Struthers senior Lukasz Witkowski (27) runs through a hole against the Niles defense in a game last season. Witkowski, by OHSAA rule, can return to the field this week after sitting out the first two games of the season.
By Kevin Connelly
The case of Lukasz Witkowski v. Ohio High School Athletic Association began long before the two parties settled in front of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court in Common Pleas Court in August.
The case to determine whether to allow the Struthers High School senior to participate in football this season started more than five years ago when Lukasz was still in the process of becoming an American citizen.
He was 6 years old when he came over from Poland in 2001 with his mother, Bozena; father, Andrzej; and sister, Magda.
The Witkowskis came to the states in search of help for Andrzej, whose cancer could be best treated with America’s more advanced medical care.
So the family moved to Columbiana County even though none of them really had working knowledge of the English language.
Lukasz and Magda had a tutor who came twice a week to teach them the language, but because of his age — and difficulty dealing with the health of his father — Lukasz repeated the third grade.
Magda, who was 16 at the time and 10 years older than her brother, had an easier time because of her age.
Prior to moving to the U.S., Andrzej’s cancer, which started in his ankle, had forced doctors to amputate from the knee down to try and stop the cancer from spreading. All that did was slow the process. Soon, his symptoms returned.
After a seven-plus year battle, Andrzej died in 2008. Lukasz was 12 years old.
“It was really hard,” Lukasz said. “I had just lost my dad and then it’s like, I don’t know where I’m gonna go live or anything. And it’s like, they can’t send me back to Poland because I don’t know how to speak [the language] anymore.
“And then my mom; she just got bad and she turned to alcohol,” he said, recounting episodes of abuse. “I don’t know, I guess she went back [to Poland]. I haven’t talked to her since.”
A year before Andrzej died, Lukasz’s 22-year-old sister Magda married Richard Nail. By doing so, she became an American citizen.
Lukasz, on the other hand, was still in the states on a medical visa granted to his family because of his father’s condition.
When his dad died, Lukasz lost his visa, essentially making him an illegal immigrant.
“They were about to deport Lukasz,” Nail said. “We had to get legal counsel. It was a whole battle.”
The battle ended when his sister and brother-in-law adopted him prior to the sixth grade.
“That’s when my life started to turn around,” Lukasz said. “That’s when I started playing football.”
‘Now I’m Me’
When Richard and Magda married, they already had an idea of what the future was going to hold: taking in a fragile 12-year-old Lukasz.
“It was hard, because we jumped right to a teenager,” Magda said.
“The hardest part was more that he had to listen to his sister as more of a parent, than a sister,” said Richard. “That was very difficult.”
Richard was a graduate of Poland High School, where he played fullback and linebacker on the Bulldogs football team.
Lukasz’s only sport was soccer at the time.
Both will tell you that Richard sort of forced Lukasz into football in seventh grade at Byzantine Catholic Central. Still in the process of making Lukasz a legal U.S. citizen, and lacking the required documentation, the OHSAA got involved and denied him eligibility for his eighth-grade season.
Lukasz started high school at Cardinal Mooney, but didn’t stay very long. He sat out the first two games of the football season because of more OHSAA rulings. He played the final eight games for the Cardinals, but he and his family decided a change of scenery was needed.
That’s when he enrolled at Struthers High School — a place Lukasz said changed his life.
“I mean, when I first started [at Struthers] my sophomore year, Lukasz Witkowski was completely different,” he said. “Now I’m me.”
When the Wildcats head football coach, Curt Kuntz, learned of Lukasz’s story, he welcomed him with open arms. He also saw the potential eligibility concerns that could arise.
The school contacted the OHSAA when Lukasz was a sophomore, but were told they had to wait until his senior year, when he would be 19, to apply for an exemption.
“He was soft spoken for the most part,” said Struthers senior fullback Jay King about his teammates first year. “He had a lot of friends here already, so it was like he was part of the team.
“He wanted the starting job and worked his butt off for it.”
Lukasz played out his sophomore and junior years at Struthers, where he became a first team all-district and third team all-Ohio running back.
OHSAA bylaw 4-2-1 states that if a student enrolled in high school turns 19 before Aug. 1, that student is ineligible to participate in high school sports.
Exception 2 of this rule allows the OHSAA commissioner to declare the student eligible if he has repeated any grade from kindergarten through third grade for purely academic reasons and does not pose a safety risk to himself or others; does not enjoy any advantages in terms of physical, mental or athletic maturity; does not affect the principles of competitive equity and there is no evidence of “redshirting” or academic dishonesty.
This fall, 19-year-old Lukasz started his senior year. He had already met with an OHSAA Appeals Panel in May, where a decision was tabled. A month later, on June 9, he was informed of their decision to deny the appeal.
Canfield High School athletic director Greg Cooper said he was first made aware of the situation at an All-American Conference athletic directors meeting earlier this spring. Struthers AD Nancy Knight brought it to the attention of the group.
