DETROIT — Craig Roh is a perfectionist who has learned that, sometimes, disruption of the norm is the only way to achieve order.
In some ways, his four-year Michigan career, full of ups and downs since he started as a freshman in 2009, has been chaotic, with two defensive coordinators, four positions, and a junior season in which he experienced being torn down, only to be built back up.
Roh is with the Wolverines in Tampa, Fla., preparing for the New Year’s Day Outback Bowl, the final game of his college career in what should be a school record-setting 51st consecutive start. He has made 20 starts at outside linebacker, 28 at defensive end and two at defensive tackle.
“It’s been a journey,” Roh said. “There’s really been some hard times in my life, and it’s really made me a man. I think I’ll leave here a man because I’ve been through these trials and tribulations. It’s just football, but getting through two-a-days in camp when you can’t do a thing right and I’m a perfectionist, so my world falls apart a little bit if I don’t do everything right.
“That’s something I’ve grown up with where if I don’t do it perfect it’s OK, and I can recover faster now. I think I have relaxed in the respect if I do get hard coaching from a coach, I know they’re not attacking me as a person. I can internalize it that way a lot. It’s obviously still hard sometimes, but I think I can accept coaching better because of it.”
Roh heard that plenty before his junior year last season when Greg Mattison arrived as the new defensive coordinator, coming to Michigan from the Baltimore Ravens, where he held the same job.
Mattison didn’t single out Roh as a “special project.” Instead, he found a guy who worked hard but who had never been told he was doing anything wrong. Mattison saw a player he needed to re-shape and re-mold.
It wasn’t the easiest transition for the perfectionist, who until then, thought his football world on a personal level was pretty darn good.
The worst thing Roh heard from Mattison?
“ ‘This isn’t Michigan football, this isn’t Michigan football,’ ” Roh said. “That’s the worst thing ever when it’s not Michigan football. You want to be Michigan football, but you’re not.
“I guess I thought I was in a place where I thought … I never really had a coach to tell me I had to do anything different. I’m pretty self-motivated, and I’ve always worked hard. And I think Mattison saw that and said, ‘I can push him to even a new level where even he thinks he can’t go.’”
Early in the 2011 season, the no-nonsense Mattison made clear his expectations are greater than most.
“He sees the bar is higher than he expected,” Mattison said of Roh, before generalizing his comment to include all the players. “What he thinks is acceptable, is just not.”
Roh spent a lot of time early that season talking to his father, Fred Roh, a former college athlete, about how to handle this new challenge in his life. Roh decided to settle in and improve under Mattison’s tutelage.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, but the most rewarding,” Roh said of persevering. “He’s a guy who has so much experience, you just respect him. He has a very commanding presence, big guy, deep voice. He’s a guy you want his respect so much. To have him say he respects you as a player, that’s a compliment, because he doesn’t give it easily.”
Faith always has given Roh strength.
“I’m a devout Christian,” he said. “I accepted Christ when I was really young, when I was in third grade — how much do you really understand when you’re in third grade, but I’ve stuck with it for a while here.”
During spring break of his freshman year, Roh went with Athletes in Action to New Orleans to help demolish destroyed homes after Hurricane Katrina so that new homes could be built. He’d smash concrete eight hours a day. The following year, he went to Orlando to an impoverished neighborhood to help set up activities for children. He helped organize a trip this year to Los Angeles but was unable to participate.
His faith offers balance and perspective.
Ready for anything
Roh understands keeping a sound mind, means a sound body, as well. He has been following the genotype diet — his latest concoction is a shake of 12 eggs, Naked Juice and six tablespoons of olive oil — and the 6-foot-5 Roh is now at 275 pounds. He has eliminated wheat, dairy and sugar from his diet.
“I feel the fastest I’ve ever felt,” he said. “I think I could be 285, 290 pound and maybe even faster.”
After the bowl game, Roh plans to return to his native Arizona to train for the NFL.
He said he doesn’t know in which scouting bowls he will participate, but he’s ready for the next level.
“Wherever they want me to play,” he said. “I think my versatility shows I can pick up stuff pretty fast whatever system you want me to be in, I can be in. This year, I played nose some games, three-tech some games and some games at rush — I’d be at the nose one play and dropping into coverage the next play. I think I provide a wide variety of skill set.
“Obviously, I would rather have one position that I played all four years. “Who wouldn’t? But it’s really transformed into a blessing in disguise where I’ve shown my versatility and started every game through it and shown I can play at a high level. That’s something that can be very appealing to an NFL team.”
While Roh prepares for his final college game, he said he’s ready for the next step because he has learned to adapt to setbacks, which have become smaller and smaller, and also has learned to keep the highs in check.
“There’s still a lot more to learn,” Roh said. “I think this senior year is one I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m able to recover faster from failure and put victory into perspective better. Ultimately, that’s what puts you on more of a level plane.”
Spoken like a true perfectionist.