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How a decision made by Jason Trusnik's high school coaches spurred his NFL career

Jason Trusnik, who has now played 10 years in the NFL, did not start in a high school football game until his senior year. (Photo courtesy of Jason Trusnik)

Rob Rardin was mad.

No, in the coach’s words, he was pissed.

It was August of 2001 and the Nordonia High School football team was grinding through two-a-days. Rardin, then the team’s head coach, had given his defensive staff a task.

“I got with my coaches, and I had a very young staff, and I said, ‘I want to know where we can play Jason Trusnik,’” Rardin said. “He’s too good of a kid to not have a position for.”

Up until his senior year, the lanky, hard-nosed Trusnik had not started in a varsity football game. He was a backup quarterback and safety, but the team was moving in a different direction at quarterback that season and at 6-foot-3 190 pounds, he simply did not fit the frame of a safety.

But he sure didn’t fit the frame of a defensive end, either. Most Div. I high school defensive ends weighed at least 30 pounds more than Trusnik, who had to cut weight to stay toned for wrestling.

Regardless, Rardin’s staff wanted to see what the senior could do at the position. The head coach was less than pleased.

“I still remember my reaction,” Rardin recalled. “I was like, ‘That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

After all, this was long before Trusnik would become a two-time Div. III All-American at defensive end, setting the Ohio Northern record for career sacks and tackles-for-loss. It was long before he would play 10 years in the NFL, appearing in 120 games and making 25 starts for six different teams.

In August of 2001, Rardin just wanted to get Trusnik on the field for his senior year. Trusnik was a hard worker who, after years of dedication to the program, deserved some shine.

But defensive end? Are you kidding me? Rardin thought his staff had failed him.

“I look back and I’m sure glad I listened to them,” Rardin said with a chuckle, now 16 years later. “They made the right decision.”

***

To say that Jason Trusnik was destined for the NFL -- or that he even had NFL aspirations in his teenage years -- is a supreme miscalculation.

Jason was born a wrestler, just like his two younger brothers, Lenny and Danny. Jason, who wrestled in the 119-pound weight class for Nordonia as a freshman, was a state qualifier in the 189-pound weight class during his senior year.

“I almost want to say, with Jason, wrestling was bigger for him,” former Nordonia defensive coordinator Gary Lucak said. “His dad was always talking about wrestling. If I remember right, I want to say wrestling was bigger and football just kind of fell into him.”

Lucak recalls Jason growing six inches during his freshman year of high school while still wrestling at the 119-pound weight class.

“He had the lower body, the legs and the hips, but he just never really got big,” Lucak said.

What Trusnik lacked in physical development, however, he made up for in tenacity. Raised in the blue-collar town of Macedonia, Jason’s mother worked 2-3 jobs at a time -- mostly in nursing, according to Lenny -- while his father started his own business as a general contractor.

“We never struggled, but we never had anything handed to us,” Lenny said. “I think that kind of created that work ethic growing up.”

Jason, who also played baseball in high school but spent long hours in the weight room trying to fill out his lanky frame, said the family’s attitude was instilled by his father.

“There was no giving up; there isn’t one now and there wasn’t one back then,” Jason said. “My dad told us, ‘You start something, you finish it.’ And I think that [with that] work ethic and competitive nature, no one was going to outwork me.”

Trusnik, who finally grinded his way to a starting position at defensive end during minicamp of his senior year, was not thinking NFL just yet -- not even close. He just wanted to play. But the boy -- no, the man -- who lined up at the opposite defensive end spot had different aspirations.

While Trusnik was lanky and undersized for his position, Rob Sims was anything but.

The son of an NFL defensive tackle, Sims was the same height as Trusnik but weighed 245 pounds as a senior, according to Lucak.

Sims, who specialized on the offensive line but posed as a dominant high school defensive end, signed with Ohio State before the start of he and Jason’s senior season.

“I remember I had just signed a letter of intent to go to Ohio State,” Sims said. “And I remember Coach Rardin coming to me saying, ‘Man this guy Jason has been playing so hard, we have to find somewhere for him to play.’”

