Central stage: Chippewas' Joe Staley, Eric Fisher step into Super Bowl spotlight

By Matt Schoch
The Detroit News

Two former Central Michigan football players have been front and center in the news lately: J.J. Watt will host Saturday Night Live this weekend, and Antonio Brown’s legal troubles continue to unravel his once incredible pro career.

But two other Chippewas — also elite NFL players — will suit up again this weekend, though with much less fanfare and headlines about their personal achievements.

Kansas City Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher (left) and San Francisco 49ers left tackle Joe Staley have seven Pro Bowl appearances between them.

That’s life on the offensive line. But this life for Rockford’s Joe Staley and Rochester’s Eric Fisher took unexpected turns to the trenches, and now to football's summit.

Both will start at left tackle as Staley’s San Francisco 49ers will meet Fisher’s Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in Miami at Super Bowl LIV.

“I love both those guys,” said Plas Presnell, a former 31-year CMU assistant coach. “They’re great guys, we’re proud of them. They rep CMU. They know their roots.”

Staley and Fisher are the only two players who finished their college football careers at CMU to be picked in the first round. On Sunday, they will become the second pair of starting left tackles from the same school to start a Super Bowl, joining Michigan’s Bubba Paris (San Francisco) and Jon Giesler (Miami) in 1985.

Watt, who became a mega-star after being drafted 11th by Houston in 2011, found his way to Wisconsin after his football career sputtered in Mount Pleasant.

But after four years apiece in the maroon and gold, Fisher and Staley have worn red throughout their pro careers. They have lived up to the first-round promise for the teams that invested in them early, combining for seven Pro Bowl appearances.

They are proud Michiganians who once played premium positions like Watt and Brown, whose stardom is buoyed by the visibility of being a star pass rusher and pass catcher, respectively.

Staley and Fisher were groomed by men who coveted quality offensive linemen, high school coaches who knew the importance of the unit for winning football teams.

Judging where Staley and Fisher will be Sunday, with about 100 million people worldwide tuned in, Ralph Munger of Rockford and Calvin Gross of Rochester Hills Stoney Creek might’ve been on to something back then.

San Francisco offensive tackle Joe Staley is in his 13th NFL season after the 49ers selected him in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft (No. 28 overall) out of Central Michigan.

The Rockford runner

Staley came to Rockford as a string bean sprinter, eventually setting the school record in the 200 meters (21.9 seconds), reaching the all-state medal stand.

In truth, the son of a librarian and postal worker left high school weighing not much more than 200 pounds as well.

But compared to compact speedsters on the track, the 6-foot-5 Staley stood out.

Track coach Randy VanderVeen, who was defensive coordinator for the football team, remembers powerful closes to his races.

“I can still remember him coming around that bend and how big he was,” VanderVeen said. “He was quite the imposing figure.”

Even as a pass-catching force in the fall, Staley would show glimpses of the player he would become.

VanderVeen remembers a run Staley sprung for his son, running back Brad VanderVeen, a long gain with dominant downfield blocking.

“And the poor kids that were in high school that if Joe were to come on a double team …” VanderVeen said. “Let’s just say, if you were the offensive tackle, you really enjoyed Joe helping you out on a double team.”

It was that dominance that endeared Staley to Munger, who hosted the linemen, tight ends and quarterbacks at his house for weekly dinners during the season. Munger referred to the offensive line as the “heart of the offense” and the Tuesday gatherings ensured their bellies would be full and minds would be ready for Friday night.

Ralph and Kathy Munger, who spoke with The News while driving this week from Florida to Tennessee to visit another former player, would cook each week, while the players watched film of the upcoming opponents and then played some driveway basketball.

“All linemen were special to our program; if you don’t have a line, you don’t have a game,” said Ralph Munger, who retired in December after 40 years coaching at Frankenmuth and Rockford, placing sixth all-time in wins across state history (332), including three state titles at Rockford.

“I wanted to make sure the attention they got was going to help them be successful.”

The foundation of the Rams’ run of three titles in five years was built on hard-nosed players like Staley, though he never did play as a lineman for Munger.

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At CMU under coach Mike DeBord, Staley caught 11 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown as a freshman tight end. DeBord was fired after a 3-9 season and Brian Kelly was hired from Grand Valley State, where he was coming off back-to-back Division II national championships.

The no-nonsense coach gave it to Staley straight: There was limited use for tight ends in his offense, and Staley would be moved to tackle.

Staley admitted later he cried about the change and considered a transfer. 

However, Kelly and his offensive line coach Jeff Quinn referred Staley for some hometown guidance.

At Grand Valley a few years earlier, Kelly and Quinn had moved Rockford twins Tom and Dan Hosford away from tight end and linebacker, respectively, to the offensive and defensive lines.

“That happened a lot at Grand Valley, and I do see that at all of (Kelly’s) stops,” said Tom Hosford, now principal at Rockford’s freshman center. “It was a very difficult move, but I had the trust of the coaching staff, trusted their vision and system, and it worked out pretty well.”

Hosford met with Staley in their high school weight room that offseason, and the older alumnus gave a pep talk of sorts.

