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Chad Bartoszek's Gridiron Classic Diary

 
Editor's Note: On April 27, UB senior and tight end Chad Bartoszek signed with the Indianapolis Colts, as did Bulls wide receiver Andre Forde, also a senior. The Bulls players were given contracts as undrafted rookie free agents following the NFL draft.

Foreshadowing this success, Bartoszek in January became the first Bulls' football player in nearly 40 years to represent UB at a senior all-star game when he played in the Fifth Annual Rotary Gridiron Classic in Orlando's Citrus Bowl. The first was Gerry Philbin, B.A. '67, who played in the North-South All-American Game in 1964 and was later drafted by the New York Jets.

In the following diary of those defining days, Bartoszek prepares for tough scrutiny by NFL scouts, practices with players from powerhouse programs and competes in a game televised by ESPN2. In the end, Bartsozek catches three passes for 43 yards and a touchdown, happily signs autographs and witnesses his mother's tears of joy at the victory.

By Chad Bartoszek with Paul Vecchio

The Opportunity

Before I left Buffalo to play in the game I had a lot on my mind, and most of it was making me really nervous. First, I hadn't gotten a lot of correspondence from officials of the game on what our schedule was going to be, so I really had no idea what to expect once I got to Orlando. Second, I knew that this week, and this game, would leave a large impression on National Football League scouts evaluating whether they thought I was NFL material. I had thought of my senior season in three stages: our season at UB, an opportunity to play in a game like this, and workouts that I would have in February and March for NFL scouts. This would be the second part of the journey and I felt extra pressure after going through what was a disappointing season for both our team and myself. Add to that my fear of flying, and what you had that Sunday night was a bundle of nerves getting on that plane. I was trying not to think too much about the game; I was more nervous about practices that would come first. I could tell once I landed that the other guys on the team also had no idea what was going to happen and that kind of gave me some reassurance that we were all in the same boat. I didn't get in until 1:30 a.m., but the NFL scouts still made us take tests until 2:30. The game officials gave us our food money and our per diem, but we still didn't know what to expect. I didn't get to bed until around 3 a.m. It had been a long day and it was going to be an interesting week.

•Monday, January 20•

We got up around 9:15 in the morning and the bus came to pick us up at 10:15. We went to breakfast and found out what we would get used to that week: a pretty bad breakfast.

When we got to the Citrus Bowl, we met with our coaches for about an hour and a half. We put in five basic pro-style running and passing plays. There were a few guys who had played in the East-West All-Star game who were more comfortable, but most of us were in the same boat. That's when we found out we would be in full pads the first day and that didn't go over well with any of us. None of us had played or practiced in weeks and now we were going to have to go full-speed the first day.

Ralph Friedgen (the head coach at Maryland) and Jack Bicknell (head coach at Louisiana State) were our co-coaches, but they were more honorary coaches than hands-on. The coaches from NFL Europe did most of the work. They were great; they really knew their stuff. They were business-like, but they could tell we were nervous and were trying to get us to just relax and play.

Because there were so many scouts and because it's the only All-Star game sponsored by the NFL, I think the scouts had a lot of say in how practices were run. The practices were very much one-on-one type drills, there wasn't a lot of work done as a team. I think that was so the scouts could see guys individually. The first couple days we just worked with the quarterbacks' running routes and did some individual blocking techniques. I felt like I did pretty well the first day, but it was such a blur because I'm not used to seeing scouts like that. Every play and every rep-they're writing things in their notebook and you have no idea the way they're seeing it-and what's worse, you get no feedback.

When practice was over, it was a huge relief. Now I knew what to expect so I could just play football now. After practice we went to TGI Friday's for some dinner. I was off schedule from getting in so late the night before, so I went right back to the hotel. In the lobby there were probably 30 scouts hanging around, just watching the way guys were getting along and the way they carried themselves. It would become a familiar scene everywhere we went that week-at every turn there were NFL scouts watching you and taking notes.

