So many players every year get their big breaks in the NFL. With 53-man rosters and eight-man practice squads, the league is the football version of American Idol.
But while I've run into many of those young men for the last 13 seasons embedded with the Jets and the last 28 years covering the league, I don't think I've ever met anyone who so intently expressed what it meant to be playing pro football than Joe Kowalewski.
"It's a dream come true," said Kowalewski, the first-year free-agent tight end from Syracuse in the Jets' Meadowlands locker room after making his pro debut in Sunday's season opener against New England. "I had to hold the tears back out there big-time a couple of times, on the bus on the way over here, in warmups. Being out there ... no one's every going to be able to take that away from me."
How did Joey K celebrate the occasion? Well, he didn't have any "statistics," not one catch as a TE, not a carry as a fullback, not a tackle on special teams. But he didn't need any of those things. Under "Substitutions" on the play-by-play, there was his name.
And on the game's fifth play from scrimmage, there was his number on the Meadowlands turf — No. 40 in the same backfield with two other round numbers, No. 20 and No. 10, going in motion and walling off a Patriot on a Thomas Jones run.
"I'm out there blocking for Thomas, for Chad Pennington and Laveranues Coles," he said, marveling at his brushes with greatness. "I don't really have anybody out here. These are my brothers. This is my family. You try to sacrifice for them."
Fans might listen to Kowalewski and think, well, it's neat that he's so pumped up to be a pro but he can lighten up on the intensity and the family affair. We get it.
But if you thought that, you don't know the half of it. Kowalewski is so intense, and he plays a position that was well-populated on the Jets' training camp roster that he could have cost himself his shot with the Jets due to a dust-up he had with linebacker Cody Spencer.
The occasion was the Jets' night practice on Thursday, Aug. 2. The players had already endured a two-hour, 42-minute morning workout and were in the middle of a 2:44 session under portable lights in the muggy air on the team's upper grass field, conducting a situational scrimmage.
Suddenly, like one of those small, violent thunderstorm cells that pass over Long Island occasionally at that time of the summer, Kowalewski and Spencer were swinging away. And the officials working the scrimmage called the personal foul only on Kowalewski.
Two days later, head coach Eric Mangini, who rarely criticizes any of his players, hadn't forgotten his displeasure over the brawl.
"It would have been third-and-4 on the 4-yard line," Mangini said, "and we get a dead-ball foul on Kowalewski. And now instead of having a chance to really score a touchdown there, we're pushed back, and it's just ridiculous. It's ridiculous, it's selfish. Any of those penalties are just selfish because it hurts the team. And what do you get, two seconds of satisfaction out of it?"
Kowalewski reflected back on that night five weeks ago with his trademark intensity.
"It was just the heat of the battle out there and it wasn't smart. Coach, he let me know, and I knew. I was wrong. Me and Cody, we're cool. He's my brother. When you're out there competing for a job, the competition is so high sometimes that stuff like that happens. It's football. Sometimes you've got to get down and dirty.
"But that was a mistake. You can't ever do that, get a penalty like that. Sometimes you've just got to walk away. Then you hit them in the mouth when it's legal."
Mangini may not have liked the sin, but he loves the sinner. Kowalewski clearly caught the coach's eye from his desire and drive as he spent the entire 2006 season on the practice squad. When it came time for final cuts, Mangini went heavy with four tight ends (five if you count long-snapper James Dearth). In part it's because the Jets' TEs are really H-backs, Transformers, whatever you want to call their role.
And in part it was to get Kowalewski on the field. Who knows how many games he'll be active this season, how long he'll remain a Jet? But he's here now and he's ready for more. And if all his brothers in green believe as he does, this team will be all right.
"As far as the result, it was definitely bittersweet," he said of the 38-14 loss to the Pats. "Today was a heartbreaker. But I thought we played tough. We'll be back. We'll be back. We've got good coaches, we've got tough guys, we work so hard. Hard work pays off — that's one thing I've learned. We're going to get it together, definitely."