Little did Sims know, he would soon have a partner in crime on the defensive line.

***

When Nordonia’s defensive coaches made the decision to put Trusnik at defensive end before his senior year, Rardin said that he never actually got around to asking them why.

“I was more focused on that idea being ludicrous, and it actually pissed me off because I thought it was so stupid,” Rardin recalls now, laughing.

“But what made me rethink it was how mad they got at me,” Rardin said. “Because look -- I gave them a mission, they accomplished that mission, and then I kind of dismissed them as being stupid. And their response made me say, ‘Wait a minute, I might be off-base on this.’ It made me think, you know what, I’ve put my trust in you guys. I better see this through.”

Defensive line coach Al Huge remembers seeing something physically in Trusnik that led him to believe he could play defensive end.

"Looking at how he was growing -- I mean he was 17 or 18 at that time and his body was changing, for sure. He just looked like someone that was turning into a defensive end," Huge said. "And boy, he took that and ran with it, that’s for sure."

At first, however, the coaching staff wasn’t sure how Trusnik would handle the move. Many young players would have seen the move from quarterback to lineman as an insult.

“You take any kid, even at a younger age, and you tell them, ‘You’re going to be a lineman, just because you’re big,’ they say, ‘I don’t want to be a lineman. I want to be a linebacker, I want to play somewhere else,’” Lucak said. “It’s not a glory position, and some kids can take it the wrong way.”

The day after Lucak’s staff told Rardin that they wanted Trusnik to play defensive end, Lucak took a walk with Jason to get some equipment. He asked him, hesitantly, if he was OK with the move.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I just want to play,’” Lucak remembered.

And play, he would. Using skills he learned in wrestling, Trusnik quickly excelled at his new position.

As a 6-foot-3 wrestler, he learned how to use his leverage as an advantage on the mat.

“You hear about some guys in the NFL that do ballet to work on their agility, to try to get that leverage and coordination that you get from wrestling,” Lenny said.

He also learned how to use his hands in wrestling, and was always in peak physical condition to prepare for the winter sport. These skills translated to the gridiron as well, where he nimbly shed blockers to pursue the ball-carrier play after play, without becoming fatigued.

Add that to his natural instinct and nose for the ball, and it seemed like Trusnik was made for the position, despite the fact that he didn’t look like a defensive end.

“He was so tenacious and tough,” Rardin said. “He was a natural.”

Huge remembers a game against Mayfield High School where Trusnik made 14 tackles, which is unusual for a defensive end. Usually, it’s the linebackers and safeties who garner those stat lines.

“He knew how to run to the ball. It seemed like he always had himself in a good position,” Huge said. “Because anybody can run hard, that’s very important, and having that effort and that energy is something that’s coveted by defensive guys -- but he always seemed to be in the right spot. He just always seemed to have a natural instinct.”

With Trusnik and Sims serving as bookends for the Nordonia defense, the Knights forced opponents to pick their poison.

“They were saying they were going to run away from me, but when Jason got there, they didn’t have anywhere to run,” Sims said. “They had to choose one of us. It really freed up my game and I think helped both of us.”

Trusnik and Sims were a problem for opposing offenses, corralling running backs on the edge and making decisions on where to run nearly impossible. But off the field, the two tailback terrorizers seemed as if they might be better suited as choir boys.

“Jason and Rob, those were two of the most polite, courteous young men you could ever be around,” Rardin said. “You wouldn’t think they could play football the way they did.”

***

Thinking retrospectively, it amazes Rardin that he had Trusnik and Sims on the same defensive line. The two would eventually become the first NFL players in Nordonia High School history, with Sims being drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth round of the 2006 draft after playing four years at Ohio State. Sims played nine years in the league, making 114 career starts as an offensive lineman.

Trusnik went on to become the career sack and tackles-for-loss leader at Ohio Northern, while finishing sixth all-time Div. III history in career sacks. He signed with the New York Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2007 (he was sidelined in 2005 for a foot injury, so he actually spent five years at ONU) and went on to have a 10-year NFL career, making 25 career starts and playing for six different teams.