My roommate for the week was Western Michigan's Mobalaji (Mo) Afariogun. I had met him at the pre-season Mid-American Conference media days in July, so it was nice to be with someone I knew. We both felt like we were doing things right, but you have to do things great to impress the scouts. We talked a lot and watched each other's routes and gave input. There weren't enough coaches to go around and a lot of times they were with the quarterbacks or wide receivers, so we figured we would try to watch each other and help each other as best as we could. It was nice to have someone there giving you feedback when you didn't know how you were being judged by all the scouts lining the field.


•Tuesday, January 21•

Our bus got there at 7:15 a.m. and we ate another lousy breakfast. It was really cold that morning and we found out it was the "weigh and measure" day. They told us to take off everything but our shorts and called us in one by one into this room where there were about 75 scouts. I was so happy that I was one of the first names called because they did it in alphabetical order. You really felt like a piece of meat in front of these scouts because they're all looking you over and you had to turn at different angles so they could basically inspect you. After that, they made us do two stretching exercises. That was when I realized this was a serious business trip.

I was happy with the way I weighed in (at 6'-6" and 255 pounds) and I did all right in my stretching exercises, considering that I'm normally really tight in the morning and it was freezing outside.

Practice that day was nearly two hours with full pads. It was probably the worst practice I had. I dropped an easy pass and I missed a block, and unfortunately for me, both of them came in the full view of the scouts. For that type of practice, that was a big deal. It was why you felt so much pressure during practice, you could be having a solid practice but if you made one mistake out in the open, you knew everyone had seen it. It was also the biggest day they had ever had in terms of scouts-there were more than 250 scouts there that day.

After practice we had an "Introduction to the NFL Players Association" meeting with Robert Porcher of the Detroit Lions. It was strictly for the players. After that we had a Team USA party at Hooters downtown, which I only stayed at about 45 minutes. My family and girlfriend had come in Monday night, so I went to dinner with my family, my agent and one of his other clients-Dave Diehl of Illinois-who was on the team with me. After that it was off to bed. We had one more full-pad practice and I knew it was an important one for me.


 

•Wednesday, January 22•

Wednesday was a sleep-in day and our bus didn't arrive until 10:45 a.m. We had practice at 1:30 and I had my best day by far. I made two athletic catches and one of them I turned up the sideline for a long gain. That was the day that I started to get some looks from some scouts. I had a couple of good catches and after practice I got stopped by a guy from the Baltimore Ravens who asked me some general questions, and some other scouts said things like, "nice job out there," or "good practice." After two days of getting no feedback, to get some reassurance felt great. It was a relief that I ended on a good note and now I could relax for a few days before the game.

I have family in Florida not far from the hotel, so my parents and I went over to their house for dinner that night. We spent three or four hours there catching up. It was really nice to see family and we had a real good dinner. I would end up having 18 family members and friends at the game and their support meant a lot.

•Thursday, January 23•

Thursday was real relaxed, kind of like our UB Friday practices. We did some scripted special teams work and it was pretty laid-back. It was a good thing, too, because everyone was really tight and banged up. After practice, the team went to Universal Islands of Adventure and my parents and girlfriend went as well. It was great because it was cold for the people in Florida (sunny and in the 50s), so there were very few people there. We just went from ride to ride and had a great time.

That night, the NFLPA sponsored a party downtown for its sponsors, particularly the Orlando Hospital, and everyone was out. There was a lot of food and it was an open bar for everyone involved in the game. At first, the players weren't sure whether to have anything to drink or not-we figured they were testing us again. But the [event organizers] said just help yourself, so we all sort of loosened up and had a good time. A bunch of the linemen, myself and our two quarterbacks-Nate Hybl and Brooks Bollinger-went out and we had a lot of fun. At one point, Dave Diehl jumped onstage with a band, grabbed a guitar and played a perfect version of "Bad Moon Rising." It was a chance for all of us to let off some much-needed steam. Game time was less than 48 hours away.


