Antioch's Czerlanis lost both his parents when he was 14. Football put him back on the right path.
The 365 pounds of body weight that 6-foot-4 Dylan Czerlanis was carrying as a high school freshman couldn't compare to his heavy heart.
His heart was broken, and it was like an oversized anchor in his chest.
Czerlanis was quite literally weighed down by life three years ago.
What happened to him, no 14-year-old should ever have to handle.
The death of one parent for a child is tremendously difficult.
The death of both parents for a child is just cruel.
And by his freshman year at Antioch High School, Czerlanis had lost both of his parents. To heart attacks.
Dad James died when Czerlanis was in sixth grade. Mom Colleen died when Czerlanis was a freshman. Both were in their mid-40s.
Both deaths were sudden. Both shook Czerlanis, an only child, to his core.
"When my Dad passed, I was heartbroken," Czerlanis said. "And when my Mom passed away, I felt completely destroyed. I felt all alone. For awhile there, I didn't think my life had purpose anymore."
Then Czerlanis found football.
Actually, football found him.
And football essentially saved Czerlanis. Football not only lightened his heart and his spirit, it lightened his body (by 100 pounds) and made him quicker and stronger and more athletic and suddenly a college prospect.
Czerlanis went from being teased about his weight, to being revered and sought after for his size. He went from being sad and depressed and rudderless, to having goals and being excited to see what challenge each new day brought.
"Football helped me turn my life around," Czerlanis said. "Whether it be physically, and the way I look, or my mindset, football put me on the right path."
Czerlanis, now a senior, is the starting center for the undefeated Sequoits (5-0) and played that role last year as well. He used to be a hockey guy, a goalie for a travel team. He had played hockey since he was 5.
Football, even at his size, was never on his radar.
Then the football coaches at Antioch spotted him in the halls during his freshman year.
"I'm always grabbing kids in the hall and saying, 'You've got to play football,'" Antioch football coach Brian Glashagel said. "I saw Dylan and he was just this big, baby-faced teddy bear kid. A big, giant softy, really. But I really wanted him to play."
Czerlanis decided to take a pass on football his freshman year. He still had hockey, and quite frankly, he wasn't sure he could do it. At 365 pounds, he was carrying a lot of weight. Even for a football player.
"Freshman year, I was out of breath walking up a staircase," Czerlanis said. "I could play hockey because as a goalie, you really don't have to move too far."
The death of his Mom that year put Czerlanis at a crossroads. He knew he could fall into a depression and isolate himself and get bigger and even more out of shape. Or, he could grab on to the many friends and family members who were reaching out, and encouraging him to join football as a way to meet new friends and focus on something positive and productive.
"I live with my aunt Sherri and uncle Rich now and my uncle is a big football fan and really was excited for me to try football. And I had a couple of friends from hockey who did football too," Czerlanis said. "So I decided to try it my sophomore year."
Football and Czerlanis didn't mix right away.
"The first day of football practice his sophomore year, Dylan couldn't even get through the warmup," Glashagel said. "He was having a really tough time."
Two other kids quit that day because of the intensity of the practice.
Czerlanis thought about being the third.
"I was so out of shape, and I remember thinking, 'This is terrible. I hate this,'" Czerlanis said. "But I realized that I hated it because of what I was, not because of what the sport is. I wanted to keep an open mind about football. So I decided to stick it out and give it a try.
"But I didn't like the fact that I couldn't make it through the first 10 minutes and everyone else was breezing through like it was no big deal. It made me realize that I needed to make some major changes."
So Czerlanis, who was used to being in fight-or-flight mode at that point due to his family situation, chose to fight again.
He fought his nutrition demons. And he went hard core.
No more junk, just good food. Chicken, vegetables, protein shakes.
"I cut out all carbs and breads and sodas," Czerlanis said. "I drank only water. I ate a lot of proteins, maybe 4 to 5 eggs a day.
"I'm really proud of myself. I totally changed the way I ate. I eat so differently now."
Czerlanis also became a weight room maniac, lifting every single day, making so many gains that he not only began transforming his body, he started winning team lifting awards.
Over the course of his sophomore year, Czerlanis lost a whopping 100 pounds, and was down to 265 by the start of his junior year.
While that transformation was taking place during his sophomore year, Czerlanis played on the junior varsity team, but was brought up to the varsity for the playoffs and actually started a playoff game on the defensive line in place of an injured player.
By junior year, Czerlanis was even more improved, and was a shoe-in for the starting spot at center.
Hard to believe that all of this came less than a year after Czerlanis played football for the very first time, less than a year after he nearly quit the team because he couldn't make it through the warmups, less than a year after he lost his mom to a heart attack.
"The physical transformation that Dylan has made, I don't know if I've ever seen that dramatic of a change," Glashagel said. "Then you throw in the fact that he is dealing with the loss of both of his parents and it's like, 'Oh my gosh!' It's just an incredible story, an emotional story. And now, Dylan is literally one of the best linemen we have ever had."
Czerlanis, who is back up to 295 pounds due to even more (positive) muscle gains in the weight room, is even receiving looks from college coaches. He impressed scouts with his size and strength at five camps this summer, including Northwestern, North Central and Illinois State.
"I'm glad I stuck with football because as my sophomore year progressed, my love for the sport just grew," Czerlanis said. "I had never pushed myself that hard before, and I had never really felt a part of something like that before. And now, I really see myself as a football player."
Because college is now a serious option for Czerlanis, grades have become more important to him than they ever were. He's making A's and B's in school, whereas before, he struggled in the classroom and didn't put in the effort.
"I didn't have any goals for college, I didn't think grades were important, I wasn't pushing myself. Then, I also had all the body image issues, and kids made fun of me," Czerlanis said. "All of that changed because of football. There were tough days, days where I didn't think any of this could happen. But I set goals for myself and I stuck with it. Football has helped me turn my life around in every way."
Czerlanis knows his parents would be proud. He says they sacrificed so much for him and that their deaths were the ultimate sacrifice because they woke him up to the realities of his own life.
"I wasn't the best kid in school, I wasn't doing the best I could and I really could have gone down an even darker path," Czerlanis said. "I think their passings helped me realize I need to do better and work harder and have goals."
Czerlanis has already hit so many goals in the last two years, more than he could have ever imagined. But he has one more goal that is still on his list.
"My ultimate goal is to make it to the NFL," Czerlanis said. "It's a very long shot. I know that. But after what I've gone through, and the adversity I've overcome, I don't see why I can't have a goal like that."
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