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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

Sidelines: 3 for the price of 1

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Steve Gawronski Steve Gawronski
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Rogers High School senior football standout Steve Gawronski has learned an interesting lesson about life over the past 11 years.

Success can be achieved by hard work and diligence. But, sometimes, it just boils down to the luck of the draw.

When he was 7 years old and attending Our Lady of Lourdes elementary school in south Toledo, Gawronski attended an open house at the school with his parents, Bob and Sue. Like the other pupils, he was given one raffle ticket for a chance at several prizes.

While most of his young schoolmates eyed the bicycles that were awaiting as prizes, Gawronski and a friend focused on another potential prize -- free karate lessons.

In what, years later, would become the first step of a long and now fruitful journey, Gawronski s ticket was drawn for the karate lessons, which were for the American Kenpo Karate school in south Toledo.

Unless Lance Armstrong had been there and won a bicycle that night, no one could have gotten more mileage from his prize than Steve Gawronski.

But that initial joy of winning was put on hold for a while, as the certificate for the four private lessons remained unused and nearly forgotten.

Those lessons sat on our dining room hutch for probably two or three months before we actually used them, Gawronski said. My mom and dad were debating, Should we take him and risk having him beat up his little sister all the time?

My mom wasn t too thrilled about it. But once I got into it she saw what it was about, and it just took off from there.

Sue Gawronski had enrolled her then 5-year-old daughter Amanda in gymnastics class. But when Amanda saw Steve taking karate lessons, she begged her mother to let her join him.

She finally put us both in, Steve said. That s how I really got to stick with it.

The first step was separating fiction from reality.

I used to watch the Karate Kid movie over and over and I thought it would be like that, where you would just do the little crane kick thing and jump up and kick somebody in the face, Gawronski said. But I learned there was a lot more to it.

Eleven years and some 500 or so karate tournament trophies later, the now 18-year-old, 6-3, 290-pound Gawronski has parlayed the martial arts into a high school football career. That, in turn, led to his recent acceptance of a football scholarship at the University of Cincinnati.

If I never would have won the free lessons, I never would have got into karate, said Gawronski. I ve thought about it for a long time, and I seriously think I wouldn t have achieved half the things I have now if I hadn t gotten that basic [karate] background.

Because of that training, Gawronski is unusually agile and relatively quick for his large frame, which is supported by his size-18 feet.

At a football camp at Cincinnati, he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.15 seconds. In practice at Rogers, he is routinely one of the top finishers during sprints run against fellow linemen. Most importantly, because of his karate background and extremely supportive parents, Gawronski has acquired the ability to focus on a task and work diligently to complete it.

He gained this by refusing to give up during a five-year struggle to win his first karate competition after countless entries. That fortitude ultimately paid off in his martial arts quest, as he became a national champion. And, it looks likely to continue to pay off in the form of a free college education.

Gawronski competed in his first tournament at age 8 and took third place. But he wouldn t win first place in a tournament until age 13.

Perhaps bolstered by the long-awaited victory, when he was 14 and 15, Gawronski went full bore into karate training and competition. He trained with his instructors 15 to 20 hours per week, then entered local, regional or national tournaments almost every weekend, year-round.

At 15, he won his first national tournament, taking the heavyweight title for his age level. His biggest victory to date came in April of 2003, when he took first in the heavyweight 16-17 division at the Martial Arts Goodwill Games in Cancun, Mexico. At the youth level, karate bouts are comprised of two minutes of continuous fighting where only blows directly to the face are prohibited. Points are scored by kicks and punches to designated areas on the body.

That was a lot of frustration and a lot of hours in the karate school, Gawronski remembers. For a while, I was always just that one point away from winning first, always outdone at the last second. There were times I wanted to give up. I was like, I am never going to win a tournament.

Gawronski never played organized football until high school. Already 6-0 and 260 pounds as an eighth-grader, he was too big to play on the lightweight-level team from his South Toledo area, and Our Lady of Lourdes did not have a team. During his sophomore football season at Rogers, Gawronski, then 6-3 and 320 pounds, was eager to improve his lot on the Rams varsity. He asked head coach Rick Rios what he could do to get better. Rios and assistant football coach Craig Lubinski suggested that Gawronski go out for wrestling.

The first thing he had to do was make weight. The maximum weight for a high school wrestler is 275 pounds, and Gawronski needed to shed 45 pounds just to compete. He did that, then managed a respectable 19-12 sophomore season, taking third place in the City League tournament. Last year as a junior, Gawronski won the CL heavyweight title, placed second at sectionals and went 2-2 at districts, narrowly missing a trip to the state tournament in only his second year of wrestling.

Steve is hungry to learn, said Rogers wrestling coach Mark Contos. He s like a sponge. He s picked up the techniques quickly. This guy is just coming into it and last year he won a City championship, was a sectional runner-up and was one match from being a state qualifier.

I have no doubt that if he would have started wrestling back in junior high and competed in tournaments in the offseason that he would be one of the best to come out of this area. It would have been nice to have him for four years here and work with him in the summer.

He s done everything we ve asked of him. It wouldn t surprise me at all if he was a state qualifier this year and then, after that, who knows? It s going to take a darn good kid to beat Steve Gawronski.

The disciplined background from karate and the demanding physical training regimen required by wrestling provided Gawronski with the necessary ingredients to become a top-flight football lineman. He plays guard and defensive tackle for the Rams, and was recruited by Cincinnati as a potential quick (pulling) guard for the Bearcats.

One thing karate gives you that a lot of sports can t offer is extreme flexibility and agility, Gawronski said. A lot of karate is muscle control and controlling your body. In a match, when you re kicking somebody and they block it, you have to be able to regain your balance and, with a quick movement, be able to come back and hit them. You need great lateral movement. That s one of the best attributes from karate that you take to football, that lateral movement and that flexibility.

As for the karate career, that is now on hold. When he turned 18, Gawronski moved up into the adult 18-to-29 classification. He showed potential for success there a few months back, defeating a top-ranked National Blackbelt League opponent in a tournament. But, because of his new commitments to football and wrestling, Gawronski is turning his attention toward those sports.

Steve s a competitor, Rios said. He brings a tough, fiery type to the table for us. He s got great feet for a big guy. He s agile and gets moving pretty well. It s nice to know that, when it s third-and-1, we can line up and run behind him.

You can tell the karate in his background has helped him become agile and flexible. He can play low and get under people on the offensive side.

Rios has also seen the lighter side of the karate champion.

Steve s a fun kid just to have on the field, Rios said. He enjoys what he s doing. He loves playing the game of football and he gets after it. He s very coachable, very receptive.



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