John Michael Schmitz rowed the boat for a long time with P.J. Fleck at the helm. He even paddled into uncharted waters for his college head coach.
Schmitz, an All-American center drafted by the Giants in the second round this past April, originally committed to Western Michigan in 2016. Fleck had just been named Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year for the second time after leading the Broncos to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Cotton Bowl. Two weeks before National Signing Day, Schmitz got a call that Fleck was headed to the Big Ten to take over the program at the University of Minnesota.
"Without even stepping a foot on campus and stepping a foot in the state of Minnesota," said Schmitz, an Illinois native, "I committed right on the spot just because I believed in him. I was all in and bought into his culture and was ready to go to battle for him."
That is the type of player the Giants are getting.
"Well, first of all, he fit everything – what the 'row the boat' culture is about, what we're about within our walls, whether that's at Western Michigan or Minnesota," Fleck said on the “Giants Huddle” podcast, referencing his never-give-up mantra. "It's all about the people, and it's all about fit. I think the best NFL teams have the best cultures and have the best fit and connectivity, and that's what we're all about. It was really easy to tell John Michael Schmitz was going to fit our program. He was tough, a south side of Chicago kid. If you've ever met his mother, you would know exactly what I'm talking about. She's one of the toughest people I've ever met."
View the top photos of offensive lineman John Michael Schmitz's career at Minnesota.
In terms of committing to the Twin Cities sight unseen, Fleck was in the same boat.
"I called about six or seven players and basically reoffered them," Fleck said. "My whole line to them was, listen, I know you haven't seen it, but neither have I. So, all we're doing is taking our culture and we're plugging it in, in Minnesota. Instead of going to Western Michigan, just drive a little farther to the west and a little far farther north. It took a lot of courage from a lot of those players, but the success that they've had, including John Michael, it says a lot about that first meeting and the trust they had in us, trust they had in our program, the trust to stick around, to keep developing, to maximize your draft status, to find the right fit. That's what life's all about, and I absolutely love the young man. The New York Giants fan base is going to be really excited to get him."
After redshirting in 2017 and playing mostly on special teams in his freshman season, his career took off as a sophomore in 2019, when he played in 13 games and started four at center. That season, the offense totaled 5,616 yards (third-most in school history), 3,293 passing yards (school record), 294 first downs (second-most in school history), 443 points (second-most in school history), and a scoring average of 34.1 points per game (third-most in school history).
By the time his college career was over, Schmitz had played in 57 games (35 starts) across six seasons for Fleck and the Golden Gophers. He only missed one game due to injury.
"He's a football player, and when you're a great football player, you understand that it's way bigger than you," Fleck said. "You have a job to do, and you have an expectation. We all have injury. We all get banged up. We all play through pain. That's part of this profession. That's part of the job. This is a different sport. This a violent, violent sport. So, you are going to be hurt. You are going to have bumps and bruises. You are going to have things you're going to have to play through. That's the requirement of this job. As long as it's safe, you're going to have that.
"He's done that his entire career, and he knows that there's an obligation from him to be there for his teammates. He knows that we're a better football team with him on that field. He's already a true professional. He already knows what that takes. This isn't a guy that's going to be on the field, off the field, on the field, off the field, he's got a scrape, he's going to have to just get that taped up and be out 20 plays. He is going to fight through everything. If anything, the trainers are going to have to pull him back and the coaches are going to have to monitor him so he can have that longevity because he has no regard for his own body."
That mentality will win over his new teammates on the offensive line, which is a blend of young and established players. The group is bookended by Andrew Thomas on the left and Evan Neal on the right. Schmitz will compete for a spot in the middle of it all.
"He's one of the greatest people off the field, one of the best connectors of a locker room that you'll ever meet," Fleck said. "However, when he's on that football field, he is a nasty, nasty human being. That's what you want because you're creating that identity of what you're going to become as a program, especially when you're in the Big Ten, and especially when you're in the north and in the Mid-American Conference. You've got to be able to impose your will, and we believe strongly in that."
The same can be said about the gritty NFC East.
"He loves the game," Fleck said. "He loves the contact. He loves the physicality of it. He loves the dirty part of it. He loves the nasty part of it. The nastier, the better he plays. The filthier it is, it's like a pig man. He's just rolling around in that mud and he's happier as he gets more mud on him. That's the type of player he is, and listen, there's nothing fake about the guy. He's probably the toughest football player I've ever been around as being a head football coach. He's incredibly intelligent, really smart, but it's not about that he just plays center or he's a good offensive lineman. That's what he does. How he plays the position separates him from everybody. That's where in between that six seconds or five seconds, it's a dog fight and a rock fight with him every single play."
If and when Schmitz does take over as the starting center, Fleck knows he will be up for all that comes with the job as the leader of the unit.
"Volume reflects confidence, period," Fleck said. "When you're a center, you can't be a meek and mild and quiet center. If you're a quarterback, you can't be a meek, mild, low-volume quarterback. That's part of the requirement for the position. All of us can talk louder. You don't have to have that naturally, but you better bring that out when you're on the field or there's going to be a lot of people doing the wrong thing. You have to overcommunicate. He's so good at that. He had to develop that because, by nature, John Michael is not this most outgoing personality and loud person. He's a wonderful leader. He can listen with the best of them. He can look around every corner and have answers and he can lift everybody else around him. Those are the characteristics of leadership in our program, and he has all those.
"He knows he's not going to win every battle. That's the thing about him. His resilience to failing and his response mechanisms to failing make him an extraordinary player because you're not going to win every battle in the National Football League. You're not going to win them all in the Big Ten, but especially in the NFL, especially as a rookie. How do you deal with that adversity? Do you get frustrated? Do you get discouraged or does it make you better? I think that's where his strength is. That's his superpower. The nastier it gets, even the more failing he gets, the better he's going to be, let alone the successes that are going to make him better. He's one of those players that is going to play in the NFL for a very long time. A lot of people aren't going to really notice him until something wrong happens. That's a good thing because he's going to be so consistent in how he plays."
Cornerback is similar in that sense, and the Giants believe the same will be said of Deonte Banks. Fleck and Schmitz played against the first-round selection out of Maryland. The game plan against him was simple.
"We just didn't go to his side," Fleck said with a laugh. "It's pretty easy. We didn't throw the ball over the last few years a lot as it was – I think we were more 70-30 run-pass – so it fit perfectly into playing against him because he's a dangerous, dangerous player, that's for sure."
Must-see photos from minicamp as spring practices come to a close at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.