Jacob Czaja progresses to Atlantic football all-star status
by Randy Pascal
And to think that the university football career of Jacob Czaja was virtually an after-thought.
The hulking offensive lineman, a resident of Lively since 2001 and graduate of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, was mere months away from
commencing studies at Cambrian College during the summer of 2013, fully prepared to shelve his football dreams.
This past November, Czaja not only found himself as a key cog in the wheel of the Loney Bowl (AUS championship game) winning squad representing
the St Francis Xavier X-Men, but he was also named to the Atlantic Conference all-star team in the process.
Strange how these things somehow play themselves out.
“I was about to quit football, I was done,” said Czaja. “They flew me down at the end of June. They didn’t have much on me, no film or anything. They
just wanted to see me out on the field.”
By mid-July, Czaja, one of four boys in the family (including himself and a twin brother), had committed to the X-Men, all while knowing precious little
about his new post-secondary home in Antigonish (Nova Scotia), or any of the teams that the Atlantic University Sport grouping encompasses.
And there was more change to come. While Czaja had always focused primarily on playing the defensive line during his time with football in Sudbury, it
was on the other side of the ball where the X-Men coaching staff projected his development.
Perhaps little of this should come as a surprise, considering the meandering path that Czaja travelled to that point. “I played two seasons of Joe Mac,
but football just wasn’t my thing,” recalled the third year Business student. “I always loved playing hockey.”
Even through high school, the imposing presence (the St Francis website lists Czaja at 6’3 – 298 pounds) hardly threw himself full force into football.
“I definitely always had size on guys,” he said. “I didn’t have much technique.”
That said, Czaja was more than willing to learn, a trait that immediately caught the eye of his new university football mentors. “They called me to come
and play “O” line, so I didn’t question it. Obviously, they thought I was able to be coached up.”
In particular, one Bob Howes, a center with no less than five Grey Cup winning Edmonton Eskimo teams, took a particular liking to
his Northern Ontario project. “My “O” line coach kept telling me that I had something special,” said Czaja. “I didn’t expect much. It was so technical.”
Czaja, however, had a base, a foundation that Howes and others could build upon. “I was always going to the gym, even in high school, so that wasn’t an
issue,” stated Czaja. “And then my technique started to get better, quick feet, learning the playbook.”
“In pass blocking, you just want to pick the feet up and put ‘em down, see what the defensive linemen are doing, and beat them to the punch. Keep those
feet chopping, keep them moving.”
By the time the 2014 Loney Bowl rolled around, Czaja had earned a starting spot, paving the way for even more improvement this past fall. The all-star
selection, now that was a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t think that I was going to get it, because I didn’t think they would give that many spots to one team.” For the record, 3/5th of the AUS
all-star offensive linemen donned X-Men jerseys. “I think it was my consistency, not giving up plays for losses, always making my block.”
With three years of CIS eligibility remaining, Czaja now has a much better handle on his football dreams. “My goal is to be an all-Canadian next season,”
he said. “I know what I have to do – put in a huge off-season, keep focusing on technique, my feet, my speed.”
Despite his humble beginnings, a shot at the CFL is not entirely out of the question. “If I get to go to the East West Bowl this year, it would
help me to get noticed.” Something that nearly did not happen at all, way back when.