Heavy Lifting: Jon Falk's Football Story

Jon Falk sitting at desk smiling

Jon Falk

An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.

Elbert Hubbard

Jon Falk's mother gave him this quote when he left home in 1974 to come to Michigan. It has been the secret to his success, at least in part. The other was getting his nose broken in his first and only football game in eighth grade in Oxford, Ohio.

"I got my face smashed to the ground, and said to myself, 'I'm not playing this again.'" Not willing to give up football entirely, Falk decided that from that point on he would work for the team, behind the scenes, and get the excitement vicariously through the players.

His high school coach asked him he'd like to be the team manager. "Well, what does a manager do?" asked the teenage Falk. "A manager does anything the head football coach tells him to do." Falk said, "I can do that."

Nothing has changed since 1967, he says.

Falk is a native of Oxford, Ohio, a graduate of Talawanda High School (1967) and Miami University (Physical Education, 1971). He worked as a student manager at Miami in football and baseball as an undergraduate, before accepting the head job with Bo Schembechler at Michigan in 1974.

Falk remembers taking his first trip down the Tunnel in the Big House during the season opener against Iowa in 1974. He was 23 years old. He was nervous. The kind of nervousness that ignites into exhilaration, even ecstasy. He was gripped. Michigan finished with a 24-7 victory.

Falk has been equipment manager for 40 years, for Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and, now, Brady Hoke.

"I have always wanted to be able to say, at the end of the day, that I did the best I could for that coach," Falk said. "And I wanted that coach to be able to say, 'Jon Falk did everything he could to help me.' Because those are the things you'll remember."

In his early years in the job, after the games, after the players and press had left, Bo and Jon would often sit in the locker room and talk, Falk warmly recalls. Sometimes for hours. "I loved him," Falk said of Bo. "He left me with a tremendous sense of loyalty."

While he doesn't mind taking orders, nor being behind the scenes rather than on the field, he says he wishes people had a better sense of how much work goes into the theater that is football. Like roadies, Falk is there long before, and long after, the players play their games.

"People don't realize that for a 12 o'clock game, we're at the locker room at 6:30 in the morning. We put the uniforms in their lockers, we make sure their game shoes are all polished, we make sure that all the helmets are all polished... Hopefully we can sing "The Victors" after a win, and... from there, the players start to turn their jerseys and pants in, their laundry. By 6:30 or 7 p.m., everything is back in the lockers. Now, that's a home game."

For a road game, Falk would be packing the semi on Thursday night, leaving on Thursday night to go to the ballpark. "After the game, all the travel bags are packed, they're put back in the semi, and that guy takes off. We'll fly back with the team." When the driver of the semi trailer arrives back in Ann Arbor on Sunday morning at 9 o'clock, Falk will be there ready to unload that truck.

"They turn the TV on, and there we are bouncing up and down the sidelines for about three, three-and-a-half hours. As soon as that game's over, they turn the TV off, and as far as they're concerned...we don't do anything until next Saturday afternoon when they turn that TV back on. Nobody understands the involvement, the work, the pain, the ordeal, the time that it takes to get to that next Saturday afternoon. Nobody realizes that people are in that locker room for another two hours [after the game]."

It makes his job a little easier that while the locker rooms have gotten larger in the past twenty years, to accommodate the players' bigger bodies, the equipment has gotten smaller and lighter. "Everybody wants to be movable, they want to be flexible," Falk says.

But there is a down-side, and that is that being equipment manager for Michigan Football takes away, especially during football season, take time away from being with his family.

For his wife, Cheri, he put a photograph of his family in his book, If These Walls Could Talk: Michigan Football Stories from Inside the Big House (Triumph Books), written with Dan Ewald, in which he shares his stories and memories from inside the Michigan locker room, on the sideline and on the road with the team. Falk and his wife own a place in northern Michigan and a boat, and enjoying traveling around the upper part of Michigan, reflecting.

"I always tell people that working for the University of Michigan football program, or the University of Michigan, will get you to a door. When they ask you what your name is, and what you do, you tell them and they'll let you in the door because of the University of Michigan. Now, after you get inside that door, how you act, and what you say on the inside is going to dictate how long they'll let you stay around. That's what I've learned through my years. What to say, how to act, and what to do once you get behind a door. I think that's part of the education.

"You know," Falk says, "I think the University of Michigan is a lot like New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."