A 6-foot-4 tight end with limited physical gifts, Rob Chudzinski completed his senior season at St. John's Jesuit without a scholarship offer. The rejection letters blurred together.
"Based on our position needs and the number of scholarships available," Purdue assistant Joe Tiller wrote, "we will not be offering you a scholarship."
Yet this underdog narrative was only just beginning. The same way Chudzinski climbed from a 27-year-old graduate assistant to his dream job as coach of the Cleveland Browns, he willed himself to a winning lottery ticket.
Coaches at the University of Miami who were recruiting another player from Toledo came across tape of the Titans' 35-28 victory over Bowsher in the regular-season finale. The big tight end with the vise-grip hands caught six passes for 135 yards in the first 17 minutes, each catch more head-turning than the last as the Rebels lasered their attention on No. 84.
"The fourth and fifth both gained 26 yards and were nothing but outright steals from Bowsher defenders who did everything but knock him down," The Blade wrote. "And the sixth came after he was knocked down, interfered with, and still caught flat on his back in the end zone."
Shown the film, coach Jimmy Johnson got to thinking. He invited Chudzinski to visit Miami.
Before boarding the return flight, Chudzinski called home with an update: "Dad, you’ll never believe this, but Miami just offered me a scholarship."
"[The coaches] said you’re never gong to play," said Tom Cole, the Titans’ offensive coordinator at the time, "but we're going to give you a full ride because your grades are great, you're such a good person, and you're someone we can put out in the community in Miami and they can see we have some good guys on our football team."
If only they knew Chud.
Chudzinski became a three-year starter and played on two national championship teams. His career reached its latest high on Friday when he was introduced as coach of the Browns.
From Chud’s Grille in Fremont to the halls of St. John’s, on the street and via tweet, pride filled northwest Ohio.
Students at his alma mater planned to wear Browns jerseys to school Monday, then send the group photo to Chudzinski. In Swanton, former St. John’s assistant Joe Nye teared up as he thought about two men undoubtedly smiling from above: late Titans coach Fred Beier and Chudzinski’s best friend and former teammate, P.J. Miller, who died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2009.
"Yeah, I have to admit, today's a pretty good day," said Nye, who keeps that rejection letter from Purdue posted in his high school classroom. "This couldn’t happen to a better guy."
His father, Gary, was a pilot in the Ohio Air National Guard, based at Toledo Express Airport, and the family moved often — from Toledo to Bowling Green to Fremont to Perrysburg. The one constant was his love of the Browns.
Chudzinski’s cousin, Tony, remembers back-yard football games that began with the boys fighting over who got to be the Browns. On fall Sundays, he and his cousins would prop the television in the window of his aunt’s home in Bellevue, take their shirts off, and watch the game out in the cold pretending they were in the Dawg Pound.
And that story about eating dog biscuits Chudzinski dropped into his introductory news conference?
"It’s true," Nye said, recalling the tailgate before a Browns playoff game in the late 1980s. "Chud pulled out a box of dog biscuits and makes us all start eating them."
As a player, Chudzinski was quiet but led through his unrelenting example. Nobody outworked Chud. He ran precise routes and countered speed with size and fail-safe hands.
Cole, who now works for BCSN, was confident anything he called for Chud would be caught. One staple: Trips Right, Split Low, Chud to the Carp.
"Chud to the carp?" former Titans co-offensive coordinator Carl Demarkowski said with a laugh. "To this day, I still don't know what it means. But Chud knew, and that’s what mattered."
Chudzinski questioned whether grit and smarts would translate to the highest level. Gary Chudzinski recalled his son saying, "If I got in a few games my senior year, I probably would have been happy."
Chud instead started as a sophomore and developed into one of the most reliable options for a powerhouse program. Miami won the national title in 1987 and 1989.
"When it was time for somebody to make the big play, Chud would be one of the No. 1 people we’d call, " said former teammate Wesley Carroll, a wideout from Cleveland.
After graduation, Chudzinski briefly worked for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen before feeling the pull of coaching. He returned to Miami as a graduate assistant in 1994 and began a steady climb. Chud became offensive coordinator in 2001 and came to the Browns as tight ends coach in 2004. It was his first of six NFL coaching moves, which included a return to the Browns as coordinator in 2007 and 2008.
Now 26 years after he was an All-City League standout who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, friends see the same perfectionist streak in Chudzinski the coach.
Bert Brady, a former St. John’s teammate and close friend, recalled Chudzinski bringing a cot into his office and often staying the night during his second year as a coordinator in Cleveland. Not to mention Chud’s habit of sneaking a few hours of film study during family vacations.
"I think it's just a constant on any of the trips we’re going on," ex-teammate John Ragan said with a laugh.
"He literally said, ’I need to design the perfect game plan,’" Brady said.
"You can design the perfect game plan, but your players have to execute," Brady recalls replying.
"No, it's my job to develop the perfect plan and put my guys in the position for maximum success," Chudzinski said.
His latest challenge of making his boyhood team a winner will be his biggest to date, but he has defied the odds before.
"You'd like to think [St. John’s] and the environment here had something to do with his success, but a lot of it is just Rob and his heart and his determination," said St. John’s basketball coach Ed Heintschel, who coached Chudzinski in the winter. "We’re proud of him."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.