Carl Barzilauskas, who once said, "Pro football wasn't my Plan B, it was my Plan D or E" but still parlayed his gridiron skills into being the Jets' sixth pick of the 1974 draft and forging a six-year NFL career, the first four as a Jets starter, died last week at the Indiana University Health Bloomington Hospice House. He was 72.
"Barzo" called a few regions his home. He grew up in Connecticut and attended John F. Kennedy High, where he was the biggest kid in the building but hadn't planned on playing football until team members recruited him to play.
He remained in Connecticut for a one-year stop at college prep school Cheshire Academy to prepare for a career as an electrician. But uncle Fritz Barzilauskas, who played for the Giants, suggested young Carl should attend college. He enrolled at Indiana and became a Hoosiers starter in his final three seasons.
That led him to the Jets, who were in the market for a big (6-6, 275), quick interior lineman. He got to return from the Midwest to play for one of his hometown teams, and he remembered enjoying especially the first of his four seasons in green and white. For one thing, he played well enough to win NFL Rookie Defensive Lineman of the Year accolades. Dick Voris, the Jets' defensive coordinator in 1974-75, said after his rookie year, "He is without question the finest defensive lineman I've ever coached."
For another, Barzo found himself in such interesting company.
"That first year was a really neat year," Barzilauskas told newyorkjets.com's Jim Gehman in 2019. "I got to be good friends with some of the vets like Mike Adamle, Ed Galigher, Garry Puetz and Winston Hill.
"And you got to hang around with [Joe] Namath, which was a thrill in a way because of the things you got to go through," he said with a hearty laugh.
Barzilauskas was known to have a high pain threshold — he played his entire senior season at IU with a broken foot, practicing in a cast, removing it for games, then recasting it for the next week's practice.
But Barzo couldn't overcome a hyperextended knee that cost him the final five games of the '77 season after he had started 48 of his first 51 games as a Jet. That and the team's coaching instability at the time brough his Jets career to an end as he was traded for a fourth- and a fifth-round pick to Green Bay. His pro career ended two seasons later when he sustained a neck injury and temporarily lost the use of his arm.
"I got in and I played from the beginning. That was pretty neat," he said, looking back on that reluctant pro career. "I pretty much started every game I was with the Jets except for the year I was injured. I had some durability."
He and his wife, Cathi, made their home back in Bloomington, IN, where he turned his interests to different businesses, including a Bloomington watering hole called "Barzo's Blitz." Eventually, he became immersed in the medical and physical elements of the game that he at first didn't want to play, then played well, then had to stop playing due to his career-ending disability.
"I got interested basically in football injuries and then went on to general population, especially work-related injuries, so I built a physical therapy center and then I built another one at a hospital," he said. "I ran those for 22 years."
Barzilauskas is survived by his wife, Cathi, and their son, Robert "Bo" Barzilauskas. Visitation for Barzilauskas will take place on Jan. 4 from 4-8 p.m. at The Funeral Chapel, 3000 East Third Street in Bloomington. A Mass of Christian Burial will be held Jan. 5 at Saint Agnes Catholic Church in Nashville, IN. There will be a graveside service at Green Valley Cemetery near Nashville.