02/4/06 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom
DAWN BENKO / DAILY RECORD
Right, John Kuzman, 90, a former football player, lives at the Firemen's Home in Boonton. Kuzman played professionally for the Chicago Cardinals, San Francisco Forty Niners and Chicago Rockets. Above, Kuzman in the October 1939 edition of Athlete magazine.
The 1946 team of the Forty Niners. Kuzman played in eight games for that year's team. When Kuzman signed with the Forty Niners, he reunited with former college teammate Len Eshmont.
Former NFL player keeps game alive in his heart
Memories top pain for Kuzman, 90
BY JANE HAVSY
BOONTON -- Football made John Kuzman a hero.
Even before there was a Super Bowl, the game let him escape a life in the mines of Coaldale, Pa. It enabled him to get an education, first at Bordentown (N.J.) Military Academy, then at Fordham University. It allowed him to travel the country. Football even helped Kuzman meet his wife of 64 years, Audrey.
But as Kuzman, now 90 years old, sits in a wheelchair at the New Jersey Firemen's Home in Boonton, it's clear that football also exacted a price.
Three of his teeth were kicked in and his still-crooked nose was broken twice while returning punts at Bordentown. The cartilage in his knees is gone, a casualty of his career. He has had three hip replacements and damaged nerves in his chest, so he frequently is in pain.
Kuzman held his trembling hands out for inspection on Monday afternoon. His stubby, wrinkled fingers are gnarled, broken countless times.
"They taped 'em up and sent me back in," he said in a raspy whisper.
He pointed out the displaced knuckle on the middle finger of his left hand almost proudly, and the thick, discolored nails. A tackle who played both offense and defense, Kuzman used his left hand to keep him stable in a three-point stance. Audrey Kuzman believes there was some long-term interaction between the chemicals used to keep the grass fields healthy and her husband's hands.
"We were born 50 years too soon," Audrey Kuzman said. "He played offense and defense, 60 minutes. No facemask, no teeth guard, anything. Leather helmets they could fold and put in their pockets if they wanted to. There's a big, big difference."
Larger than life
While growing to be 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, Kuzman endured teasing by other children because he was so much larger than everyone else. It seems inconceivable, since the average NFL offensive tackle is now 6-foot-4 and 318 pounds. The average weight of all players is 248 pounds.
But in Kuzman's era, linemen averaged just 230 pounds.
Kuzman, who described himself as "a busy lineman," played both offensive and defensive left tackle at Fordham University. He appeared in the first televised college football game, as Fordham defeated Waynesburg, 34-7, at the World's Fair in New York on Sept. 30, 1939. He was also a member of the first Rams team to play in a NCAA bowl game, falling to Texas A&M, 13-12, at the Cotton Bowl.
Kuzman was named an All-American in 1940, as was the halfback he opened holes for, Len Eshmont.
He is the strongest man I have ever seen -- in football or anywhere else," Fordham coach Jim Crowley told the New York Journal and American in 1939. "He is extremely fast, and he has the greatest possibilities of any tackle I have ever seen. He should be far and away the best in the country."
Drafted by Chicago in the seventh round, Kuzman played five games in the National Football League in 1941. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Curly Lambeau named him to his all-rookie team.
Kuzman volunteered for the Navy during World War II, one of 995 NFL personnel to serve. He rose to the rank of lieutenant as part of the pre-flight program, physically training future pilots -- including Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams.
But when asked what he did in the Navy, Kuzman emphatically said, "Left tackle." Even after Audrey Kuzman gently reminded him of all his other activities, John Kuzman repeated, only "left tackle."He was part of various pre-flight football teams, and was named to the 1943 New York Daily News' All-American Service Team.
Kuzman signed with the San Francisco Forty Niners, a new team in the All-America Football League, in 1946, reuniting with Eshmont. He appeared in eight games, and Audrey took care of the couple's two children -- Richard and Linda -- in a new housing development surrounded by other football wives.
