Port Huron — Maybe it was Mexico or maybe Mount Pleasant, or maybe it was meeting Nick Saban for the first time and receiving a scholarship offer to play football for Alabama.
A handful of key moments elevated Braiden McGregor’s belief that his college days and beyond could be uncommon ones, especially for a Port Huron native.
The four-star junior defensive end recruit has 36 scholarship offers across the country, presenting a high-profile college decision that’s rare to the Thumb area.
McGregor announced Monday morning on Twitter that he was trimming his list to 10 schools, including Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama.
“I love the process, but the pressure it puts on you is different,” the Port Huron Northern High School junior said Friday. “It’s not like you have to make sure you’re starting for Friday night, but you have to make sure you’re not doing something stupid.
“You’re a guy that the community knows. So the pressure is something that has changed the way I look at things.”
During a family trip to Mexico before McGregor entered high school, his dad, Steve, foretold a taste of what could come as McGregor’s athletic career continued.
“My dad was like, you could have a shot of going to the next level, you just got to put in the work,” he said. “After that, it just kind of changed for me.”
McGregor, who is also being recruited as a tight end, said he hopes to make a verbal commitment before summer and will sign in December’s early signing period. His list of potential schools also includes Ohio State, LSU, Clemson, Oregon, Florida, Miami (Fla.) and Penn State. He plans to use three of his five allotted official visits for Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame, starting this weekend in South Bend.
In a hockey town with a minor league lineage dating back to the 1960s and the prestigious Port Huron Silver Stick Finals youth hockey tournament nearing its 60th year, McGregor grew up on skates. He was on the ice shortly after his toddler years and thought his future would be as a bruising defenseman. But a new youth football league helped change McGregor’s course at 6 as he joined the Thumb Area Football League for one of its first seasons, adding to his growing sports calendar.
Floating between linebacker and defensive end on defense and alternating seasons with future fellow Northern standout Theo Ellis as quarterback and running back, McGregor excelled on the gridiron, as well as baseball and basketball.
At Northern, varsity coach Larry Roelens called McGregor up from the freshman team for a taste during the team’s lone playoff game, registering two tackles at the end of a loss.
McGregor then grew 2 inches and more than 50 pounds coming into sophomore season, becoming a full-time starter at outside linebacker, helping Northern to their first playoff win in more than 30 seasons.
That winter, while making his regional recruiting rounds, former Central Michigan running backs coach Jayden Everett stopped in to see Roelens. The coach introduced Everett to the 6-foot-5 linebacker in the cafeteria, where he earned an invitation to campus.
McGregor and his parents, Steve and Tara, visited Mount Pleasant in January 2018 not knowing what to expect.
“I went to Central and I was like a fish out of water, I didn’t know what I was doing,” McGregor said. “I was walking around, looking at weight rooms.”
He was shepherded into John Bonamego’s office, where the former CMU coach gave him his first scholarship offer.
“That was the turning point,” McGregor said. “My mom started getting teary-eyed. That was the moment that I knew it was going to be different from here on out. I’m not going to be the same person. I have to hold myself to a higher standard.”
Mid-American Conference offers followed from Toledo and Western Michigan, but a spring trip last year to college football’s cathedral pushed his college ceiling up a few floors.
“We went to Notre Dame and he got the offer,” Steve McGregor said. “We went to Michigan and going in and meeting with Coach (Jim) Harbaugh, that was a cool experience meeting him for us all, but he got the offer.
“We went down to Alabama (in November), and I said, ‘Now don’t be expecting to leave here with an offer,’ and he does. I guess they see something special in this kid.”
The dedication boost paid off with great tape during a junior season where Northern reached the Division 2 state quarterfinals before losing to Warren De La Salle, the defending and eventual repeat state champions.
McGregor moved around the defense in a “hawk” linebacker position, with responsibilities of finding the ball. He also made his debut at tight end, catching three touchdowns.
“Immediately, he was clearly a Division I guy when he was a sophomore, and we thought he would develop into a high major kid,” recruiting analyst Allen Trieu of 247Sports said Sunday after McGregor had a strong showing at The Opening regional recruiting event in Ohio. “That really started to become obvious in his junior film, and now you’ve seen this huge increase in the number of offers he has.”
Believing basketball would better help him reach his football goals, McGregor gave up hockey this past winter. Football wasn’t far from his mind though, as the rivalry contest with Port Huron High drew 12 football coaches from five schools including Harbaugh and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. McGregor had four dunks, a game-high 17 points and his team won.
“Throughout all this, I’ve maintained that every single game is the same,” McGregor said. “Yeah, I get jacked up for the rivalry games, but it’s the same when you have coach Harbaugh in the stands or you have your mom and dad in the stands.”
The McGregors went south recently, traveling to Clemson, Florida State, Florida, LSU and Alabama.
Tara McGregor said she was surprised with how different each visit was, including the impressive staff at Clemson, the beautiful campus at Florida, and the aura of Alabama.
LSU’s Ed Orgeron made an impression of Braiden McGregor, who noted the coach doesn’t go anywhere quietly.
"He knew I was going to Alabama the next day, and he told my little sister (Jersey): 'Tell Coach Saban that Coach O said he did better in The Blind Side than you.’”
McGregor is hoping to give himself a chance at an NFL career and plans to graduate in December, enrolling early into college.
“I think that Braiden has always been a little wiser than his years,” Tara McGregor said. “I’ve never had to worry about him, that’s never been Bray, but this has even made him more goal oriented.”
With 10 starters back on defense and key pieces back on offense, McGregor said the Huskies can “make Northern history” this fall.
Really, he already has.
“This is the first big-time Division I recruit ever in Port Huron,” said Roelens, a former quarterback at Port Huron High. “And what you see is what you get with him. He is a genuine kid.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.