The kid who had yet to fill out physically in high school grew two more inches in college and added 50 pounds of muscle, while also learning how to play linebacker and special teams to further his chances of playing the NFL.

Despite having Trusnik and Sims on the same defensive line in 2001, however, the Knights won just three games.

“To have two NFL players and only win three games, I guess that’s not a real great tribute to my coaching abilities,” Rardin said with a laugh.

But now, it seems as if that record hardly matters.

When the Sims family -- who still lives in Macedonia, although Rob now lives outside of Detroit, working as a real estate professional -- invites old friends and coaches over for their annual Fourth of July cookout, Rardin instead likes to talk about what became of Sims and Trusnik.

For Sims, an NFL career was in the plans long before he could read a playbook. But for Trusnik, the circumstances still seem somewhat miraculous.

“He wasn’t even a starter until his senior year, I mean think about that. You’re talking about a young man who’s played 11 years in the league now, in the NFL, the biggest show on earth, and he didn’t even start as a junior on his high school team,” Rardin remarked. “It’s just a tremendous story.”

And to think, it all started with a decision that infuriated Rardin.

“I’ve talked to Coach Huge and Coach Rardin about, ‘Where would Jason be if we didn’t do this? Would he have played football at Ohio Northern? Would his career have gone where it did?’ And you could say, if I could put it this way, we fell into a pile of sh*t and came out smelling like a rose on it,” Lucak said. “It was something that we needed for our team at that point in time, but in the long run, it helped him 100-fold compared to how it helped us that season. I’m glad I was able to be a part of a decision that made it for this kid.”

When talking about Trusnik on the phone, all three coaches didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. To say that Jason was merely a success story is underselling the magnitude of his journey.

“Just think about it for a minute; a lot of these guys, like a Rob Sims, he was dominant his whole life. God blessed him with the athletic skills and the bloodline, his dad was in the NFL. I mean his size and his speed, of course he worked hard as well and he developed it, but Jason didn’t really have all those gifts. Yet he worked and took advantage of what he did have, and he manifested it,” Rardin continued. “11 years in the NFL… are you kidding me?”

“I just think that is an amazing tribute to him and his work ethic and his love for football. I mean if we all worked like that and tried to develop whatever God-given talents we have, just think of what we could achieve.”

Trusnik said in mid-August that, while he still rises at 5 a.m. to work out every day and prepare for the upcoming season, this year will likely be his last run in the NFL. He has yet to be signed to a roster.

“As I got closer to the 10-year mark, which was one of my goals, I knew it was attainable,” Trusnik said. “I’m at peace.”

Trusnik said that while he can still play physically, he wishes to devote more time to his family after his career ends. He and his wife Nicole have three children, with the oldest turning seven this year.

“I think it’s their time now,” Trusnik said. “Moving around is tough. My body feels great -- I mean I have some aches and pains, but I feel like I could play today and still play at a high level, and I think I showed that last year in New Orleans. But at some point I think I’m ready to make that next move. And I enjoy coaching my kids and my family and so it’s time to start taking care of them in the next portion of my life.”

Trusnik currently co-owns Pro Sports Performance gym in Strongsville, where he lives with his family, which is about a half hour from Macedonia. He also co-owns a real estate investing and management business alongside his brothers called ‘Trusnik Brothers Investments,’ in an effort to rebuild an area in Cleveland with older properties in need of repair.

In two weeks, Trusnik will be inducted into the ONU Athletics Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He will be celebrated not only for his success at Northern, but also his success in the NFL.

MORE: Trusnik to be first-ballot ONU hall-of-famer

The average NFL career lasts just 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association. Jason Trusnik -- the lanky kid who was a ‘tweener,’ who didn’t make a high school start until his senior year, who didn't look like a defensive end? He lasted 10 years.

“I mean I’m not going to say it was my whole idea,” Lucak said sheepishly, hesitant to take credit for an NFL career years before it happened, but also cognizant of the unmeasurable effect that his staff’s decision 16 years ago had on it.

“But it was kind of cool to say, this is why he’s there. And it all started back in his senior year of high school.”