But Crowley was coaching the Chicago Rockets, and arranged for Kuzman and other former Fordham players to be transferred. That was the beginning of the end of Kuzman's football career. Audrey was unhappy in Chicago, trying to juggle the two children while pregnant with another while John was on the road. He only made about $5,000 per season, which ran from August to mid-December.
So after that season, when John played in 13 games, Audrey Kuzman made him quit.
"Football wasn't a big deal for us," she said. "Certainly, you didn't make the money. I wanted to get home and settle down and start living a normal life. ... I said, 'Let's go home, back to Jersey.' We've been back ever since."
Kuzman went to Rutgers University, where he served as an assistant football coach while earning his master's degree. He taught and coached at St. Michael's High School, in Union City, and Bloomfield High School before settling in at Bergen County Vocational and Technical High School in Hackensack for 20 years.
Doug Stearns, a former student of Kuzman's who now also lives in the Firemen's Home, still remembers watching Kuzman curling dumbbells or lifting weights in his office at Bergen Tech. Stearns and about 15 of his high school buddies wanted to tackle the burly physical education teacher, "to take him down (and) beat him."
But even all those high school students couldn't bring Kuzman down.
Kuzman never mentioned the incident again.
"We felt our oats, so we were going to kick his butt," said Stearns, now 63. "That's another reason we tackled him, to see how strong a Forty Niner was. We found out in a hurry."
A framed poster of the 1946 Forty Niners hangs in Kuzman's room at the Firemen's Home, just where he can see it if he turns his head while lying in bed.
His Hall of Fame plaques from Fordham and Schuylkill County, Pa., are at the head of the bed. Kuzman also has a caricature of himself labeled "King Kuzman" from his playing days, pointing out the thick, dark hair Audrey always loved -- even now that it's faded to white.
Though Kuzman still considers himself a tough guy, he keeps a few stuffed animals in his room, including a foot-long tiger that used to belong to his older brother Zane.
Zane Kuzman started working in the coal mines early on. He gave the family part of his meager earnings, enabling middle son John Kuzman to leave Coaldale for prep school. Zane later became a barber --"free haircuts," joked his brother -- and their younger brother, Henry Kuzman, also wound up in the mines.
John Kuzman has trouble remembering things now and he doesn't talk nearly as much as he once did. But his eyes still sparkle when anyone brings up football.
Audrey Kuzman visits her husband in Boonton every afternoon. She has been "my right arm since prep school." She smiled fondly at the words, sitting beside his wheelchair on the deck at the Firemen's Home on Monday afternoon. The couple, who have lived in Packanack Lake for 54 years, now have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Audrey was still attending Dickinson High School in Jersey City when John Kuzman started at Fordham University. She'd been seeing his roommate, Vince Dennery. He often wrote her letters, with Kuzman adding his own brief words on the back of the page. But before long, Kuzman started sending Audrey his own letters, and warning her not to mention it to Dennery.
They were married in Harlem on Sept. 3, 1941, but the ceremony was quiet and kept secret. Kuzman had already been drafted by the Chicago Cardinals. In fact, he was scheduled to play in an all-star game against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds just a half-hour after the ceremony.
Kuzman was late and refused to say why. As punishment, Crowley benched him for the first two minutes of the game. Kuzman didn't get the grand individual introduction.
But he played the next 58 minutes, never leaving the field.
"I just loved the sport," said Kuzman, who also set a New Jersey indoor shot put record (50 feet, 101/2 inches) in 1936. "Sixty minutes, offense and defense, because we were tough."
Kuzman still watches football "every time it's on TV" at the Firemen's Home, and notes that "most of the plays go to my side, the left side."
The residents are planning a Super Bowl party on Sunday, and Kuzman plans to root for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh, be it the university or the NFL team, was always one of the most difficult teams to play. Kuzman gave away another hint of being from a past era when he gave his reason: "Coal miners are tough."
Audrey Kuzman said her husband still receives two or three autograph requests every year, from collectors and children -- sometimes even grandchildren -- of fans. But asked whether any current players could follow his path, John Kuzman said, flatly, "Nobody. It was tough."