Matt Kowalewski was excited to get his junior season started on the right foot last season, helping the Charlotte Catholic football team to a 35-28 win against Gonzaga College High (Washington, D.C.) in its season-opener.
Kowalewski (pronounced KO-vol-es-key) said there was nothing unusual about the way his body felt after the game.
He didn’t know then that it would be the last game he’d play in his junior season. The experience has made the 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior even more thankful to be on the field this season, starting at right tackle.
Two days after the first game of the 2013 season, Kowalewski said he started to feel pain and stiffness in his right leg, and it kept getting worse.
By the first drill of Charlotte Catholic’s practice the next day, Kowalewski had to stop and go to the doctor, where an MRI was ordered.
“There was one play in particular where (former Charlotte Catholic and now North Carolina running back) Elijah Hood went up my back because there wasn’t really any hole, and I got twisted around a little bit,” said Kowalewski, who started every game as a sophomore at left tackle. “But I don’t remember it hurting any more than any other play. I didn’t really feel any pain that night or even the next day.
“So on Monday, when the pain started, I didn’t know what it was.”
Charlotte Catholic head football coach Mike Brodowicz, then an assistant, also didn’t think much of the injury at first.
“I didn’t even know he was hurt at all at first, and then he said he just thought it might be a muscle pull or something like that,” said Brodowicz. “But it just progressively kept getting worse and worse.”
Kowalewski had a herniated disc. He avoided surgery at first, but the pain persisted, until doctors decided surgery was inevitable.
“When you’re 16 years old, they want to do everything they can to not have to do back surgery,” Kowalewski said. “But eventually they decided surgery had to happen. Of course, the thought crosses your mind if you will ever play football again, and that was a scary thought. I knew I was going to have to work my butt off to get back on the football field.”
Dr. Tim Adamson of Carolina Neurosurgery and Spine Associates operated on Kowalewski on Oct. 8, 2013.
The surgery forced him to miss the entire football season and more than 40 days of school. Kowalewski had to go through a grueling rehab session every day for nearly nine months, from September 2013 through May, at OrthoCarolina’s Ballantyne location.
“The entire rehab process was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through, both mentally and physically,” Kowalewski said. “At first, it was really frustrating. But it also made realize how much I wanted to play football again.”
Throughout his rehab, Charlotte Catholic offensive line coach and former Carolina Panther Frank Garcia continued to work with Kowalewski.
“Coach Garcia really stuck by me the whole time and helped me work on the things I could work on throughout the process,” Kowalewski said. “He’s the type of guy who gets you motivated for every practice, every game, every workout, and I needed that, especially when I was hurting.”
Kowalewski slowly returned to full strength and was back on the field by May.
In spite of the injury, several college football programs still pursued Kowalewski. Shortly after he returned to full speed, Elon offered him a scholarship, and Kowalewski verbally committed to the Phoenix.
While Kowalewski was able to work out with his Charlotte Catholic teammates all summer, he said, he was still nervous when football practice began Aug. 1: It would be his first season without legendary head coach Jim Oddo and teammate Hood.
Kowalewski, elected captain by teammates, said he was eager to prove he could again be a factor in the offense.
“Coach Oddo is obviously one of the best coaches ever, and Elijah is the best player to ever play at Catholic, in my opinion,” Kowalewski said. “But all we heard all offseason is how we would never be able to succeed them. We were all anxious to prove them all wrong and to show that Catholic football would be just fine.”
The Cougars are 5-1 (2-0 SoMeck 8 through Oct. 9) and averaging 294 yards rushing per game, topping 300 yards in four of the six games. Junior Jaret Anderson leads the team with 756 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing.
Nick Bruno, Matt Dean, Chris Fiato, Chris Bruno, Jack Fassler and Jack Fishbaugh all help Kowalewski make holes in the defense.
“Catholic has a great tradition of running the ball, and we pride ourselves on keeping that going,” Kowalewski said.
“We always tell our kids that most teams just can’t hang for four quarters of smash-mouth football,” Brodowicz said. “We play the first half to get to the second half, and that’s when we try to impose our will.”
Kowalewski said he would love to go out as a conference and state champion but is thankful just to be playing.
“It’s a dream come true to play for Charlotte Catholic and to be able to play at the next level, because it’s what I love to do,” Kowalewski said. “But for me, just to be playing football again is great. I had it taken away from me and now I have it back. I’m going to enjoy every minute I have on the football field for the next four years.”