Why Clay Walderzak returned to Central Michigan football
Clay Walderzak had a choice to make.
After two full left knee reconstructions and a position change throughout five seasons, he was faced with his decision to return or depart following the 2018 season that ended in a 1-11 overall record.
He was already granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, so his eligibility wasn't in question.
Rather, the verdict in his career had everything to do with whether he felt healthy enough to get up each day, hit the weight room and grind on the gridiron.
"Do I want to put my body through this one more year?" Walderzak questioned. "Do I want to heal up and get on with my life?"
His answer, while it took some time, was to return to the Chippewas for the 2019 season.
The main reason behind it was Jim McElwain, who is in his first year as coach.
Walderzak has now been in Mount Pleasant for six years, meaning he's the only student-athlete to play for three coaches – Dan Enos in 2014, John Bonamego from 2015-18 and McElwain.
"I love everything about him," Walderzak said of McElwain. "That's a huge reason why I came back. I love the coaching staff and what they're about. It changed my whole mindset when they thought I could come back and play."
Upon finishing the 2018 season, the 6-foot-4, 271-pound offensive tackle figured, after all his body had been through, he would quit.
Walderzak started to lose the weight he spent years to gain. He wasn't in the weight room as often, and he had no intentions of making a return.
That's until he received a call from McElwain. Then, he began working out with former strength and conditioning coordinator Jason Novak and the current coordinator, Joel Welsh.
"It's been phenomenal," Walderzak said. "I've been getting a lot of rehab and therapy on my knee. That was the main situation."
In the offseason before the 2017 season, Walderzak switched from tight end to offensive tackle. He was in the midst of continuous recovery from multiple injuries – his head, back, neck and two full knee surgeries.
Even though Walderzak hasn't been as active as he once hoped to be with CMU, he's done his fair share when unable to get on the field. He's become a teacher of the game.
Last season, when offensive tackle Luke Goedeke transferred to the Chippewas from Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a tight end, Walderzak was often in his ear about switching to the offensive line.
From initial conversations and based on the fact that Walderzak wasn't fully healthy, Goedeke thought he was a coach.
"When I first got here, I thought Clay was a coach," Goedeke said. "I always thought, 'Who is this guy?' Eventually, I saw he started playing.
"He convinced me, 'Hey, make the switch (to the line) and more opportunities have to come.' He's helped me learn different skills against different pass rushers and different techniques."
Another Chippewa that's happy to have Walderzak back for 2019 is senior running back Jonathan Ward, and it's all about giving him and starting quarterback Quinten Dormady protection.
Even though Ward doesn't need to learn the tackle position like Goedeke, he has to rely on a much improved offensive line under new assistant coach Mike Cummings. The improvement starts with leadership, something Ward hopes Walderzak continues to deliver on.
"He's been around longer and has been through different processes than what we've had the past few years," Ward said. "He has a lot of experience, knowledge for the game and just brings that fighting mentality every day."
And Walderzak said he has taken it upon himself to pass off advice to players younger than him. He wasn't around for spring practices but spent time with the team in the summer and was fully active for fall practices leading up to the season.
He's taught his teammates to move forward and forget everything in the past.
"You can't move forward, especially with a new coaching staff, if you're dwelling on the past," he said.
Walderzak said he's also taught freshmen and sophomores more about the culture of the Chippewas, especially on the offensive line. Eric Fisher, who was taught by Cummings, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, and that's something Walderzak often explains to players on the rise.
There's a tradition of success on the offensive line, but it hasn't been evident in recent history.
Walderzak wants to change that, once and for all.