A few weeks went by and then Cooper was contacted by the OHSAA, which was seeking information or input from local schools on Lukasz. That’s when he learned of the OHSAA’s decision to deny the appeal. Canfield provided what Cooper described as “generic input.”
“This sort of issue is very problematic, and certainly we empathize with the athlete and his family who want to play, but there are also some other concerns as to eligibility and athletic competitiveness,” Cooper said. “You wish the best for the young man and his family and it’s a thorny issue for all to deal with.”
With the appeal denied, Lukasz and his family opted to take the OHSAA to court.
“Everybody has a story, and there has to be rules, but if he doesn’t meet this exemption, then nobody ever will, so don’t have it,” Kuntz said. “Everybody says they want to play by the rules, I 100-percent agree.
“There is a rule and it says there’s an exemption, and he meets it. So if this kid, and his story, doesn’t meet this exemption, then why have it?”
Reminger Attorneys at Law represented Lukasz. Their team reached out to local schools for support of him to play. Poland, Howland and Hubbard were among those who supported Witkowski.
Kuntz was a position coach under Poland’s Mark Brungard from 2010-11, so when the Bulldogs coach received a text message about the situation, he felt it was the right thing to trust his former assistant’s judgment.
“I know [Kuntz]’s someone who looks out for the person first, so for me it was a no-brainer,” Brungard said. “I try to reason in my own mind; if this was [Larry] Scott, or a back of that caliber, would I agree with the same decision? It’s really about a bigger picture.
“This is a kid who’s gone through more adversity than probably 10 of his teammates combined. The game of football has value beyond the field and I feel like this was a instance of that.”
Struthers’ opponent this week is Field High School in Mogadore. Kuntz had just finished up a round of golf at the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links in California this summer when he received a phone call from Field head coach Matt Furino.
Furino had received a letter from the OHSAA and was looking for more information on the story.
“Here’s someone 50 miles away, nothing to do with us, and he cares about the kid,” Kuntz said. “He heard the kid’s story and said ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do to help this kid play and if he has 300 yards and beats me, who cares?’”
Struthers met resistance from Canfield, Lakeview and Niles, according to Kuntz. Each school’s athletic director was reached for comment. Cooper was the only one willing to discuss the situation directly.
“In general, we supported the OHSAA’s ruling,” Cooper said. “Specifically in this case, it just seems like we’re letting a really good football player play another year and it’s going to truly affect the competitive balance of all the games in which he plays.
“And probably the biggest issue is we’re going to let a young man, a kid who could be a sophomore in college, [play and] he’s going to be playing football against kids that are sophomores in high school. That’s really the issue.”
Cooper said part of Canfield’s concern involved what type of precedent the OHSAA would set by allowing Lukasz to play. One thing Cooper did want to make clear was their stance had nothing to do with results.
“Any concerns we have are really based more on overall fairness for the greatest number of players both on their team and our team, and also the safest situation,” he said. “The issue of winning and losing games is really not on the chart.”
‘This is his Dream’
On Aug. 4, in the courtroom of Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge R. Scott Krichbaum — who also ruled on the Nick Bilas transfer case last year and overruled the OHSAA — Lukasz and the OHSAA settled on the senior sitting out the first two games of the season.
Kuntz and Struthers accepted the plea deal, but the Wildcats head coach felt like Lukasz could’ve gotten a full season without a settlement.
“I didn’t want to take that chance and look Luke in the eye and say, ‘Hey [we] had you eight games ... now you have none,” Kuntz said.
Struthers wideout Troy Noble has been a teammate of Lukasz’s since 2012. He doesn’t see the competitive advantage argument.
“He’s been [playing football] the same amount of years as we have,” said Noble.
Richard and Magda, who never miss a game on Friday nights, were by Lukasz’s side through it all, just like they have been since he moved in with them back in sixth grade. They expressed frustration with the OHSAA’s refusal to speak with them directly about Lukasz’s story, but understand this is still a positive outcome.
“This is his dream,” Richard said. “He’s trying to live out the American dream — that’s really what it is — and he’s pushed himself to the point of never stopping.
“He’s always asking ‘What makes me better?’ His goal, and it’s every kid’s goal, but he wants to play in the NFL and he wants to go to a big school, and the only way to do it is to play football and get him on the field. They were trying to take that dream away from him.”
While it ate at Lukasz to watch from the sidelines in his team’s first two games — a 34-8 win over Campbell and a 14-7 loss at Lakeview — he’s ready to make the best of his last eight games as a high school football player. He also learned an even more valuable lesson about family.
“[Richard and Magda] weren’t probably expecting to get a 13-year-old kid coming to live with them and stuff,” Lukasz said.
“I feel like they were more my parents than my [birth] parents were and I could never thank them enough.”