’s what you push for. You want to get through that first game. It was a good measuring stick, the real deal. That told you if you were on the right track or if it was time to pick it up and shift gears really quick. It was the pinnacle.”
Fast forward to tonight and you’ll find Kudla in the stands cheering when Highland opens the season at home against Rocky River.
“The neat thing about high school sports is it’s a bunch of guys working together to reach a common goal,” he said. “It’s pure. It’s natural football.
“I watch it differently now, though. You watch for different things, see schemes in offensive formation. It’s like you’re breaking down game film. It’s what you see.”
Ohio State years
Need a ring? Kudla’s got plenty of them— from a national championship where he was part of an Ohio State squad that beat Miami 31-24 in double overtime to two Big Ten titles.
He played in two Fiesta Bowls and one Alamo Bowl and has the jerseys to prove it.
It was with the Buckeyes that Kudla transformed how he watched and played football.
Playing a Big Ten schedule on a national stage meant there was no time to rest on your laurels. It was full-go all the time.
“You’re taking a big step because the competition across the board equalizes,” Kudla said. “The mentality of the game is where you excel. In high school, you could be a two-way player, but in college, you learn the X’s and O’s. You really break it down. You not only push yourself physically, but mentally.”
That meant days where he spent 10-12 hours at the facility, breaking down film and learning everything he could to make himself better.
It wasn’t a five-month love affair like it was in high school, it was a lifestyle. And it was one Kudla embraced.
“I really enjoyed college,” he said. “It was a great, great time.
It’s a little more workmanlike. It was everything I did. I liked getting up at 4 in the morning.”
The hard work paid off as Kudla was named first-team All-Big Ten his senior year en route to another trip to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona.
His last hurrah was the best as Kudla had the game of his life, finishing with seven tackles and a Fiesta Bowl record three sacks that still stands today.
His swan song season with the Buckeyes saw him record 41 tackles and tie A.J. Hawk for the team lead with 9½ sacks from his defensive end position.
In 49 games, Kudla started 19 times, collected 91 tackles and had 14½ sacks. He also recovered two fumbles, scoring a touchdown against Purdue on one.
Undrafted in 2006, Kudla didn’t have to wait long to get picked up by a team, as Pittsburgh grabbed him as a free agent immediately following the selection process.
The injury bug that plagued him his entire Ohio State career bit again, however, as he tweaked an already sketchy right hamstring on the first day of practice.
He was forced to sit out and eventually was cut.
“My hamstring was pieced together,” he said. “I knew it was a matter of time before it would go again. I was never able to get it quite healed.”
Kudla didn’t give in, trying out with Green Bay in January 2007 and again in November with Miami.
Teams still had reservations about the hamstring as the pain continued to bother him, so Kudla took time off and got himself healed. He put himself in the best shape of his life, changed his agent and concentrated on getting back to football.
He was all set to go to the Arena Football League, play in a few games and give NFL teams some film, but the league went bankrupt in December 2008 and Kudla’s life changed.
“I miss football tremendously,” Kudla said. “I miss the competition, the lifestyle.
“It’s what I knew, but there’s always a bigger plan. It wasn’t the end of the world.”
That bigger plan had him go back to Ohio State and finish up his degree.
Now With the help of coach Jim Tressel, Kudla graced the campus of Ohio State again and graduated in 2008.
He joined the State Farm Insurance team in May 2009 and is already making incredible progress with the company.
A competitor in everything, Kudla has taken what he learned on the football field and used it to his advantage.
While he can’t bull rush a client into upping a policy, he’s used the mental aspect of the game to succeed in just a short time.
“You have to draw a line in the sand and move forward with your life,” Kudla said. “It’s a different type of mindset. I was so used to using my physical gifts to perform. Now, I use the mental things I learned from sports here. A lot of the things I used to be successful in sports, I use to be a success as a businessman.
It’s just using different skill sets.
“Things like integrity and overcoming adversity, it’s all pivoted over. I love it and I have a great life. I like what I do. It’s a great job.”
OK, so maybe Kudla hasn’t left the game completely. While he doesn’t see returning to the sideline happening anytime soon, he wouldn’t mind being a mentor one day in the distant future.
He got a glimpse of it when he returned to Ohio State to get his degree and helped Tressel with the team as a player/coach.
“As odd as it sounds, I never wanted to be a coach,” Kudla said. “It was never what I wanted, but I like it.
“I like coaching. It’s converting this encyclopedia of knowledge to someone else. To me, it’s right-hand work. It’s something down the road I would entertain, but a lot of stuff would have to be different.”
For Kudla, it isn’t a matter of self-importance, it’s doing for others what they did for him when he was running amuck on the fields of Highland.
“I liked being able to give what I’ve learned to someone else,” he said. “I remember I was a sponge for that stuff growing up.
“That’s what made me interested in doing things to make me better. I like paying back. It doesn’t do any good to not help someone else and have all I’ve learned go by the wayside.”
Contact Brad Bournival at email@example.com.