Inside the mind of Chase Winovich, the NFL draft’s most curious prospect

Chase Winovich’s distinct look and fiery personality helped make him the spokesman of the Michigan defense during the 2018 season. 

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Chase Winovich is rolling now. He already explained how as a kid he ate a raw fish for $20 — he caught the smallest one, ate it, saw the blood and hated it. He has delved into what it’s like to share your vulnerabilities with the world as someone whose public profile is starting to grow exponentially.

He has admitted he’s learning how to deftly deal with the realities of fame — both positive and negative. And he knows it’s all about to change again this weekend, as he’s days away from being an NFL draft pick — possibly as high as the second round. He’ll become a professional athlete.

Much the way it did at Michigan, when he had his first touch of stardom, he knows things are going to change again. His process might be uniquely suited to handle it, though. It’s how Winovich’s brain works, how he processes the very existential questions life often presents. And yet, all of it — everything he’ll discuss over an hour-plus conversation — often leads back to one thing. One word.


He always asks it. Always wants to know. It’s how he learns, how he tries to figure out his way in the world. It’s why, he thinks, he might be different than most — something he’s very OK with.

“Like, ‘Why is this the way we’re thinking? Is there any way we can do it better?’ I think that kind of, that stuff, a lot of the interviews [I’ve done], they poke at the concept of being different,” Winovich said. “But no one has really questioned about what is different, if that makes sense. It’s almost topical, and something that maybe I haven’t even done.”

The concept of why — the best question in language — has been part of a knowledge quest as a way to constantly search for self-betterment. He’s constantly seeking ways to find the answers to questions and realizing when it’s time to stop certain pursuits because the answers might never come.

It all started in high school in suburban Pittsburgh with a Joel Osteen video he saw on YouTube.

“I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he was like, ‘You’re feeding your mind poison,'” Winovich said. “And that’s always kind of stuck with me. What you put into your mind, it changes the way you think, subconsciously how you pursue stuff, how you see the world.”

That includes how you think about it, how your experiences shape your worldview and how to push past that to reach a deeper understanding of the world, your place in it and the greater context of what happens within it.

It fits Winovich’s broader goal of using his platform as a future NFL player to give back as much as possible. It has been a balance for him, juggling the broadening fame in his college town with his continuous thought that since he has reached this position in his life, he has to give back as much as possible.

Winovich’s opportunity came in Ann Arbor throughout the past two years as his profile increased. He went from unknown scout-team tight end to the Wolverines’ most recognizable player and the face most connected to the program in the past 12 months — other than his coach, Jim Harbaugh.

He became more outspoken — from being one of the biggest voices of Michigan’s “Revenge Tour” throughout the second half of his final season to interactions with UFC star Conor McGregor and dying his hair orange for awareness for the ChadTough Foundation for the 2018 Outback Bowl.

“That’s kind of been my attitude with anything I’ve done is that I felt like I owed it,” Winovich said. “That’s a fear for me, getting in a position where you get jaded and you don’t owe back to society and people anymore. In my head, like I’m more motivated than ever to go back.

“I have a vision for making millions for some charity. I want to give back more than just a few hundred thousand. I want to have a real impact on society, and a positive one at that. I feel like I’ve laid the groundwork and that’s why this process is so exciting for me.” Chase Winovich

“I have a vision for making millions for some charity. I want to give back more than just a few hundred thousand. I want to have a real impact on society, and a positive one at that. I feel like I’ve laid the groundwork and that’s why this process is so exciting for me. I feel like I had kind of a playground where I can experiment and learn about myself in this new role. And I’m studying almost like in the game, like how people treat me versus how they did and what kind of things, just kind of connections and leverages that you can kind of acquire.”

His play backed up his personality, as he had 34.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks the past two seasons thanks to his physical talent and nonstop motor. With the increasing attention came the need to find a balance between the person he was, the man he’s becoming and the figure the outside world might project him to be.

“The thing about Chase that I really respect him for is that he really hasn’t changed at all,” said Matt Thompson, one of his close friends. “A lot of his friends that kept to his circle, they like him for the person he is, the quirky guy he is, and not necessarily a football star.

“He’s been good in identifying that some people just want to think it’s cool to be with an All-American defensive lineman. He’s been very good at staying close to the people who like him for who he is.”

How he managed it is a product of the lessons he picked up along the way and a reflection of a personality that hasn’t changed even though he’s gone from unknown to (relatively) well-known.

Chase Winovich is in the middle of a thought. He’s eating a late lunch following a checkup on his surgically repaired thumb last month. Staring at a plate of virtually uneaten polenta fries — he’s anti-onion and tasted them in the first bite he had — Winovich explains the evolution of his life the past few years.

How it can be tough to balance the position many athletes in his position go through: Learning who to trust and who not to, of being pushed into a spotlight they aren’t necessarily accustomed to but also had to be prepared for.

Then it happens. A man he has never met and probably will never see again walks by his table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company in downtown Ann Arbor and stops for a second.

It’s a fleeting moment. The man says “Good luck in the pros, dude,” before walking off. It’s a 30-second interaction that barely interrupted Winovich’s train of thought because it’s just part of life now.

“It started for me in 2016 in the summer. I kind of had my first realization, just like, it’s not paranoia,” Winovich said. “It’s just like you never know what people’s intentions are. In the back of your mind, you start to question it. It’s good. Like sometimes, especially us, people that are athletes, you have to have your guard up at all times.

“Being vulnerable in our position, which is today’s age of social media, it’s good. You need to be. I think I realized that in 2016 when I was projected to come in as a person who was contributing. I think the seed was kind of planted, like my life is about to change.”