“I told him they have your best interest in mind, but they also have the team’s best interest in mind, and they want to get the best athletes on the field. If this is the way they’re going to do it, I would trust them.”

CMU strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo of Sterling Heights, who Kelly brought over from Iowa and later to Cincinnati and Notre Dame, helped transform Staley in Mount Pleasant from a 225-pound tight end to a more than 300-pound NFL prospect.

“Once he bought into it and trusted him, things kind of worked out for him,” VanderVeen said.

Six Pro Bowl appearances later, that’s for certain.

The 'Big Fish'

After Staley’s rookie season in San Francisco, another Michigan prospect sought out his high school coach for a transformative conversation.

With one year left at Stoney Creek, Fisher came to Gross and revealed his plans.

Eric Fisher starred at Central Michigan before the Kansas City Chiefs selected him No. 1 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft.

“That when he told me for the first time that he was thinking of playing college football,” Gross said. “That’s when I told him I could see him playing college football, and that he’d probably be a very good offensive lineman.”

Offensive line? Like Staley felt a few years before, it was a record scratch moment for Fisher.

A 6-foot-4 outside linebacker and standout basketball player, Fisher fancied himself more like the option quarterback he was on the freshman team than a lineman.

Fisher never had gotten into a three-point stance. But like Rockford’s Munger, Gross was in charge of the offense and the line, and the pair immediately got to work on drills.

A few weeks later, Fisher was attending a camp at Eastern Michigan, where the Eagles offered a scholarship, in part because of his leadership in drills.

“Even though he didn’t know what he was doing as an offensive linemen, he’d get right in front, he’d be the very first guy,” said Gross, who coached at Stoney Creek until 2012. “After a while, he was a natural.”

During a camp in Mount Pleasant, then-CMU coach Butch Jones wouldn’t let Fisher leave his office without a commitment. Fisher though, a car enthusiast, hoped to study engineering at Purdue.

But when the Purdue offensive line coach ducked out early from the one-day camp when Fisher visited campus, the Rochester prospect felt unwanted.

So Mount Pleasant it was, Fisher decided that summer, going on to dominate his senior year at his new position.

Gross moved Fisher and the right tackle to two-point stances and extended Fisher's split from the left guard 2 extra feet. Fisher was still able to still cover the inside gap because of his superior speed.

With just one high school season in the trenches, Fisher was set to redshirt his freshman season at CMU until an injury forced him into the lineup against Ball State with the team's undefeated Mid-American Conference mark on the line.

There, the 18-year-old matched up against Brandon Crawford — a 33-year-old, all-MAC former Marine.

“He was storming everybody in the conference,” Presnell said. “But we stuck Eric in there, and Eric stoned him.”

The former Marine wouldn’t be the last tough guy overpowered by the former quarterback.

Former Central Michigan stars Joe Staley, Eric Fisher and Frank Zombo get together for a photo after an NFL game in 2018.

Subtle stars

Sunday’s CMU success could be gauged largely on how clean the uniforms of Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo are at game's end.

If Staley and Fisher’s histories are any indication, the quarterbacks should be nice and clean for postgame interviews.

Since being drafted No. 28 by the 49ers in 2007, Staley has been among the best tackles in the NFL.

The expectations were high for Fisher as he became CMU’s first top overall pick in 2013.

Fisher started his career at right tackle, and there were tough times for him individually over the first few years. The Chiefs also suffered a slew of postseason disappointments under coach Andy Reid.

The valley might’ve been a 2017 playoff loss to Pittsburgh where Fisher’s penalty nullified the tying 2-point conversion in the final minutes. The loss was sealed a few plays later when Brown, his former college teammate, caught a crucial third-down pass.

Now firmly at left tackle, Fisher’s career has taken off since, reaching the Pro Bowl in 2018, as Mahomes has dominated the league under Reid's guidance.

Staley and Fisher combined to miss more time than they played this regular season because of injuries, but both returned strong to lead their teams to the cusp of a championship.

Like Watt and Brown, Fisher even gained some fame during a dramatic playoff comeback victory over Houston earlier this month, with a Stone Cold Steve Austin beer celebration after a score, a rare viral moment for a background player.

As for Staley, making his second Super Bowl appearance, the dominance continues.

“One of my favorite plays to watch is when the 49ers are in goal line or in short yardage and he’s blocking down,” Rockford’s Hosford said. “He caves in the defensive line. It’s just that horsepower he has when he runs and he competes. He just overpowers and it’s a joy to watch.”

Fisher invited Presnell to Sunday’s game, but his former coach declined because of an upcoming surgery.

Presnell said he’ll be neutral toward his guys, though Staley and Fisher’s high school coaches will be rooting hard for their former skill position players turned star linemen.

“He’s special and has certainly used his God-given abilities to his fullest,” Munger said of Staley, who had Ralph and Kathy out for the NFC Championship a few years back. “He’s just the right type of guy and right type of teammate.”

Gross added of Fisher, with whom he still texts with before and after most games: “He loves coming home in the offseason and everyone thinks he’s just some big guy, and they don’t know who he is.

“I think that’s going to change now. I think everybody is going to know who he is, which is kind of cool.”

Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.