In the weeks before his final semester as a college student, Chase Winovich found himself in the back seat of a nice car chatting with one of the most famous professional fighters in the world.
Conor McGregor, and his rise from a Dublin plumber to internationally known UFC antihero, served as inspiration for the Michigan defensive end over the past several years. Winovich met McGregor's agent last year and explained that the Irish fighter's story helped fuel his journey from a sophomore tight end buried in depth-chart oblivion to the most disruptive player on one of college football's most disruptive defenses. He parlayed that connection into a brief FaceTime conversation with McGregor, and in July he received another call while visiting some friends in New York, with an invitation to come meet the man in person.
McGregor sat in the back of the car, half of his face lit by the Manhattan nightclub outside the window and half of it hidden in the darkness of night. Minutes earlier, Winovich pulled up to the curb as a burst of paparazzi and their shuttering lenses announced the McGregor crew's departure from the club. Winovich was waved into the car with them and shook his inspiration's hand.
"Oh, I remember you," McGregor said in his deep brogue. "You long-haired, staunch m-----f-----."
Winovich, with his toothy grin and bleached-blond hair that falls to his shoulders, has a look about him that makes him memorable. His gregarious, spirited personality on and off the field -- to say nothing of his 29 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in the Wolverines' past 19 games -- has all but wiped away his anonymity in college football circles and on the Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.
Among a bruised and battered troop of defensive linemen, Winovich has emerged as a "catalyst," according to head coach Jim Harbaugh, for a group that has allowed opponents fewer yards than any other defense in the country through six games.
"Chase has been an animal this season," Harbaugh said. "... He plays every play all-out. Bo [Schembechler] used to have a saying: 'Every man on every play.' Chase is living that."
Other coaches have noticed too. After a season of playing opposite attention-grabbing junior Rashan Gary, Winovich is starting to see the double-teams, cuts, chips and holds that Harbaugh considers the "ultimate compliment" for a defensive lineman. A week ago -- with Gary sidelined by a shoulder injury -- Maryland's offense opted to largely avoid Winovich altogether. Frustrated, he jokingly complained to interim Terps' coach Matt Canada on the field after the game about the lack of action.
That won't be an issue this Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC), when Winovich and his defense go head-to-head with No. 15 Wisconsin's veteran offensive line and the busiest running back in the sport, Badgers sophomore Jonathan Taylor.
Standing in the spotlight during a prime-time game with postseason implications is exactly where Winovich wanted to be two-plus years ago, when he made the switch to defense and found inspiration in McGregor's rise. In one sense, his current position is a dream come true, and in another, he believes it was only a matter of time before he ended up here.
Winovich measures his words carefully when talking about his brief summertime meeting with McGregor. "It's a fine line. I don't want to be a fan boy," he says. After all, he sat in the back of a car with his role model of sorts, and McGregor recognized him.
Winovich is straddling the awkward line of notoriety that cuts uniquely through college football locker rooms. Some of his teammates have been recognized stars -- or at least stars-in-waiting -- since before they were legally allowed to drive and thus are understandably nonplussed by the trappings of someone else's fame. Others in the locker room live a life closer to the obscurity of a normal college student and can still be made giddy by a brush with celebrity.
All of us construct stories about our lives, narratives to make sense of our place in the world. Winovich, at the moment, is stuck between two stories.
In one version, he is the Dublin plumber with big dreams. He is the youngest of four children from a blue-collar western Pennsylvania town. He is a proud descendent of blue-collar people, charting his way through new territory for his family. He clings to the identity of an overlooked underdog that worked himself into an opportunity.
And he did work his way here. No one in Michigan's locker room is anything but thrilled to see Winovich's success because they saw him earn it on his way from the scout team to the all-conference team.
Winovich added 20 pounds of muscle two years ago, when he switched to the defensive line. He says he snuck into the team's weight room for midnight workout sessions many nights that offseason. The following year, he took ballet classes to try to open his hips further and keep his core more balanced while chasing after quarterbacks.
With only an independent study class on his academic schedule as a fifth-year senior, Winovich spends the majority of his days watching film and trying to perfect the nuanced techniques of hand placement and pass-rushing moves. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison critiques those details harshly, especially after Winovich's better performances to make sure he doesn't lose the image of himself as a scrapper with more to prove.
"He makes sure I know I'm no longer that scout-team guy only being evaluated by him," Winovich said. "He's constantly reminding me that someone else is always watching."
In the other version of Winovich's internal story, he relates on a lesser scale to McGregor's current status -- leaving nightclubs in designer clothes with paparazzi waiting outside and fans clamoring to meet him. He is cautiously enjoying his newfound clout inside the college town bubble of Ann Arbor, very conscious of the fact that he has a public image to maintain.
He does consciously maintain it. Winovich is aware of his infectious personality. He promotes charity work, such as dying his hair orange to help raise money for childhood cancer research. He says he has always dreamed of being in a position to give back. He carefully curates his social media outlets and thinks thoroughly about the things he posts.
For help there, he turns to his high school sweetheart and close friend, Taylor Bonds. Bonds is a senior studying public relations at Alabama, where she was worked in the football program's recruiting group and with the athletic department's marketing team. She recently spent a Saturday evening talking Winovich out of posting a "Twitter rant" about referees after Michigan's win at Northwestern.
Winovich checks in with her regularly before he posts things on social media. She said the two of them have had lengthy conversations about cultivating his brand.
"I think he's very unique in that sense," Bonds said. "We want to treat his image like a business."
Winovich and Bonds used to joke when they were in high school about his impending fame and how she would help him make the most of it. He started thinking about himself through the lens of other people's eyes before those other eyes were thinking about him. Now, the results have caught up.
"There was a part of me that was already there waiting for me to catch up," he says. "I had to bring it out, and the only way to do that was with hard work. I'd say it was probably already written that I was going to be who I am and in this position. But I never thought of how it would be when I was here."
Bonds thinks about Winovich's brand and realizes the two stories -- the hard-working, humble roots guy and the one who mimics McGregor's flashy confidence -- don't normally fit together. She sees why it's hard to reconcile the two, but that doesn't make either of them disingenuous. She says he couldn't be one without the other.
Winovich looked forward to his chance to step into the spotlight. On and off the field, the attention has arrived in earnest. Now it's up to him to decide which story will be his.