'I think I made the right decision': Former Montini lineman Kuczynski is playing football in Florida
Besides the sticky humidity, and temperatures in the 80s, Friday nights feel like Friday nights again for Brett Kuczynski.
Friday nights have football. Under the lights.
And for Kuczynski, that has made saying goodbye to his friends, leaving his home and moving nearly 1,200 miles across the country, very much worth it.
"I'm really enjoying my time so far. When I ran out onto the field for our first game, I was like, 'Wow, I'm playing football again,' " Kuczynski said. "So far, I think I made the right decision."
It wasn't an easy decision, though.
Kuczynski is a high school senior.
He would have been a senior at Montini High School in Lombard, and should have been in the middle of his senior season with all of his friends on the football team. Kuczynski is a lineman and longsnapper, ranked No. 41 in the nation by Chris Rubio Long Snapping (rubiolongsnapping.com), in fact.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state's restrictions on contact sports, blew up the fall IHSA football season in Illinois, canceling it and postponing it to a possible spring of 2021 season.
Like a vast majority of high school football players in Illinois, Kuczynski, who was hoping to use the fall season to cement a college scholarship, didn't like the idea of no fall football.
Thought becomes reality
But unlike the vast majority of high school football players in Illinois, Kuczynski had recourse, and an alternative.
His grandfather Jim bought a Florida vacation house in New Smyrna Beach about two years ago, and once rumblings began this summer that fall football in Illinois might not happen, the family started mulling the possibilities.
A move to New Smyrna Beach? With Grandpa?
"At first, it was something that seemed really obscure, it's something you wouldn't have thought of in a million years," Kuczynski said. "But the more we thought about it, and the more (football in Illinois became in doubt), the more it grew on me.
"It was nice to know we had that in our back pocket."
It didn't take long for a move to Florida to become a reality rather than an intriguing, "back pocket" option.
Kuczynski and his mother Denise, Jim's daughter, moved there in late July while Brett's dad Mike and younger sister Brooke, a freshman at Montini, stayed back in Illinois to hold down the fort at home.
Now, it's three months later, and Kuczynski has already played in four games for New Smyrna Beach High School, which is about 20 minutes south of Daytona Beach and 45 minutes east of Orlando.
The Barracudas are 3-1 and just celebrated a 47-9 road victory on Friday over Eustis, a school that is located in the suburbs of Orlando.
Games are well attended in that area of Florida, but there are restrictions. Masks are required of fans for entry. Every other row in the stands is closed off to encourage social distancing. Concessions are limited.
Players must take daily temperature checks, and there is sanitizing upon sanitizing upon sanitizing.
But hey, it's football. In the fall. And Kuczynski is seizing the opportunity.
"Brett has started every game for us and played every play this season as our center and long snapper," said New Smyrna Beach head coach John Wilkinson, who added three other out-of-state players to his roster this season because of family moves due to COVID-19. "You can tell he comes from a good program and that he has been coached by really good coaches. He also has a toughness about him, and he has really good technique and good feet, and you could just tell after a day or two in pads that he is really good."
Kuczynski was a little worried about transitioning to a new high school, and to a new team, and making new friends, especially as a senior.
But here's a positive about social media: it allowed him to make connections with his future teammates before he even stepped foot in Florida.
"I got to know a bunch of the boys because I reached out to them on Twitter when I first decided that I was moving," Kuczynski said. "I looked up Coach Wilkinson and saw him retweeting things from his players, and I reached out to those players and I looked them up on MaxPreps and pretty soon we were all going back and forth asking each other a bunch of questions, telling each other about our lives and then they added me to the football group text and that's how I got to know pretty much everyone.
"I was definitely a little nervous before my first actual practice, but I did kind of already know most of the kids. It's been a great thing."
"Our kids have embraced him. Brett has fit right in," Wilkinson said.
The timing for Kuczynski's move to Florida was pretty great, too.
Wilkinson had just moved his starting center from last year to guard, so there was an opening at center, and Kuczynski slid right in.
Meanwhile, all of his credits from Montini transferred right over and Kuczynski, who was aiming throughout high school to graduate early, is still on track to do so, with straight-As at New Smyrna Beach at the midterm.
"The schools down here are open and I like that," Kuczynski said. "You have the option to do remote, but I'm doing full-time school in person and I like that. I'd say the majority of kids are doing that. We have to wear a mask all day, but at least we're in school."
And as an added bonus, it turns out that Coach Wilkinson has a lot of ties to special teams coaches at colleges in the southeast. One of his former players is now the starting longsnapper at the University of Miami, and some of those same coaches who recruited that player are already in touch with Wilkinson about Kuczynski.
"That (Wilkinson's college connections) was a really great part of this, too," said Kuczynski, who has already been getting a lot of attention from schools such as Louisville and Florida International. "This has been like the perfect fit."
There have been sacrifices
Kuczynski says that he definitely misses his friends and teammates from Montini.
"I'm missing out on my senior year there and that hurts," Kuczynski said. "I text all my pals back home all the time, seeing what's going on back at Montini. Everyone is very supportive, but that part of it has been hard."
The move has also been hard on the family. Kuczynski's dad and sister Brooke make frequent trips to Florida to watch him play, but leaving to go back to Illinois is never easy.
"It's been challenging for the family, separating husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, and even siblings," Mike Kuczynski said. "But we know it's been exciting for Brett to have the opportunity to play. We've been watching things back home in Illinois and I feel bad for the parents and kids there. I just saw there were parents and kids rallying the other day at Lyons Township.
"When you see things like that, it just reiterates to us that no matter the challenges as a family, we feel like we made a good decision. We feel really good that we were able to take advantage of this opportunity."
It certainly is not lost on the Kuczynski family that the opportunity before them was rare, that their family was fortunate to have an opportunity that so many others do not have.
"I feel very blessed to have this opportunity," Brett Kuczynski said. "I think this might have been a crazy destiny kind of thing. Somewhere along the way when my grandpa purchased this house, maybe it was meant to be that something big like this would come out of it.
"It was like the stars aligned or something."