By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
For Purdue center and current NFL prospect Robert Kugler, son of University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) Head Coach, Sean Kugler, there is no denying the pull the game of football has on him.
Whether innately, or because he was raised between the lines, Kugler remembers the very instant his love for the game hit him and it came with the sound of a CRACK.
“I remember it like yesterday,” he laughs. “I was eight years old. It was my first year of tackle football. We put on our pads and started a blocking drill where one player ran down the line and the other player ran perpendicular to him and tackled him. I was eight on the eight to nine-year-old team. I looked across and saw that I was lined up to tackle Bull Dog. I don’t remember his name- just Bull Dog. I was so nervous because I was thinking – he is huge. He’s gonna throw me right over. When the whistle blew, I ran down that line and when I hit him- bam. I heard this crack and he was on the ground. I jumped up and just let out a scream. I remember thinking, now this is fun,”
When you are a coach’s son, expectations can be bigger than your dad’s legacy. A coach’s kid has to prove he’s earned the spot. A coach’s kid can hear the early whispers, the implications, the judgments - even if they come from his own mind. A coach’s kid works harder than any other kids to dismiss any possibility that his playing time is a birthright.
At North Allegheny Senior High School, in Wexford, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh - a town known for molding hard-nosed, lunch-pail players - Kugler was ranked as the No. 21 tight end nationally by ESPN.com, rated as the No. 28 player in Pennsylvania by Rivals.com, named the 2010 PIAA Class AAAA Pennsylvania Player of the Year by the Associated Press and a Pennsylvania Sports Writers first team All-State selection.
Kugler fielded offers from across the nation, narrowing it down to five before choosing Purdue. He would start 43 consecutive games there (the first seven at right guard until his move to center). For three straight years, he was named Academic All-Big Ten. His sophomore season he was voted team MVP. His junior and senior years he was selected team captain, as well as Academic All-American second team.
The football field would be this coach’s kid’s proving grounds and he would test himself each season, each game, every single down.
Purdue teammates will attest to his tenacity. He played games with broken bones and strained gluts - the option of sitting out never crossing his mind. Long gone were the days of proving anything to anyone.
“It grew to be just internal pride and respect for the game,” he says. “To remain worthy of being out there.”
Heading into the 2016 NFL draft, a projected late round or undrafted free agent, Kugler is ready for the next level. At a position that requires intuition, he is smart; groomed to handle the quick checks and line adjustments and confident enough to make the calls. That confidence comes from years of leadership. His leadership approach is, not surprisingly, studied. From his father he learned that the most effective leadership is shown – not shouted.
“I look at it like this: If you’re not willing to do it, you have no right to tell somebody else to do it. With that, I try to be the hardest worker out there. Do the extra reps. Especially as a captain, I found that if you put in the extra work, your teammates respect you and that is how to go about dignifying yourself as a leader.”
With a double major in political science and history, Kugler - who once considered a career in politics - is quick to realize the similarities in approaching locker room dynamics.
“Any time you have 110 guys together, you’re going to have some friction.” Kugler learned that there’s finesse to handling conflict and filtering out negativity in the room.
“It can get uncomfortable when it is your friend. You have to put friendship aside and be the captain. Early on, I realized that one-on-one is most effective. It’s your teammate and you don’t want to put him down in front of the team. You have to approach him man-to-man. You have to tell him, ‘You’re hurting the team.’ In the end, you want to get the most out of him. What you learn is you’re never going to get that with humiliation.”
Often, Kugler ran situations passed his father. “I watch my dad and respect the hell out of how he influences the mindset of the team. I think he does a great job of developing self-dignity. I have had coaches who have done that and coaches who have not. I have seen the outcome of both in team dynamic and wins/losses.”
Through their many father/son and coach/player conversations, Kugler’s long-term game plan would be solidified: he would coach. “They say that football reveals people. The strength of people. Their loyalty. They say that football reveals character, but I believe it can also teach it, “ Kugler says.
“Coaching football is rewarding because you can take a player who is not mentally tough and put him in the right culture with the right environment and watch him mature into a team player and a man. You can develop character, mold attitude and that mindset will trickle into to every aspect of his life: on the field and off. That, to me, is rewarding.”
Kugler’s mom, Patsy, laughs nervously at the mention of her son coaching. “He must be crazy,“ she laughs. Truth be told, Kugler credits Patsy and her positive spin on all of their moves for making coaching fun for the family. The Kuglers have moved from Texas to Sacramento to Tampa back to Texas to Detroit to Boise to Buffalo to Pittsburgh and back again to Texas, in that order.
“My mom is the most outgoing person I know,” he says. “We’ve lived so many places and she always makes friends. She’s positive about everything and I think that has rubbed off on me through the years.” Initially shy as a young boy, Kugler says he learned early on that you either go out and make friends, or you aren’t going to have any.
“Moving around taught me to open up more with people and develop friendships,” he says.
Sports, for the Kugler kids, always eased the entrance (brother Patrick is a junior offensive lineman at the University of Michigan, sister Kali is a sophomore volleyball player at Coronado High School in El Paso.) For Robert, no matter where his father’s career took the family, he always had the game.
And now, the game offers up opportunity at the highest level. “I never thought about the NFL,” he admits. “With each phase, high school and then Purdue, all I thought about was being the best I could be, being a great teammate. I loved the game so much that all I could think about was that next team on the schedule and preparing for that win. I never looked ahead and now that I look back, I’m glad. Truth is, it’s out of a player’s hands. All we can control is our performance, and our mindset. I’m ready. I’ve done everything to be prepared now that this opportunity is in front of me.”
This weekend, the Kugler family will be watching the Draft, like they do every year. For the fifth straight Draft, they will be in El Paso, Texas.
Robert says the day won’t be much different than all the rest. Except this year, when the Draft is over, this coach’s kid will likely have a team name attached to his own and, this fall, when he checks into training camp, he won’t be the little kid tagging along with his dad.
“That is going to be pretty surreal,” he says. “It seems like only yesterday I was that little kid helping the equipment guys hand out towels.”
Cynthia Zordich is an NFL Engagement insider. She is the wife of former NFL Player/University of Michigan Coach Michael Zordich and the mother of free agent FB Michael Zordich (PSU '12), former UB Quarterback Alex Zordich ('13) and recent Penn State graduate Aidan Zordich (Advertising '14). www.cynthiazordich.com.