•Friday, January 24•

The only thing that happened Friday was our television headshots and team photos. Some of the players were chosen to visit the Orlando Hospital, which was nice. That night I had fresh whole lobster for the first time in my life on Mom's credit card. The place was much nicer than we were dressed for-my Dad had his UB sweatshirt on and the cheapest thing on the menu was $21.99! We had a good time anyway and got to bed early. Saturday would be my last collegiate game experience and my first on this kind of stage.


•Saturday, January 25• Gametime, 2 p.m.

Our bus left at 10:15 a.m. and we had the same lousy breakfast we had all week, but everybody forced it down. We didn't have to be on the field until 1 p.m. and I found a little side room and took a nap and took some time to reflect. I was still really nervous, but I felt like I'd had a good week and I made it through the week healthy.

It didn't get any easier, however, when I found out that Mo and I were going to rotate by quarters. He would play the first and third quarters and I would play the second and fourth. That meant that after going through warm-ups and getting all juiced up to play, I had to sit and watch the whole first quarter. That was really hard because I was ready to go. I wanted to get that first hit in, because it's not football until you get that first hit in.

The second quarter came and we went three-and-out (on downs) our first two series so nothing really happened. Finally, on our third drive we got the ball near midfield and Brooks Bollinger, the quarterback from Wisconsin, drove us right down the field.

 
We drove inside the 10-yard line and we went to a two tight-end formation. The play came in from the sidelines and for some reason I just knew I was going to score. All I had to do was hit the defensive end, throw him down and it would be wide open. You know in an All-Star game the quarterback is going to hit his first read if possible, and that would be me. When it happened, my instincts just took over, I caught the ball, saw the goal line and went in shoulder-first for the touchdown from nine yards out.

Now I felt like I was in a football game. The only problem was, I felt a shooting pain after I scored. I had sprained my shoulder going in for the score. The trainers told me there was a little separation there but it couldn't get any worse. They put a pad around it and I kept playing. At that point, it would have taken a lot more than that to get me off the field.

The third quarter went by and I got my chance in the fourth quarter again. Team Florida had come back to tie the game, 17-17, and now we got the ball back with just over a minute remaining. Even though this was an All-Star game, we were all excited to go out there with a chance to win the game.

We had called a play called "jets" where all four receivers, including me, run streaks and the quarterback reads the safety. The three previous times, the quarterback hadn't even looked at me but this time I set up the linebacker, who had been on me a lot during the game, by riding him before making a cut to the inside. The pass was perfect and I caught it in stride for a 28-yard gain. A few plays later our kicker came in and kicked a 49-yard field goal to give us a 20-17 win. Everybody was celebrating afterwards and a lot of guys from Oklahoma and Texas and all these schools that I didn't know if I belonged with were saying, "great game." Our offensive coordinator told me, "I knew we were going to hit that pass," and wished me good luck. I felt like I belonged.

I was really excited to win the game and finish out my college career with a victory. I came out of the locker room and everybody, all my family and friends, were on cloud nine. I felt it too, but more than anything, I was just relieved. I didn't expect it and it was just a bonus that I got a chance to make that play at the end of the game. I signed a lot of autographs leaving the stadium and my Mom was crying, she was so happy. I was just glad that it all happened.

That night we went to Pleasure Island, and again because of the unusually cold weather, there was hardly anyone there. There were no long lines, no crowded bars, we all had a great time.


•Sunday, January 26•

On Sunday, I watched the Super Bowl in the hotel and saw my family off because I wasn't leaving until the next day. After they left, I finally got a chance to reflect on all that had happened. I had come here not knowing if I really belonged with all these guys from the big football powerhouses. I had a lot of pressure to do well, not only from myself, but from the scouts and my agents. I really felt like I needed to do something good here.

In the end, through all of the nerves and agents and uncertainty, it had been a great week. I allowed myself to get a little giddy, to kind of smile and take it all in. I was so happy that my family had a great week and got to see it. I still have a lot of work to do to get an opportunity to play in the NFL but I proved to myself, and hopefully to others, that I could play with the best from around the country.

I had represented myself, my family and the University at Buffalo in a way I could be proud of. Even though I still didn't enjoy getting on another airplane, that alone made the flight home a lot more enjoyable.








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