In an era when college football can often seem like a predictable churn of similar stories, Joey Klunder, a sophomore defensive lineman for the University of Michigan football team, stands out.
His tale, not just of physical growth and prowess on the field, but also of exceptional personal initiative and academic ambition, is as inspiring as it is unique. In a candid conversation, Klunder outlined his path from a late start in football to earning a place on one of college football’s most storied, winningest programs.
Klunder was raised in a family of hockey players (with his father hailing from Canada) in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where hockey is deeply ingrained in the culture. But he discovered and nurtured a passion for football.
“I was a hockey player all my life, pretty much from when I was five until high school. . . . I never really started playing football until I was in seventh or eighth grade,” Klunder said, setting the stage for an athletic pivot that would change his life.
Klunder’s beginnings on the gridiron were humble, as he recounted his challenging start as a middle school quarterback: “We went 0–8. I had no touchdowns my entire eighth-grade season despite starting every single game.”
He nonetheless developed an interest in football that would fuel his passion to improve. Because of his competitive nature and desire, Klunder’s athletic journey took a dramatic turn in high school. A growth spurt and a significant gain in muscle mass led his coaches to shift him to the tight end and defensive end positions.
“I was small, obviously, but I was bigger than some of the other freshmen,” he explained.
The defensive lineman’s high school career was characterized by a complete athletic transformation, aided by a work ethic that did not waver even when the pandemic brought the world to a halt in 2020.
“I went from 180 to 230 pounds,” Klunder recalled, describing a rigorous quarantine training regime that turned the COVID-19 lockdown into an unexpected opportunity. His newfound size would significantly boost his performance, as he would lead the Grosse Pointe South High School Blue Devils in both sacks and tackles for loss in his junior- and senior-year seasons.
Klunder’s newfound success paid off during the college recruiting process, as he was scouted early on by Ivy League programs, including the Penn and Columbia, owing to his athletic performance and his academic achievements.
Reflecting on a pivotal moment in his journey, he recounted, “I went [to training camps] with business cards with all of my stats on it, my picture on it, my Twitter, my GPA, all that stuff.”
At camps brimming with football talent, he ensured he stood out on and off the field. “While everybody was sitting down waiting for coaches to start talking, I just stood up and went down the row, person by person, and introduced myself to every single one and gave them my business card,” Klunder said.
Klunder did not wait for recruiters to come to him; he approached them with the same vigor he displayed in the trenches on the defensive line. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed, as he received an invitation to the highest level of college football by the legendary Jim Harbaugh himself.
“I want to be a Michigan Wolverine, so just remember that. I’ll be one if you’ll have me,” Klunder reassured Harbaugh after a camp. Klunder’s assertiveness culminated in an offer to join Ann Arbor’s storied program, a moment that encapsulates Klunder’s ambitious approach to his football career. He naturally accepted, because, “obviously. It’s Michigan.”
Yet it is Klunder’s recent improvement at the collegiate level that truly illustrates his relentless pursuit of excellence. Despite not seeing the field in his freshman year, Klunder dedicated himself to his time on the scout team, which earned him the Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week award in 2022 prior to a Michigan win over Penn State. His efforts were rewarded at the beginning of this season, with his first regular season playing time coming against Eastern Carolina University in Week 1.
“Honestly, for me, it was awesome growing up being in the stands to being the one that gets watched from the stands. It’s definitely a dream come true and something I can’t wait to do more,” he said.
He emphasizes readiness and the importance of seizing every moment: “The ability to always be ready when your name is called Being ready and knowing how to execute and what to execute. Always being prepared is just something that it taught me that, like you, you need to have that if you want to be successful.”
Klunder is also realistic when it comes to the competitive nature of college sports. Despite his recent breakthrough in playing time, he keeps perspective of the team’s dynamic and understands that every player plays a vital role.
“I’m still on scout team. . . . Those reps are reps, and you got to take advantage of everyone that you can get,” he insists, underscoring the importance of every position in contributing to the team’s overall success.
With his academic success just as much a priority as his athletic development, Klunder’s commitment to excellence extends to the classroom. Balancing a rigorous academic schedule with the demanding life of a student-athlete, he transferred into U-M’s competitive Ross School of Business.
“It’s definitely a struggle to balance it during the season, but I’ve found a way to get it done,” he confidently states.
Klunder’s academic approach is as analytical and disciplined as his athletic mindset.
“I just try to stay locked in,” he said, eschewing superstitions for solid preparation and mental toughness. “I try not to do things that will inhibit my performance, so I get my sleep, make sure I’m eating before the game, staying up to date, watching film.”
Klunder credits much of his development to the guidance he receives from his coaches, remarking, “Nothing is ever personal. They’re gonna put the best guy on the field, and if you’re not the best guy, they’re gonna tell you what you need to be the best guy in the field.” His respect for the coaching staff, especially Harbaugh, is evident.
“I’d run through a brick wall for that man,” he declared, a sentiment that speaks volumes of his loyalty and dedication.
Looking ahead, Klunder holds an optimistic vision not just for himself but for the entire team. With the Ohio State rivalry game looming, his confidence in his team is unshakable. “I believe in my brothers, I believe in my coaches, and the best team will win,” he stated with conviction.
Joey Klunder’s story with the Michigan Wolverines is still being written, and each chapter is a testament to hard work, adaptability, and the classic spirit of college football. His advice for younger athletes perfectly comports with his outlook:
“If you can get better, you gotta get better. Because if you’re not getting better, someone else is taking your spot.”
He has room to grow, but with his dedication to the team there’s reason to believe that soon, Klunder will be the one taking spots rather than losing them.