Former Western Michigan inside linebacker John Offerdahl wasn't a highly touted prospect coming out of Fort Atkinson High School in Wisconsin. Out of all programs, Western Michigan was the only one to provide him an opportunity to play college football, in the form of a scholarship.
It wasn’t a full scholarship, just a half-one. But that’s all he needed to set his career on track.
Now, the linebacker is doing his part to help find scholarships for the next crop of deserving football players at the high school level. Offerdahl, a member of the Orange Bowl committee in Florida, has teamed up with the National Football Foundation at the Second Annual Orange Bowl High School Football Showcase to give high school seniors the opportunity to exhibit their skills in front of college squads while learning from some of the legendary names of the game.
"When you look at football and you look at the monetization of the game, there is a huge amount of players — and I was one of them — who didn't get a full Division I scholarship that are left on the sidelines with the desire to play," Offerdahl said. "Many of them, especially underprivileged or low-income or challenged kids, can use football as an on-ramp for a college education in the right environment. That's what this showcase allows and provides."
The NFF showcases allow high school seniors, many of whom are overlooked by Division I squads, to participate in on-field drills in hopes of earning scholarships as 50 or more onlooking Division II and III level colleges evaluate and interview them. As many as fifteen NFL legends donate their expertise and experiences to coach and mentor the kids in the showcase, which lasts about four or five hours.
It’s one of four such showcases the NFF holds annually, with the other three held in warm-weather states such as California, North Carolina and Texas in the winter.
"I was that kid out there who was undersized, didn't have the credentials but just needed an opportunity to showcase the talents that I had," Offerdahl said. "Thankfully, I was able to connect and do that to a point where it became my career. So I relate one hundred percent to these kids."
Offerdahl, who was offered a split scholarship to attend Western Michigan by then-head coach Jack Harbaugh, had to learn how to adapt to the collegiate life rather quickly.
Harbaugh's first-year linebacker coach (and current Michigan defensive line coach) Greg Mattison was Offerdahl's recruiter. Offerdahl wasn't contacted until the day of signing, but Mattison relayed news that the inside linebacker would split his scholarship with a product from Fort Atkinson's archrival Jefferson High School — quarterback Lance Leipold.
"Both of us had no opportunity to go to Wisconsin or any of the other Division I schools because we were off the radar," Offerdahl said. "Lance Leipold's dad drove us to summer camp together through Chicago, around the lake, and into Kalamazoo, which felt not like five hours away; it felt calendars away from home. We had the hardest practice in front of Coach Harbaugh for freshman week. In the midst of the night, I wake up and Lance was no longer next to me."
Leipold departed from Western Michigan without telling Offerdahl, and his dad picked him up from his dorm in the middle of the night. The quarterback would continue his career at Wisconsin-Whitewater, later winning six Division III championships as a head coach there and subsequently landing a coaching gig at Buffalo.
Offerdahl stayed in Kalamazoo, earning his full scholarship from the university as a result of Leipold's departure. The coaches immediately recognized his talent in practices, promoting him to a starter and a defensive captain all prior to his first collegiate game. Offerdahl never looked back from there.
"That's how somebody who has talent that doesn't necessarily have the other attributes gets into the game," Offerdahl said. "Opportunities come along and I certainly had mine. You got to take advantage of the opportunities too. Together, luck equals circumstance plus preparation. And that's what the [NFF] showcase is all about."
Before leaving campus, Offerdahl would go on to finish his college career at WMU as a two-time All-American, a feat which earned him another opportunity to showcase his skillset: the 1986 Senior Bowl.
The selection wound up being life-changing for Offerdahl, as this was before the days of ever-changing mock drafts and internet highlight reels, where athletes from schools like those in the Mid-American Conference were more likely to slip through the cracks.
Offerdahl capitalized on the opportunity, blowing away spectators and scouts alike with a memorable performance.
"I wasn't a draft choice until I played in the Senior Bowl," Offerdahl said. "I stopped Bo Jackson and I got the MVP. I just prepared in a way that allowed me to be ready for that level of competition."
Offerdahl's short but prolific NFL career lasted from 1986 to 1993, culminating in an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, two All-Pro selections, five Pro Bowls, and an induction into the Dolphins ring of honor in 2013. He played his entire pro career under legendary Hall of Fame coach Don Shula. Offerdahl never dealt with the hassle of a coaching change. From the college level and onward, it was just Harbaugh and Shula, two coaches who significantly impacted the Wisconsin native's life.
"Knowing what to do every day and having an unbelievable coach in your life to get you to do that is an absolute luxury," Offerdahl. "Once that's over you have to be your own coach. You have to set the script and follow it. You don't have millions of people once a week giving you a critique."
Following his retirement at age 31, Offerdahl penned a rather unique script for a professional athlete. Rather than entering coaching or broadcasting as many early retirees do, he incorporated himself into the restaurant industry.
"I had the fortune of getting into the restaurant industry because my wife was an artist and I was a biochem major," Offerdahl said. "Between understanding what's in a bagel and making it look good, we hit the nail on the head when we started our bagel store back in 1990. I've kind of matured from a bagel boy to, I jokingly say, a grill guy."
Offerdahl's Off-The-Grill restaurants line the southern portion of Florida, with six current locations. Each location offers a variety of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, ranging from steak to barbecue chicken to grilled salmon to salads.
"It reminds me of a team and I get to play the head coach," Offerdahl. "Most of what I've learned in my life, I'm easily able to apply it to the field of food. You get feedback from the customer everyday, and I love that. It's what I do now, and I don't really see myself doing anything else."
When Offerdahl's not grilling in Florida, he's often in Michigan. He owns a lake house in the state and visits Kalamazoo at least once a year to catch up with his former college program. Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard has been a staple with the university since Offerdahl's Broncos days, continuing to connect the former linebacker to the program to this day.
His son Jameson currently plays linebacker and special teams for the Michigan Wolverines, who host Western Michigan on September 8 this coming fall — a game in which John holds plenty of interest.
But from the cold winds that dwell over the lakes of Michigan to waves that crash on the bright yellow shores in Florida, Offerdahl's enjoying each moment of his retirement. He utilizes his football platform to springboard high school seniors into collegiate programs and provides six atmospheres for families to enjoy dining at in the Sunshine State.
Just like art plus biochemistry equals the perfect recipe, circumstance plus preparation equals luck. And Offerdahl has capitalized on both of those.