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David Kowalski: Choice of academics has unexpected result

Claire Heininger | Friday, November 14, 2003

Faced with what he thought was a decision between football and academics, Chicago De La Salle High School valedictorian David Kowalski thought he picked only academics. Turns out, he didn’t have to choose.

“I was recruited to play football at a bunch of smaller schools, and I had it narrowed down to Washington University in St. Louis and here,” Kowalski, now a senior offensive guard for the Irish, said. “I could’ve played football there … but after I came and visited Notre Dame, I knew it was the place for me, football or not. There was never really a second thought after that. It was academics first – that’s just how I was raised.”

Even with this choice Kowalski found it hard to let go of football completely and decided to send a highlight tape to a family friend who was connected with the program.

“After he checked out the tape, he told me to come on over and I thought I was going to a tryout,” Kowalski said.

He was mistaken.

“I got there and [the coaches] said, ‘Here’s your pads,'” Kowalski said. “I had no idea. … I was a completely lost little freshman.”

Four years later, Kowalski has found his way and has found his role on the scout team during his senior season.

“We obviously didn’t want to be 2-6 at this point, but in the same respect we don’t want to be 2-10 either,” the walk-on said.

“My games are played on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. … I don’t get to play on Saturdays, so nothing changes for me. We’re still going out there trying to win and trying to get these guys ready.”

In addition to preparing the starters for Saturdays, Kowalski has made it his responsibility and his priority to prepare this year’s freshmen walk-ons for the challenges of the seasons ahead of them.

“I like to think that the other walk-ons look up to me,” he said. “When I was a freshman, the older guys took care of me, took me under their wing, going out to dinner every once in awhile … it helps to get to know the guys that you’re out there with at practice.

“As a walk-on, you go through a lot that people don’t really see,” he said. “That’s kind of become my job, to be a mentor for the younger ones.”

Reflecting on his college career, Kowaski’s emotions were mixed.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I mean, it’s been a long road, it’s been four years … that’s a whole lot of practices, a whole lot of different trips. I wouldn’t trade it … but I think I’ll be ready to walk away.”

He paused, realized how soon that walk would come, and added, “there will be times, though, five or 10 years from now, when I would do anything to play one more play.”

Kowalski, the self-assured senior walk-on, appreciates his current perspective on Kowalski, the intimidated freshman student who chose Notre Dame in the first place. He maintains that football alone has not defined his college experience.

“I don’t want to be known for [just playing football],” he said. “That’s kind of the essence of a walk-on … I came here to be a part of something bigger than myself.”