As a third-grader helping out the high school football team, Kyle Juszczyk already knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Anybody who asked the Lafayette Township resident came away with the same answer: a professional football player.
Today, you can watch Juszczyk, 28, on any given Sunday with the San Francisco 49ers.
“Since he was a little kid, Kyle said he was going to be a professional football player,” said Kevin Gault, Juszczyk’s coach at Cloverleaf. “He always knew it. It kind of blows you away when he says he’s going to do it and then does it.”
From middle school to high school to Harvard to Baltimore to San Francisco, that determination has always been there, and as a result the 2009 Cloverleaf graduate will be inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during Thursday ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.
“Kyle just has that inner drive,” said Dave Ward, a Colts assistant coach. “He is elite in that drive. I’ve seen it in others, but what happened was his attitude from being a complete football player has allowed him to excel.”
Juszczyk was also a trailblazer. He was that player that would give you everything he had every time you asked him.
“Kyle was a leader from Day 1 because of his tremendous character and passion for the game,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy said. “Because of his work ethic, competitiveness and love of the game, Kyle made everyone around him better.”
When you’re a professional athlete, most roads don’t lead home.
The pomp, circumstance and circus of coming back aren’t worth the fight, and quite a few pros stay away, but Juszczyk isn’t one of them.
“My family is still there and I could never abandon my family,” Juszczyk said. “I always come back to see them, but it’s just that sense of being home. I never feel too big for it just because that’s what made me who I am today. When I have the chance, I like to speak with kids that are growing up in a similar situation. I let them know that I’m going through the same stuff they are.”
Whether it’s to come home and run a football camp to benefit Crohn’s disease or to check in on longtime friend and former defensive backs/quarterbacks coach Ward, Juszczyk has never been above it all.
Ward, who has the disease, was Juszczyk’s science teacher in seventh grade and the two have a bond that transcends the game.
“He was the head middle school coach. My junior and senior year, he was the defensive backs coach and quarterbacks coach,” Juszczyk said. “I interacted more on the offensive side, but Coach Ward and I’s relationship is extremely special. He’s considered family to me. He’s the officiant of my wedding this summer. He’s an incredible male role model for me. He took me under his wing early on and saw something in me that I maybe didn’t see myself.
“He has always been someone that I can lean on, someone I talk to the last 12 years or whatever it is. I can come to him about anything and he’s always there with advice and support.”
That genuine spirit is appreciated and returned in kind from Ward.
“It means a very great deal to me,” Ward said. “That bond has continued since that time in middle school and beyond. The idea that we continue to keep each other in each other’s lives and talk as we do is very special.
“If you ask him, he would say that. He’s still very grateful for his roots. It shows what a genuine person he is. He’s grateful for the people of Cloverleaf and Medina County. It says a lot about how authentic and genuine he is.”
While Gault has since moved on from Cloverleaf, he has never forgotten the feeling of family amongst the Colts and how real Juszczyk was.
“Unless you’ve been at Cloverleaf, you don’t understand that those kids have a deep root to that place,” Gault said. “We’re always the underdog. That brought those kids together, obviously, because they talk to each other still. You don’t ever forget where you come from because you were their heroes when they were little.
“Because Kyle was involved with that program for so long — he started coming when he was in third grade — that helped him get rooted to the program. Kyle is a true Colt. He bleeds green. He always will. That’s a good thing. I hope other kids are doing it, too.”
Positioned for greatness
Juszczyk has played in three straight Pro Bowls as a fullback, but don’t pigeonhole him to one position.
In high school, he was a tight end, fullback, quarterback, linebacker, defensive back and played on special teams.
In college, he lined up at tight end, H-Back, slot, special teams and was the quarterback in the wildcat formation.
In the NFL, he’s a tight end, fullback, slot receiver and third-down back in passing situations as well as a special teams player. The 49ers even had him as their third string quarterback.
“When I was younger, I wanted to get on the field anyway I could,” said Juszczyk, who was also a two-time All-Suburban League thrower in track and played basketball. “I started as a free safety on defense, but my defensive coordinator Kerry Cullin said there was a spot for me at middle linebacker if I was willing to make the transition. I didn’t hesitate. I wanted to be playing varsity, playing with the best of the best.
“But it’s always been about the team. It’s not all about stats. Nowadays, so much is put into statistics. It is what fans want to see. It is why people love fantasy football so much, but none of that matters if you’re not winning games. I wanted to establish a winning culture, something they hadn’t had for a while, and I knew if I did whatever the coaches asked of me and switched wherever they wanted, it would help.”
The Athletic.com’s David Lombardi chronicled the rivalry between Juszczyk and Highland running back Chris Snook brilliantly two months ago.
Every word of it was true.
Both 2009 graduates, the two butted heads all the time as SL foes. Whatever Snook did, Juszczyk wanted to do better.
“What drove me was just that he was probably the best athlete I competed against throughout the middle school and high school levels,” Juszczyk said. “He was basically the best player in the county. I always wanted to stack myself against the best.”
The feeling was mutual, as Snook put up a Gazette MVP season as a senior that included a trip to the regional final and 1,851 yards rushing.
The regular season all led up to an epic Oct. 24 night in 2008 where the two battled each other and led their teams in an unreal back-and-forth contest.
Juszczyk finally got the upper hand in the 20-14 double-overtime game won by Cloverleaf, scoring the game-winning touchdown after Snook fumbled.
Cloverleaf qualified for its first and only playoff appearance. The Hornets lost their perfect season before heading into the playoffs.
“I feel like had we closed the season out 10-0 we wouldn’t have gone into the postseason with the same edge,” Snook said. “We maybe would have been on a higher cloud. I had a good personal performance despite the fumble at the end. That fumble was a big deal.”
