While growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, playing in the NFL wasn’t the bullseye for Carl Barzilauskas. It wasn’t even on the dartboard.
“I was from a small school and I was going to be an electrician. Pro football wasn’t my Plan B, it was my Plan D or E,” Barzilauskas said with a laugh. “I wore a leather helmet and had to make my faceguard out of Chevrolet linkage in shop class. The linkage back then would go from the shifter to the transmission. It was like a ¼ inch round, so I bent it and welded it and screwed it on.”
A friendship between Barzilauskas’ uncle, Fritz, who played guard for the New York Giants, and University of Indiana coach John Pont, led the younger Barzilauskas to playing for the Hoosiers. And despite playing his entire senior season with a broken left foot, he did well enough to be chosen in the first round, sixth-overall, by the Jets in the 1974 NFL Draft.
“It was pretty jumbled up and exciting. Back in those days it’s a lot different than it is now. I had about five or six coaches over at my apartment and as soon as Weeb (Ewbank) called, they all left except for the guy from the Jets,” Barzilauskas said. “They were from different NFL teams. I’d heard that it happened before. I was a pretty high-ranked draft choice and they were all seeing what they could do to get me. That’s why they were all up there. One of them was cooking breakfast. They were just like good ol’ boys laying around.”
The defensive tackle and other rookies arrived at training camp sans veteran players who were on a strike that lasted six weeks. Seeing their regular season begin with less than a bang, the Jets lost seven of their first eight games before winning six straight to go 7-7.
Despite the mediocre record, Barzilauskas was named as the NFL Rookie Defensive Lineman of the Year.
“That first year was a really neat year. I got to be good friends with some of the vets like Mike Adamle and Ed Galigher, Garry Puetz, 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,” Barzilauskas laughed.
What he and his teammates would have to go through next were three consecutive 3-11 seasons and no less than five head coaches: Charley Winner, Ken Shipp, Lou Holtz, Mike Holovak and Walt Michaels.
“It was all discombobulated. One guy would come in and then we do something else and then another guy would come in, a position coach, and he’d be asking what we should do. And by the time ’78 came along, it was really hard to play,” Barzilauskas said. “Lou Holtz, who everybody thinks walks on water, one day he came in and told everybody he was going to resign. He resigned, and then he came back. And then he resigned again. You can’t have any of that going around.”
Barzilauskas, who suffered a hyperextended knee which led him to sit out the final five games of the 1977 season, became a free agent. However, at that time, as part of the bargaining agreement between the league and the Players Association, any team that signed a free agent to a new salary between $75,00 and $125,000, had to send a first-round draft choice to the player’s former team as compensation.
The Jets would end up trading him to Green Bay reportedly for fourth- and fifth-round draft choices in 1979.
With the Jets for four seasons and the Packers for two, what makes Barzilauskas most proud of his gridiron career?
“I got in and I played from the beginning, that was pretty neat,” he said. “I pretty much started every game I was with the Jets (except for the) one year I was injured the last five games. I had some durability.”
Now retired as an owner of orthopedic physical therapy practices, Barzilauskas and his wife, Cathi, make their home in Bloomington, Indiana. He has an adult son, Robert.
“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,” Barzilauskas said. “I ran those for 22 years.
“Probably three or four years ago, I got an infection that went septic, that means it gets into your lungs and your heart and everything. I was pretty close to biting the bullet and I made it through that. That’s what really knocked the s_ _t out of me, and I retired after that.”