Stephen Spanellis is BIG — the Michigan freshman offensive lineman is listed at 6’6,” 335 pounds. But nothing about Spanellis is bigger than his heart.
The 2016 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award winner exemplifies a rare combination of football and academic prowess, and it is widely known among his peers is that Spanellis is a selfless teammate who is grateful and appreciative of the many gifts he has been given.
“Football has opened up many doors for me,” says Spanellis, who hails from Bel Air, Maryland. “It gave me an opportunity to go to one of the best private high schools in the country in Gilman, and then the University of Michigan. It has led me to a good place – it has opened up opportunities for me now and in the future.”
Biff Poggi coached Spanellis for four years at The Gilman School, and is now the associate head coach under Jim Harbaugh at Michigan.
“It was important for (Steve) to do well because he is a representation of his family,” says Poggi, who was 135-43 in 19 years heading the Gilman program.
“He’s very aware of how hard his family has worked for him to have the opportunities he has and he wants to do his part. He has a thankfulness about himself and he understands without them he wouldn’t be where he is. He is going to maximize that.”
Spanellis, who tweeted out in his first weeks on campus that he had received a 98 on his first exam at Michigan, was the second NFF Scholar-Athlete Award winner from Gilmer in as many years.
“I’m very honored to win the award,” he says. “I was very surprised because (Northwestern wide receiver Jelani Roberts) from Gilman won it last year. I thought it would decrease my chances.
“It’s a very good honor for my family and something to be proud of.”
It was a natural for Spanellis to excel in academics when his parents, Ted and Dawn, laid the foundation for excellence.
“Academics were always first,” he says. “My parents always made me do homework before practice. It kept me on top of my work. I wanted to play sports and football; I wanted to get out there.”
The work ethic that his parents instilled in him also led to the football field.
“He was a relentless worker in everything he did,” says Poggi of Spanellis, who helped lead the Greyhounds to a No. 13 national ranking by the USA Today Super 25 poll as a senior. “In the classroom, in the offseason, in preparation for the football season.”
The first-team all-state lineman took every snap during practices his senior season at Gilman—first with the starters, and then with the scout team.
“That’s unheard of,” says Poggi. “Every snap in practice the entire season. Why do you do that? Because you care about the guys. If you take the scout team reps you are making the guys on defense better. Nobody does that.”
Poggi mentions a poignant moment in which the big lineman clearly wore his heart on his sleeve.
“He is a very sensitive kid and full of concern for other kids on the team,” says Poggi. “In high school you have a wide range of skill and size. He was always a 300+ pound guy and I remember vividly watching the line doing a competition drill going one-on-one. You are physically competing against a guy you are trying to annihilate. Steve repositioned the line so he wouldn’t go up against a guy much smaller and not as physically gifted who he could have crushed. He repositioned the line to go up against someone more his size and skill level.”
That size and skill made Spanellis a highly-recruited lineman and Michigan was a natural progression where he could continue to challenge himself in both academics and football.
“What impressed me about Michigan was the overall excellence in all facets,” says Spanellis. “In all the academic fields, in athletics, in football. It was Michigan’s tradition of excellence that attracted me.”
He is adjusting quite nicely.
“It’s going well. Academically I’m adjusting,” he says. “The hardest thing is being away from home and my parents. Other than that, I’m making a smooth transition.”
Spanellis was undecided on his major when he arrived in Ann Arbor, but his academic future is becoming clearer at the midpoint of his first collegiate semester.
“I’m thinking about pursuing political science, philosophy and economics,” he says. “I’m hoping to learn a lot and that it will give me a degree that will set me up for the future and give me options.”
Poggi has seen the transition on the field as well.
“He’s doing a really nice job here at Michigan,” says the veteran coach. “He’s very well liked and respected.”
Although Spanellis hasn’t yet played in a UM game, making a redshirt year a possibility, Poggi points out his former protégés’ contributions to the undefeated Wolverine season.
“He’s doing a really good job on the scout team and a really good job being a member of the team,” he says. “He’s getting (Michigan’s) defensive team ready to play. That’s a huge contribution to the team.”
Born in Hackensack, New Jersey before moving to the Baltimore area when he was seven, Spanellis considers it important to give back to the community.
He participated in a Habitat for Humanity house build during the summer following his junior year at Gilmer.
“It was eye-opening to build a house for a family who needed it,” he says. “It was an opportunity to work with my hands and build something. It was a good exercise in teamwork – for a common good.”
Spanellis also appreciated the interaction he enjoyed with the recipient family.
Spanellis’ size and eating prowess have also garnered him attention throughout his life. Last summer he won $250 in a local pizza eating contest after downing 15 slices of pizza in five minutes.
“Steve eats more than any other human being I’ve ever met,” says Poggi, who throws out the comparison of Andre the Giant. “Saying he eats a lot would be an understatement. He’s huge. He’s gigantic and getting bigger.”
While his achievements are already impressive, Spanellis, who doesn’t turn 19 until January, hopes to grow into bigger things at Michigan.
“I want to be a great player and be a starter here,” he says. “I want to go on and play in the NFL. I plan on being as good of a football player as I can be, and do well in the classroom.”