By Andy Sneddon
Reprinted from Centralight Fall 2016
For Eric Fisher, it's all about the work, taking each day as an opportunity to get better and pushing to see just how far he can go.
He's come a long way.
The former Central Michigan University All-American is in his fourth year as the starting left offensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs, and this summer he signed a contract extension with the team, giving him a six-year, $63 million deal. That makes him one of the highest-paid offensive linemen in the NFL. Fisher returns to Mount Pleasant as CMU's homecoming grand marshal on Oct. 8, when the Chippewas take on Ball State at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"It's a huge honor," says Fisher, who, because of NFL commitments, has not been to a CMU game since his playing days ended in 2012. "How many people get to be the grand marshal of a college homecoming game? I'm really looking forward to it. It'll bring back a lot of good memories."
Fisher made a lot of those as a player at CMU from 2009-12. He helped the Chippewas to a MAC championship, two bowl victories, was twice named All-MAC, and in 2012 he became the first CMU player to earn All-America honors in nearly two decades.
The pinnacle came in late April 2013, when he was selected No. 1 overall by the Chiefs in the NFL draft. He became the first – and still only – player from a Mid-American Conference school to be the No. 1 pick. Fisher and Joe Staley, selected at No. 28 in 2007, are the only CMU players picked in the first round.
Growing into greatness
Fisher was hardly pegged for greatness coming out of Stoney Creek High School in suburban Detroit's Rochester. He added 50 pounds to his 6-foot-7 frame during his freshman year at CMU. By his senior year, he weighed 300-plus pounds, was the first CMU All-American in nearly two decades, and was projected by most to be selected late in the first round.
Making such great strides in four years didn't come as a surprise to his high school coach, Calvin Gross, who moved Fisher to the offensive line for his senior year at Stoney Creek. Fisher had played quarterback as a freshman and then moved to linebacker for his sophomore and junior seasons.
"Right before his senior year started, he approached me and said, 'Coach, do you think I might have a chance to play college football?'" Gross remembers. "I told him, 'Eric, if you're going to play college football, you're probably going to have to be an offensive lineman.'
"He had great feet, he was a very good basketball player, and he was a good-sized kid, framewise. He said, 'Whatever it takes.'"
After the 2012 CMU season ended with a victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, Fisher steadily improved his draft stock, first at the Senior Bowl, then the NFL Combine and, finally, on Pro Day at CMU.
By the time he got to New York for the draft in late April, he was touted as a potential top-five pick.
He's No. 1
Sitting in the green room along with other draft hopefuls at New York's Radio City Music Hall, Fisher's cell phone rang. It was the Chiefs, informing him that they were taking him with the first pick of the draft.
Then, Fisher heard his name called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, his cue to come on stage to be photographed alongside the most powerful man in sports. Hoisting a red Kansas City Chiefs jersey, he stood in front of thousands in the hall and millions more watching live on TV.
"It was such a surreal experience," Fisher said. "It was hard to remember that whole night after the phone rang. It was quite a shock. After all those years of work. It paid off."
All smiles and all good for all parties involved.
"It says a tremendous amount about our football program," says CMU head coach John Bonamego, who spent 16 seasons as an NFL assistant. "You look at the very small percentage of players who are drafted each year. There are just 32 first-round picks, and there's only one first overall pick every year.
"That puts us in very elite company as a program. There are a lot of great football schools out there that have never had a first overall pick. It really demonstrates what's possible for a young man who comes to play here. There are no limitations to what you can achieve."
The big stage
Fisher's NFL baptism came early in training camp, when he lined up across from teammate Justin Houston, a linebacker who in 2015 made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl.
"Right off the bat, I come in, first overall pick, high expectations," Fisher says. "And I line up across from Justin Houston, who's probably the best linebacker in the league.
I was thrown in the fire."
Thus began a journey endured by most rookies, particularly those on the offensive line, where the learning curve is steeper than anywhere except perhaps quarterback.
It was yet another challenge and this one came with the built-in pressure of being the No. 1 overall pick. The second-guessing, the scrutiny and the criticism that comes the way of professional athletes can be particularly cutting. Thick skin is as much a part of a player's toolbox as the playbook or his helmet.
"There were a lot of growing experiences," says Fisher, who has appeared in 49 NFL games, including 45 starts. "I learned a lot about myself both on and off the field. Every little thing you do is seen. There's a bull's-eye on your back. And, obviously, there's the competition level. You're playing the best of the best every week.
"Keep on working, that's how I've always been. Keep your nose to the grindstone."
Making a difference beyond the football field
Eric Fisher came to CMU as a student-athlete, bent on a career in the NFL.
He realized that dream.
Fisher also made the most of it off the field, forging friendships, bonds and memories that will last a lifetime as he studied mechanical engineering technology.
Like many CMU athletes, Fisher volunteered with Special Olympics. He also helped at a local food bank.
That philanthropic tenet remained when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013. He and his teammates on the offensive line are members of First Downs for Down Syndrome, a nonprofit raising money for the Kansas City Down syndrome community. Fisher also became involved with an animal shelter in the Kansas City area last season, providing support for food and health care for dogs.
He sponsored a dog every week of the season in 2015, "and all 16 dogs were adopted," he says. "As NFL players, we're very fortunate. There are some people, some animals, out there that aren't as fortunate. Giving back to the community is huge.
"When you leave an event, you leave with a good feeling. You did something to help someone."