Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Nature or nurture? Generally, it’s a little bit of both.
For Tony Annese, it would seem he was destined to be where he is today, the linchpin of a Central Michigan defensive unit that appears solid-to-very-good on the eve of the 2016 season.
Annese, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound safety, recorded 84 tackles and two interceptions last season and is among the best at his position in the Mid-American Conference. He is on the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award, which goes to the best defensive back in college football.
Best in college football? Let’s start first with best in his family. When it comes to the Anneses, that might be a tall order.
There is no RPI for football pedigree. If such a measurement existed, the Annese lineage would rank near the top. Football is in the family DNA, and it started with the family patriarch, the late Nick Annese, who was a legendary coach at Corunna High School in the 1960s and ’70s.
Nick and his wife Anne had four sons: Steve, Mike, Tony and Phil, the father of the Chippewas’ Tony. All four were standout high school football players at Corunna. Phil and Tony went on to play at Alma College in the early ’80s, and Steve earned three letters as a defensive back at Central Michigan from 1977-79, when the Chippewas went a combined 29-3-1 and won the first MAC championship in program history in ’79.
That generation of Annese boys – they are separated by just four years – stoked their competitive fires with each other while growing up in Corunna, and it didn’t end with the onset of adulthood.
“Every Thanksgiving, until I was in my mid 40s, we’d play road football outside our mom’s house in Corunna,” said Phil, 54, a logistics manager for an automotive supplier. “We had to quit when my brother, Steve, almost hung himself on a mailbox. He was out cold.
“We all played football, basketball and baseball. Most of the Annese family games ended in near fistfights. Every game was a war. Maybe that’s why Tony has that edge.”
Tony Annese, who moved into the starting lineup at CMU late in his freshman season, and his brother Phil, older by 15 months, were cut from the same cloth. And, typical of brothers, they were best of friends, worst of enemies, quite often in the same day.
The brothers Annese, just like their dad and uncles, “were always competing,” said Tony, who has the word “family” tattooed on his right biceps, just below a tat in the likeness of the Virgin Mary. “We were always going at it – basketball, football. He made me a better person, he made me a better player because I was always playing ‘up.’ We’d always go one-on-one. We must have played a thousand games of basketball.
“We really got after each other, and I looked up to him a lot and we looked out for each other, too. I have a really close relationship with him.”
It was long about the ninth grade when Tony caught up to his brother, size-wise, and eventually passed him. Tony now is a solid 6-foot-1, 215 pounds. Phil topped out in the neighborhood of 5-10, 180, and played receiver at Ferris State.
“Eighth, ninth grade was when he realized he really didn’t want to mess with me anymore,” Tony said, laughing.
Football – and competing – has been a lifelong love and vocation for virtually the entire family.
• Phil, Tony’s father, was an assistant coach at Rochester Adams, working alongside his brother-in-law (and Tony’s uncle), Tony Petritto, who played at Alma College with Phil and Tony Annese in the early ’80s. Petritto and Phil Annese led the Highlanders to a state championship in 2003. While Phil gave up assistant coaching with his brother-in-law when his sons entered college, Petritto remains at Adams, which is a playoff mainstay and a contender in the Oakland Activities Association, one of the state’s best high school football leagues.
• Tony Annese, Phil’s brother and Tony’s uncle, is the head coach at Ferris State, where, in four seasons, he has transformed the Bulldogs into a Division II power. He arrived in Big Rapids after a standout career as a community college and high school coach at various stops, most notably Muskegon, where he led the Big Reds to three state titles and, before that, Montrose, where his teams won 61 consecutive regular-season games during one stretch.
• Phil, Tony’s older brother, and his uncle Mike are assistants on the Ferris State staff.
• Tony Annese (the Ferris coach) and Nick Annese are members of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Tony was inducted in 2011, Nick posthumously in 1985.
Central Michigan’s Tony Annese is keenly aware of the family legacy – how could he not? – but it isn’t something on which he dwells. And, he said, he never felt any of the requisite pressure that one might think would come with such a pedigree.
“I’ve never put pressure on myself like that,” he said. “My dad did a great job raising me. He was tough on me my whole life. He was just always there for me. Definitely good to have them all, all of my uncles, there for me.
“I appreciate what they’ve done for me. In different aspects of life, they’ve all done great things for me.”
Tony Annese, who wears jersey No. 18, just as his uncle Steve did a generation ago at CMU, has cut his own path – and a pretty good one at that – as a Chippewa.
He made a splash almost immediately, returning an interception 34 yards for a touchdown in his first start, a 27-22 victory at Western Michigan in 2013. He was named the MAC West Defensive Player of the Week after that performance, and he’s started every game since.
He earned All-MAC honors as a sophomore, and he was named to the Athlon Sports 2016 All-MAC preseason second team.
The legacy and the memories with which he concerns himself on the eve of his senior season are those that lay before him and his teammates. And he knows that it’s on him to do more than just make tackles and break up passes in order that the Chippewas may reach their potential.
CMU, which earned a share of the MAC West title and reached the Quick Lane Bowl in 2015, kicks off the season on Thursday, Sept. 1 (7 p.m.) when if plays host to Presbyterian at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. (ESPN3, IMG/CSN Radio)
“I can definitely sense it,” Annese said. “I feel like some of the guys have looked up to me and look at what I’ve done throughout my career and want to do the same thing and get out on the field and make plays.
“I just want to be as much of a leader as I can. Going into this year, it’s my last year, so I’m just trying to make every play I can, help the defense as much as possible, help everyone out as much as possible. I just want to help this team be the best it can be. We’ve lost games we had a chance to win and we lost those close games (in the past) and we need to get over the hump and I think we can do that this year.”
Aggression is crucial on the defensive side of the ball, as is quickness and speed, particularly for a defensive back. Annese has all of the tools, and he has something extra, an instinct that is difficult to quantify, almost impossible to coach.
“Tony is a smart football player who can really analyze what he sees and react to it the right way,” CMU defensive coordinator Greg Colby said. “He’s like a coach out there, he sees stuff. I think that’s his strength as a player.”
Be it by genetics or by assimilation at an early age, being surrounded by a football family certainly played a role -- a major one -- in Annese’s development.
“I’ll say this about my son Tony, this is how intuitive he is,” said Phil, recalling the days when the son tagged along as the father at Adams games. “When he was probably 10, 11, 12 years old, he’d come to the Rochester Adams games with me, he would sit right next to me in the press box and he would be able to read defenses. He would be like, ‘Dad, I think we can do this, I think we can do that.’”
By the time Tony Annese started playing for his father and uncle at Adams, those instincts were ingrained. He was on the recruiting radar of a number of schools, including several in the Big Ten, some as a quarterback, some as a safety.
He chose CMU, where he knew his future was on the defensive side of the ball. It was, and is, at safety where he figured his best path to a professional career lie.
If he does, someday, play for a paycheck, he will be the first in the family to do that.
Said his dad, recalling when his son made the call to attend CMU: “He said, ‘Dad, I think I can be an NFL safety, I don’t think I can be an NFL quarterback. He had figured that out at age 17.”