Cloverleaf’s push to the playoffs took a big turn in Week 7 when starting quarterback Cody Roberts broke his collarbone.
To that point, Juszczyk and Roberts shared the leadership role as one of the best one-two punches in the area.
Now, it was up to Juszczyk to lead Cloverleaf from the quarterback position.
“One of Kyle’s best assets was studying the game,” Roberts said. “We didn’t run a complex system, so I wasn’t shocked at all to see him come in and perform. He’s what you want. Everybody on that team tried to have that mentality by the coaches.
“To have it instilled and see it epitomized in the players made it an enjoyable environment to play in. He was a great teammate. It was always us vs. them, we over me. He knew when to say the right thing. He knew to do the right thing. What else can you ask in a teammate? He knew when to be supportive and when to push you.”
It led to a senior season where Juszczyk led the team in rushing yards (784) and receiving yards (322) and passed for 352 yards. He scored nine touchdowns and threw for two more.
“Kyle was one of those kids that wasn’t very vocal, but everybody wanted to follow him,” Gault said. “He wasn’t a rah-rah guy. He’s not going to talk, but he will if he has to. If you looked at his study habits, they were amazing. When he graduated, he brought a file on every kid he played against and they were better than our scouting reports.”
Juszczyk also gave up personal glory for team gain.
“He was willing to do whatever it was to be part of the solution,” Ward said. “If there was a problem we needed addressed as a team, I remember Kyle made it about everybody. He wanted to know how he could be a part of what made us better.”
For Juszczyk, it was just a matter of picking up the ball and taking the team where it had never been in an 8-3 season.
“(Roberts) and I shared that role as leaders,” Juszczyk said. “We were the first two-year captains and with him out of the picture, we were in the thick of it and needed to do whatever we could to make it to the playoffs. The season wasn’t over yet and that responsibility had to fall on somebody’s shoulders, and I definitely was excited to be that guy that could help lead by example and help get them to the playoffs.”
Juszczyk heard it all on the recruiting trail. He wasn’t tall enough. He wasn’t fast enough. He didn’t fit the mold.
He laughed all the way to success at the college level.
“In the recruiting process, they didn’t see that burst and I thought, ‘Man, you guys are freaking nuts,’” Gault said. “I saw a transformation in his body from senior year to sophomore year in college. He got thick in high school, but then he ripped that body up, stayed about the same weight, but got very light.
“I was watching how much more flexibility he had. His stride got long. When his foot came up, man, it just popped. That’s all self-made. You’re only as good as how hard you work. You look from his first game in the NFL to now, that’s just hard work and dedication.”
That dedication took him to Harvard, where Murphy nabbed him up in a heartbeat. The rest of the country’s loss was the Crimson’s gain.
“In recruiting Kyle, we saw a raw, tough, versatile athlete who could play multiple positions and special teams,” Murphy said. “In our offense that’s the perfect skill set to play our tight end/H-back position. We thought he could be a great player in our scheme, but because of his character and self-motivation he exceeded even our high expectations.”
By the time Juszczyk left, he was a two-time All-American, three-time All-Ivy League selection and in the mix of Harvard’s all-time leaders among tight ends in touchdowns (22, 3rd), receptions (125, 6th) and receiving yards (1,576, 7th).
“In our 12-Personnel (2 tight end) offense you have to have the versatile ability to play tight end, slot, wide receiver and fullback,” Murphy said. “Obviously that skill set and his physicality and toughness make for an ideal ‘fullback’ in the 49ers offense.”
It was Juszczyk’s versatility that made him a fourth-round pick by Baltimore in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Success breeds success
In an era where the fullback is a dying breed, Juszczyk has made himself into the hybrid player teams crave.
Whether it’s been John Harbaugh and the Ravens or Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers, he’s been the multipurpose player teams crave.
“Kyle is a great player,” Shanahan told 49ers.com. “He’s as good of a fullback as there is or probably has been.”
In six seasons, Juszczyk has caught 160 passes for 1,408 yards and scored seven touchdowns while rushing 22 times for 86 yards and a score. The last two seasons have been with the 49ers, where he’s caught 63 passes for 639 yards and rushed 15 times for 61 yards.
“Playing in Baltimore, you’re in the NFC North,” Juszczyk said. “Anyone from Cleveland or from Ohio knows what that means. It’s a different brand of football. It’s a gritty, tough division where you have to be ready to play old school football. Baltimore established a grittiness and toughness in me. Being able to play through injuries and knowing every game I had to brace myself for physical play and contact is something you need to prepare yourself as a professional football player.
“Coming out to San Francisco, (Shanahan’s) offense has taught me how to take that physicality and apply it into an athletic form as well. I can use that physicality in my route running, in my open-field running and in being able to do a lot of different things.”
The average lifespan of an NFL player is six seasons for those making the roster as a rookie, according to the league. That means that Juszczyk is already on borrowed time.
Halfway through a four-year, $21 million contract, he doesn’t see himself bowing out anytime soon.
“Honestly, I have no plans of stopping as long as my body can continue to perform the way it is now,” he said. “I don’t even think I’m halfway through my career. I think I’ve been able to extend my career by changing my game. Fullback is not about just slamming your head on the wall and being that road grater like it used to be. I try to tell that to younger players when they reach out to me and ask for advice.”
Juszczyk doesn’t look for the devastating hit to free up a running back. It’s more about pushing someone out of an area to give his teammate extra yards.
“This game is about angles and creating space and body position,” he said. “I use that to my advantage. When I approach a block, I know it’s all about the space I create for the guy behind me. It’s not just about crushing my guy and pancaking him. It’s about moving him off his spot. He has to relate to me. I use that to my advantage and I think that’s going to extend my career a long time.”
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