Alec Kozak didn’t want to give in to peer pressure.
For the first three years of high school, the Sycamore senior had friends telling him to play football, to come be part of a team that consistently won and went to the playoffs.
For three years, Kozak ignored them.
Kozak never had played organized football in his life. Outside of backyard games with friends from his neighborhood, he had no experience in the sport. Instead, he played baseball for the Spartans, making the varsity team as a sophomore and keeping busy with summer ball in the offseason.
“I was debating whether I should play (football) or not, but the only thing I was a little hesitant because I knew I didn’t know anything about the game,” Kozak said. “I didn’t know if I would fit in with the game or not and the style of play and the high intensity of football.”
He finally was convinced as a senior, partially swayed by the potential for a great season as Sycamore returned a majority of its starters from a 7-4 season in 2012. Although Kozak still played baseball over the summer, he joined Sycamore’s football team for occasional practices starting in June.
For those first few workouts, Kozak admitted he was more like a freshman than a senior.
“I didn’t know a lot that was going on and I didn’t really know the style of which we ran things here,” Kozak said. “I was just kind of going along with everybody else and doing what everybody else did and following along.”
Yet it was Kozak’s willingness to pay attention that Sycamore coach Joe Ryan says allowed him to make the transition from training camp rookie to immediate contributor in a matter of months. When Ryan came out with the depth chart before the Spartans’ Week 1 game at Lincoln-Way West, Kozak was a starter at receiver and cornerback.
“In the beginning, he didn’t want anything to do with defense because all he wanted to do was make sure he concentrated on one side of the ball because he was struggling just making sure of the concepts there.” Ryan said. “He just gets things because he listens. He’s never played it before so if he’s not listening, he’s for sure not going to be able to draw upon any past experiences. He’s got to be attentive.”
Kozak said the feeling of playing under the football lights (even if it was on a Saturday) was unlike anything he had experienced as a baseball player, and his impact at receiver was felt immediately. Kozak caught two passes for 95 yards, including an 83-yard reception in Sycamore’s 34-21 win.
Kozak’s presence might eventually force defenses to reconsider their plan of focusing multiple defenders on senior receiver Ben Niemann. Ryan said Lincoln-Way West often played two defensive backs on Niemann, leaving other receivers, like Kozak, Jake Winters and Michael John Poorten, with 1-on-1 matchups.
“They’ve got to decide if they’re going to put two over on Ben, which if we’re defending Ben I might do that too,” Ryan said. “Then you’re 1-on-1 (defenders) better be really good because these other [receivers] are pretty good too.”
Both Niemann and senior quarterback Devin Mottet mentioned Kozak in the preseason as a crucial newcomer for Sycamore without seeing him in a game. He already has proven as much just one week into the regular season and a mere three months since first coming out to practice.
More time, more practices and more experience should only make Kozak, and the Spartans, better.
“My knowledge has increased so much. It’s starting to come together now,” Kozak said. “All the hard work has really come together now and it’s showing on Friday nights. I’m starting to pick up on a lot of things I didn’t know before.”