As it did, he relied on what started with watching Osteen in high school. He continually sought ways to become a better person. Even if sometimes it led down Reddit rabbit holes and a YouTube video advising him how to handle success and the circle you surround yourself with. The advice was sound. The giver was surprising — a divorce attorney, who used it to explain who one might want to marry or not marry.

Winovich wasn’t looking for that. The advice, however, stuck.

“There’s the lessons I’ve learned and it’s not necessarily what I learned about myself,” Winovich said. “But your circle, in this position, has to be very small. There’s a lot of sacrifices you kind of give up being in entertainment and that’s essentially what I am. I’m a football player, but I’m an entertainer.

“There’s certain relationships you kind of give up and kind of have to forfeit. It doesn’t have to be that way for the masses, I think. It’s kind of what it is.”

He clearly states that he’s not complaining. He would rather be in his current situation than the alternative. He just believes a person can have only so many friends, so many meaningful connections. He has improved at establishing which ones those are and what he wants them to be.

So he’s asked if he’s going on a knowledge quest — he has thrice listened to “As a Man Thinketh,” a James Allen self-help book published in 1903 that Allen described as dealing “with the power of thought, and particularly with the use and application of thought to happy and beautiful issues.”

Winovich says he believes this is the process one goes through as they grow up and learn more about themselves so they aren’t the same person at age 23 as they are at 33 or 43. He’s figuring himself out in this new world in which he’s living, one that figures to only expand as he reaches the NFL

He recently spent $100 on books — he prefers the physical ones to an eReader: “Option B” by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant; Malcolm Gladwell’s “What the Dog Saw” and a Tony Robbins book.

He makes it clear that it’s not obsessive. He uses it as a tool to help push him and keep him on the trajectory he has put himself on — much the way he has used jiu-jitsu and ballet to help with his defensive line play. It led to an approach he says he took from McGregor — the belief you can speak things into existence and hard work can overcome challenges. Winovich, through his actions and his words, has managed to do that.

Chase Winovich is proving a point. Those closest to him echo the same theme: He is probably the most competitive person they’ve met. It’s not just that he wants to win, it’s almost as if he has to.

Take, for instance, his time on Michigan’s scout team. Thompson, then a scout-team quarterback, said starters didn’t want to face Winovich because he would always go as hard as he could — practice be damned. It was that work ethic, though, that allowed him to thrive despite playing three different positions in college. He entered Michigan as a linebacker, switched to tight end and then became a defensive end in 2016.

His need to win showed up much earlier than that.

Freshman year, Winovich and Thompson got into a competition about who could gain the most weight the fastest. A week in, Thompson was up “one or two pounds.” He started talking trash. Winovich responded in two ways. He ended up gaining a lot more weight. And he took his friend to a local arcade, Pinball Pete’s.

“He made it a point to beat me at Skee-Ball, air hockey and everything,” Thompson said. “Continued to rub it in my face. Even today, he won’t let me forget about it. He probably has me by about 40 pounds now, so he likes to rub that in my face. Chase, he’s competitive about everything he does.

“The one thing I did beat him head-to-head is Econ 101, and I still like to rub that in his face and he won’t forget about it. I got a better grade than he did. He still won’t tell me what that grade is, but I think I got him.”

Winovich, even now, won’t say his grade. He’s positive that Thompson beat him, though.

Winovich was with his father, Peter, at Universal Studios a few years ago, competing in every game they could find. Winovich couldn’t help it. He started scouting, asking a worker the trick to winning a 3D interactive game they were about to play that would decide the day’s champion.

The worker told Winovich the edge came if he pushed both buttons down at a certain action toward the end of the zombie-shooting. The game started. He looked for the moment.

“I started yelling so you couldn’t hear it, because I knew the audio was going to come on and he couldn’t hear it,” Winovich said. “I ended up doing it and winning. He was so mad about it.”

Chase Winovich is different. That can be classified in many ways — in this case it’s good. He embraces it because he’s a believer in the uniqueness of every human. It’s from where his competitive instinct comes.

He’s willing to be open in a world where many are often closed off. He’s willing to share his opinion when he knows it might be easier to say nothing at all. He doesn’t believe in being a “read from a script” guy and admires athletes who speak their mind. He knows some might look at that and think it’s “dangerous.”

He doesn’t. As Winovich figures out how to navigate his life, he also has a strong sense of who he is. He knows his personality, where he comes from and how to balance along the line of showing his personality, taking chances with it and not going too far.

There have been lessons learned — for instance, he didn’t anticipate the brushback from Michigan State fans after his own Little Brother comment after the Wolverines defeated the Spartans in October. He just has to learn from it. That goes with how he handles the media, how his social media is run and how he presents himself.

It’s why, when he checks the people he is surrounding himself with, he wants people who will say no, who will call him out if he’s doing something detrimental to his overall success — even things as small as having a soda at dinner.

Those are the people who will be around him when he figures to get a phone call that he never expected four years ago — one that will put him on an NFL team with the chance to turn professional football into a career.

Those who matter to him will be there. That’s it. No frills. Just the people he knows will get him through.

“I always talk to him and I always try to say, ‘Chase, if you have two or three really good friends growing up, you’re doing well,’ ” said Steve Kunzman, a childhood friend. “My uncle always told me that and I relayed that to Chase and he agrees with it.

“Everybody hops on ship whenever you blow up real quick like that, because everyone wants to be part of the fame and all, but I think Chase is pretty good at sitting down and thinking about who has been [his] friend for a long time.”

It’s all part of Winovich’s grander lesson — how to broaden and better himself. It just might take time to find the answers on his quest for knowledge and understanding while entering the NFL.

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