From walk-on to starter, Michigan's Andrew Vastardis learned 'never settling' was the only way to play
Andrew Vastardis jokes he was “brainwashed” from an early age to love Michigan even though he was raised in Virginia.
His mother grew up in Midland and her brother, Mark Braman, was a 24-game starter for Michigan at defensive back. That helps explain why Vastardis turned down a full scholarship to Old Dominion when he got the call from Michigan offering a preferred walk-on spot. He couldn’t turn that down.
Vastardis, now a fifth-year senior graduate student juggling school, football and medical school applications, is preparing to take over as the Wolverines’ starting center when they open the eight-game regular season on Saturday at Minnesota. There's a ninth game featuring seeded crossover Big Ten teams.
“It was just one of those things where I couldn’t go on wondering, ‘What if?’” Vastardis said in an interview with The Detroit News, referring to taking the walk-on offer. “It’s cheesy, but I would bet on myself to try to give it all I had, and I have not looked back. I've loved every lesson I've learned, loved every moment football, non-football, at the University of Michigan. It's brought me my friends, it’s brought me my relationships, all the lessons from football and academic, and I just love it here.
“I can't even imagine life any other way.”
This season hasn’t been the way anyone could have imagined. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, including the football season. After the Big Ten decided to go forward with a 10-game, conference-only schedule, within a week, the season was suddenly postponed on Aug. 11.
Vastardis, who earned a scholarship before last season, had planned to play this fall and then focus on medical school, but this put a wrinkle in those plans.
“I really didn't want to hang it up yet,” Vastardis said. “Right after that (announcement), we practiced that day, and I kinda hung out and was like, ‘You know what? I'm not done. I'm gonna see it through because there's still a chance that we could play down the road.’ I talked to coach (Jim Harbaugh), and said, ‘Thank you for everything you did to try to make the season happen. We all were fighting for it just as hard as you were. I'm here until you kick me out, if that's possible.' And he was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ I didn't want to leave my second family quite yet.”
He played the odds and was right. The Big Ten last month reinstated the season because of the availability of rapid testing. And now Vastardis is anchoring an almost all-new offensive line. Jalen Mayfield is the only returning starter at right tackle, while left tackle Ryan Hayes and right guard Andrew Stueber have combined for a handful of starts.
Vastardis has gone from preferred walk-on, to scholarship lineman, to starting center and also a captain.
“Seeing Vastardis where he’s at now, you just think about his whole process of coming in, walking on, now filling the role, being a starter for the Wolverines, it’s a huge accomplishment to how he’s able to handle any adversity in his life,” said fifth-year defensive tackle and two-time captain Carlo Kemp. “The biggest thing about Andrew, he is one of the hardest workers on and off the field, especially on the field. Whatever happens during a play, he’s going to make sure that he finishes to the best of his ability, through the whistle. It’s every play, no matter what.
“We like to think of Andrew as a Mack Truck. Just drives his Mack Truck to work every single day and pours his concrete. Being that center position, you’ve got to lead the rest of those O-linemen, and he’s done a tremendous job of getting those guys rallied up, fired up every single day to practice and see the things we want to accomplish this season.”
'He's smart, he's tough'
Vastardis said he arrived at Mack Truck status after recognizing early on that there’s nothing easy and there are no awards for just showing up. He was playing behind starter Cesar Ruiz the past two years. Stephen Spanellis was the backup but decided to transfer, leaving the door open for Vastardis.
“I realized a while ago I’m not going to figure it out right away, it's not going to be that quick fix," he said. "It's gonna come with grinding day in and day out. It's just like, keep the head down and do everything you can. You're never settling, you're trying to advance, just keep going.”
Offensive line coach Ed Warinner saw four of his starters from last year selected in the NFL Draft, including Ruiz, who was taken in the first round. Warinner has not been surprised Vastardis seized this role.
“Andrew is such a hard worker,” Warinner said. “He’s smart, he’s tough and whenever he got his opportunity he took off. All of a sudden, Vastardis saw his opportunity and seized it. He’s always been a leader. There’s something about availability, being at work every day, being at work on time, working hard, being tough, being smart, so he never missed a day all summer, never had a setback, never had any contact tracing issues, never had anything that knocked him out of participation. He’s had as many reps as anybody in the program since March, and he’s shown going against our ones on a consistent basis that he can play the position and play it at a high level.
“I’m excited for him, excited to see him get his opportunity. If you want something, you work hard enough, you believe in yourself, and you do it with energy and passion, man, crazy things happen. He’s one of those guys you root for. No bigger fan than me. I’m his coach, but the biggest fan. I can’t wait to watch him.”
Entering his final season during a pandemic hasn’t been easy, and that goes for everyone. Players across the country had to be self-reliant when campuses shut down and sent students home. Football players returned in mid-June for voluntary workouts, but before that, they had to work out on their own and take care of their nutrition.
Vastardis used that time to get in shape, and he also drew on everything he had learned watching Ruiz the last few years, his approach to fitness, eating right and studying the playbook.
“I kind of took a step back and said, ‘What can I do to improve myself to help improve the team?’” Vastardis said.
He didn’t know he would win the starting job, and he didn’t approach the offseason focused on whether he would be the guy at center. Instead, he wanted to improve himself while helping younger players. Vastardis has been described by coaches and players as a natural leader, and that’s what he was.
“The biggest part of being a leader is to make sure the young guys adapt and know how to handle themselves,” he said. “Once I really bought into that and tried to get other guys to buy into the system, I think that led to, ‘I've got to be the best version of myself, or else these guys aren't gonna listen to me.’"
Vastardis led a group of players on frequent visits to the local Veteran’s Hospital, taking time to talk to those who served, learning from them while offering a boost during lengthy hospital stays. Medical school is next and Michigan is No. 1 on his list. Vastardis said his options are open, but orthopedics and pediatrics are among his top considerations.
But med school can wait while he fulfills his goals as Michigan’s starting center.
“If I ever take a step back and think of how far I've come I, I do recognize that, hey, I've overcome some stuff,” Vastardis said. “I also realize that I've been surrounded by great people who have helped me along the way, family, coaches, teammates, loved ones. And at this point, there's no time to settle. Got to keep going, because they've helped me through, and the most I can do right now is to do my best to show them that what they did is appreciated. I'm never going to waste any ounce of effort that they've put into me and believed in me.
“I owe it to myself, those loved ones and every one of my second family on the team to go out there, give it my all and, you know, hold it down for us, so we have the best chance of winning every game.”