John J. Niezgoda, a linebacker who played on the University of Toledo's famed teams that won 35 consecutive games in the late 1960s and early '70s, died of cancer Friday in the Cleveland Clinic. He was 58.
Mr. Niezgoda accumulated a record-breaking 563 stops in 34 games during his years at UT. He was named to the All-Mid-American Conference team in 1969, 1970, and 1971 - each of the three years the team went undefeated for the third-longest NCAA Division-I winning streak since 1900.
Media reports called him a "tackling machine" and "possibly the best linebacker ever in the Mid Am." He was inducted into the university's Varsity "T" Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984.
Jack Murphy, UT head football coach from 1971-76, said Mr. Niezgoda was "the best linebacker that I ever coached."
"He was probably as good as any in the conference," he said. "He was just a great athlete and a great person."
In an interview with The Blade in 2006, Mr. Niezgoda remembered the three-season winning streak with a touch of disbelief.
"You sit back and say, 'Did this really happen?'•" he said. "It's part of the history of the game now, and I'm just happy to be associated with it."
Born in Toledo, he was 9 years old when his father, Leonard, died in a construction accident.
After that, his mother, Virginia, worked long hours to support him and his two sisters. The boy who loved the Green Bay Packers and idolized coach Vince Lombardi never caused any trouble, his mother said. "He was a very good child," she said.
As a football standout at Central Catholic High School, he developed a close relationship with Coach Donald "Ducky" Lewis, who became a father figure, Mrs. Niezgoda said.
Young Niezgoda was being considered for a scholarship to Michigan State when a knee injury sidelined him for nearly all his senior season. He joined the University of Toledo team, where his mentor, Mr. Lewis, also was coaching at the time.
"Toledo was a good fit because it was a safe place for me," Mr. Niezgoda told The Blade. "If my knee held up, I could play. If not, I was home. Plus, I could always help my mom out."
After graduation, he worked more than 30 years for Allied Building Products. At their home in Curtice, he and his wife, Carol, kept busy with 14 children - 12 of whom were adopted.
"He had the patience of a saint with those kids," his mother said.
Mr. Niezgoda was a family man. He and his wife managed to keep the house running smoothly, his mother said.
"Having these kids is a lot more difficult than playing football," he told The Blade. "But it's fun and challenging."
Surviving are his wife, Carol Niezgoda; daughters, Audrey Jones and Brittany, Deanna, Sabrina, Micki, Miranda, Marissa, and Mariah Niezgoda; sons, Chad, Andy, Daniel, Chris, and Marcus Niezgoda; mother, Virginia Niezgoda; sisters, Mary Ann Perko and Diane Leguizamon, and two grandchildren.
Services will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Peter Lutheran Church, Martin. Visitation will be after 2 p.m. tomorrow in the Eggleston-Meinert-Pavley Funeral Home, Millbury Chapel.