At the beginning of the pandemic, TikTok took the world by storm.
Everyone was logging on to post their clips and connect with others during a time of unforseen isolation.
And UB junior defensive end Max Michel was no exception.
Described by his teammates and coaches as the most outgoing member of UB’s football team, Michel naturally began to make TikToks to pass the time during quarantine, something he did for fun as a casual hobby.
“The first TikTok I made was definitely because of quarantine boredom,” Michel said. “TikTok started going crazy during quarantine, people were bored, so a lot of people were making TikToks.”
Michel’s animated personality was perfect for the viral social media app.
And by creating diverse content touching on subjects such as the U.S. Army, a love for his cat and his extroverted sense of humor, Michel’s TikTok has garnered 1.8 million likes and over 45,000 followers.
A favorite segment of fans on Michel’s account is devoted to his cat, Charlie, who performs tricks usually associated with dogs.
Michel’s first video featuring Charlie was also one of his first viral videos, garnering over 41,000 views and 10,000 likes. It featured the cat sitting, extending a paw, rolling over and even playing dead.
In an effort to build on the success of his first video with Charlie, Michel uploaded another video with the cat, hoping for similar results.
It received over 785,000 views and 119,000 likes.
“When it really took off was when I got the cat. That was because of my girlfriend, she actually gifted the cat to me,” Michel said. “We trained him a couple of tricks and started to see that he was really starting to pick up on them. The first video did numbers and we kinda just ran with it.”
Michel and his girlfriend adopted the cat when it was about six weeks old, and since then, Charlie has become Michel’s “best friend.”
The pair developed a distinct bond during the lockdown, as Michel would push Charlie to do things unusual of a cat, like perform tricks and run outside.
“Throughout quarantine, we didn’t really have much going on,” Michel said. “So it was just me and him. I’d take him in the car to go to my girlfriend’s parents’ house, and we’d take him outside and stuff like that. That stuff just kind of built a special bond, we started trying the tricks and he just picked up on them, it’s been fun.”
Michel’s TikToks featuring Charlie have gone viral and have even been featured on a number of cat accounts on Instagram. From U.S.-based Instagram accounts to international ones, Michel is finding his videos with Charlie all over the internet.
“It’s been crazy. Every so often I’ll get notifications of certain accounts posting my TikToks,” Michel said. “There was this Spanish cat account and I couldn’t even understand what was going on, but it was funny to see.”
As entertaining as Charlie is, Michel’s TikToks extend beyond the feline.
Michel tried his hand at acting while comedically impersonating a soldier in a January upload that garnered over 55,000 views.
Michel gave it his all in his “video submission for the next war movie,” as he marched in place, made boisterous gun noises and crawled on the ground and pretended to be in battle.
“That [the soldier video] was something I made when I was just bored in the house. Actually, it was kind of [based] around the World War III scenario,” Michel said. “There were a bunch of scares about World War III, so I just made that video. I was actually in ROTC” — Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — “in high school, so that’s where the uniform came from. I just threw it on and that video went crazy, it was really funny.”
While Michel’s internet fame has given others a chance to see his charismatic personality, his teammates see it every day.
That’s why they selected Michel as the team’s representative in pinball and dance competitions at the 2019 Bahamas Bowl.
Although Michel had never played pinball before the Bahamas bowl, he was the obvious choice as the team’s most outgoing player.
“That [pinball competition] was funny, we were taken off guard, we didn’t know there was gonna be a pinball competition,” Michel said. “It was the consensus of the team, they just chose me and I never played pinball before. [They choose me for] just anything, a dance competition too at the Bahamas Bowl. I was chosen, I didn’t even choose to go up there and dance.”
But novice or not, Michel won the competition, earning the Bulls their very own pinball machine, which can currently be found in the UB Stadium fueling station, right next to the locker room.
Few football teams have a pinball machine in their facility, and few have a character like Michel on their roster.
“From winning a pinball competition to being a part of dance competitions and all those types of things, I think he’s definitely our symbol of what today’s players are like,” head coach Lance Leipold said. “He’s helped me loosen up in some ways as well.”
