Most high school football players learn the game in youth leagues or on grade school teams.
Crystal Lake South’s Justin Kowalak has had a much different journey, in every sense of the word.
The senior quarterback and returning honorable-mention all-stater in Class 6A was born in Plainfield and lived there for about six years before the family moved to Poland, the homeland of his parents.
A couple of years later, the family moved to England. Kowalak’s football debut came not too long afterward.
“Me and my brother weren’t in the best of shape,” he said. “My dad was like, ‘We’ve got to get these kids outside and doing something. What’s more American than football?’ ”
Kowalak loved the sport right away, but American football — as it’s known abroad — is nowhere near as popular in England.
He was able to train with the Durham Saints, a club team affiliated with Durham University. It was a unique experience in more ways than one. Because of a lack of players, they often practiced five-on-five, with a quarterback, running back, two receivers and a center on offense.
Sometimes American-born graduate students worked out with the team.
“They had a guy come over from Holy Cross,” Kowalak said. “He was on the Dolphins’ practice squad — 6-5, 240, an absolute beast.”
Besides training with much older players, Kowalak was learning the game in a very 21st-century way.
“My dad looked up [videos] on YouTube on how to throw the football,” Kowalak said.
When it came time for Kowalak to enter high school, he and his family decided the best way to pursue his football career was to come back to the United States.
“Me and my dad had to have a conversation: ‘If you’re really invested in it, we have to do this,’ ” Kowalak said.
So the summer before his freshman year, he moved in with a family friend in Crystal Lake, more than 3,800 miles away from his family. He only has seen them twice since, once for Christmas, then again last summer during the pandemic.
While it has been hard at times to be away from loved ones, Kowalak hasn’t wavered from his commitment to advancing his football career.
“The motivation was my parents,” he said. “They worked hard, spent their hard-earned money for me to be here. I didn’t have time to be homesick. Football helped me out a lot, being busy.”
And Kowalak has helped out Crystal Lake South a lot. Coach Rob Fontana kept Kowalak on the varsity as a freshman backup to all-conference quarterback Ian Gorken.
Before the next season, Gorken came to Fontana and offered to switch positions, saying, “Justin is going to make us better. I’ll play receiver or wherever you need me.”
So Kowalak was the starter for the Class 6A playoff qualifiers, throwing for 1,995 yards and 12 touchdowns and running for another 100 yards and two TDs.
Then, of course, came the pandemic shutdown. When the Gators finally got back on the field for six games this spring, Kowalak put up more big numbers: 1,630 passing yards and 12 touchdown passes and 185 rushing yards and three rushing TDs.
He picked up right where he left off last week, throwing for a program-record 395 yards and three TDs and running for 22 more yards in a 42-38 loss to Jacobs. That boosted his career totals to 4,334 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns.
Impressive as they are, Kowalak’s numbers don’t even tell the whole story, Fontana said.
“He’s a football savant,” Fontana said. “Besides my [assistant] coaches, there’s not a guy on our team who watches anywhere near as much film as he does.”
His hope is that colleges will start taking more note of the 6-foot, 180-pounder with the big numbers, spongelike thirst for football knowledge and intriguing backstory.
South Dakota State, where former Neuqua Valley quarterback Mark Gronowski had a breakout rookie season this spring, and Murray State have shown the most interest so far.
Kowalak just wants a chance, like he did when the only option was working out with college kids years ago.
“I feel like my game has gotten so much better,” he said. “It’s night and day if you watch my film sophomore year to this year.”