Michel prides himself on being the “spark plug” of the team; a player others can rely on to bring a positive spirit through his animated demeanor.
“We always have one word that we choose for ourselves throughout the season, and my one word is always energy,” Michel said. “I feel like I’m the kind of guy that brings a certain type of energy to a room, and people feed off that. So I’m usually the guy to bring that good energy, that positive energy.”
Leipold says Michel lives up to his mantra.
Ever since he joined the UB program in 2018, Michel has been a constant source of energy for the Bulls.
“From day one of being in our program he brings that type of energy,” Leipold said. “Max has maximized his abilities with energy and is now maturing into the type of football player that he can be.”
On the field, Michel is riding high after he had the best game of his career in a 17-10 victory over Marshall in the Camellia Bowl.
In the absence of senior pass rushers Malcolm Koonce (NFL Draft preparation) and Taylor Riggins (injury), Michel recorded six tackles, a sack and a forced fumble to key UB’s second straight bowl win.
“Sometimes people look into what’s the benefit of bowl games, sometimes you see younger players stepping into opportunities, and he [Michel] maximized that day,” Leipold said. “I think he’s really built his confidence off of that.”
Leipold believes Michel’s play has improved since his stellar Camellia Bowl performance, which has only added to Michel’s already positive outlook and energy on the field.
“I thought Max played extremely well in that game and I think he picked up where he left off last year,” Leipold said, referring to his play in spring ball. “Max has quite the personality, a pretty free-spirited guy, a lot of energy, very talented in many different ways.”
Senior offensive tackle Jake Fuzak practiced against Michel for four weeks during UB’s spring camp. He says Michel’s natural mix of speed and strength gives him limitless potential.
“I think Max Michel had the best four weeks of football he’s ever had with the program. I think that he’s easily the strongest player that I have to block,” Fuzak said. “Max has tremendous speed and power and I think that his potential is as high as he wants it to be. His uniqueness as a player and as a person contributes to his skills on the field.”
Michel — who was a track and field conference champion in the high jump and long jump during his time at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey — has always been a standout athlete.
To elevate his game, the 6-2, 230 lb. defensive end has had to rely not only on his physical skills but also hone in on his technique as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper.
“I feel like athletic talent only gets you so far,” Michel said. “So having good fundamentals definitely helps. I’m trying to work on more fundamentals, and things like that.”
Michel is no stranger to putting in the work. Michel says he “barely played” in his freshman season, was a special teams player in his redshirt year and finally earned snaps on defense during his sophomore campaign. His role and responsibilities have increased each season.
Now, he’s set to be a key defensive player for UB.
“I’m just trying to take that next step,” Michel said. “Last year was kind of my first year really contributing on defense, I’ve always been a special teams guy. My energy, my twitch and my speed bring a difference to the team and I’m just hoping to show that a little more and make some plays.”
Michel isn’t only famous on social media and a top athlete; he has also made a huge impact within the Buffalo community.
He has participated in the football team’s community service projects, reading to children, organizing skills camps for kids and attending park cleanups throughout Buffalo.
Michel’s exemplary participation in social work earned him a spot on the 2020 Wuerffel Trophy Watch List, an award that recognizes players who combine community service with academic and athletic achievement.
Michel credits his mother for instilling community values into him at a young age.
“For me, that kind of stems from my mom,” Michel said. “She’s big on social work and helping out and doing for others more than you do for yourself. That’s what bred that into me.”
While his social media recognition and sizable potential as a football player inspire Michel to work harder, it’s his off-the-field contributions that he is most proud of.
“I take a lot of pride in that, and I think guys see that and it makes them want to do more,” Michel said. “The feeling you get from talking to a kid and making their day and seeing the smile on their face, it's really priceless.”
Anthony DeCicco is the Editor-in-Chief of The Spectrum. His words have appeared in outlets such as SLAM Magazine. In 2020, he was awarded First Prize for Sports Column Writing at the Society of Professional Journalists' Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. In his free time, he can be found watching ‘90s Knicks games and reading NFL Mock Drafts at 3 a.m.