Jozwiak digs into toolbox to continue legacy of education through athletics

Former USF offensive lineman Thor Jozwiak and the Clearwater Tornadoes have started the season 6-1 and are winning games by an average of just over 15 points. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/BOB PUTNAM

Car rides home after a strenuous football practice can be tough. From the physical toll to the mental strain, sitting idle after hours of hard work and perhaps coming up short can be a lot to handle, especially for a teenager in high school.

Compound the aforementioned situation with a dad who doubles as your coach and who now has a few minutes to give a lecture, and that trip home may seem like an eternity.

For former USF offensive lineman Thor Jozwiak, however, those after-practice rides home couldn’t have been better.

A second-team all-conference selection in 2015 who made 26 starts at guard in his career with the Bulls, Jozwiak took his father’s messages to heart, specifically his teachings in connection to football.

He had good reason to do so, as his father, Brian Jozwiak, is a former NFL offensive lineman.

“The times that [my father and I] spent in that car, I’ll never [forget],” Jozwiak said. “I’ll cherish [them] forever because he knew what it was like to make it all the way. He knew what it took to have that success.”

Roughly a decade later, Jozwiak now has the opportunity to take what he learned and pass it on to the next generation. He’s currently in the midst of his first season as head coach of the Clearwater High School football team.

The Tornadoes have hit the ground running to open Jozwiak’s stint as leader of the program with a 6-1 start, including six consecutive victories after dropping the first game of the season.

“I got to learn from [my father’s] triumphs and his mistakes,” Jozwiak said. “I’ve also had the privilege of getting coached by many great coaches at USF. Obviously, [I came] through an era where we had a lot of coaching turnover, but I always thought about [how] coaching is [like] I have a toolbox, or as a player, I had this toolbox, and everybody can add to that toolbox.”

Although Jozwiak, 28, is on the younger side when it comes to coaching, he didn’t immediately make the jump from player to coach upon leaving USF.

He graduated with degrees in communications and psychology but was admittedly lost when deciding what he wanted to do after college. He briefly spent time as a sideline broadcaster for the Bulls and even stepped away from football entirely for a couple years.

The itch to get back into the game never left him, and a phone call with his father pushed him to take the risk and jump back in.

“I remember the day [Thor] called me,” Brian said. “He said, ‘Dad, I just don’t want to do this anymore,’ and I said ‘Well what do you want to do? … If you don’t make the decision now, then you’re going to be locked into something you’re not happy doing.’”

Jozwiak wasn’t sure what path he wanted to take, but he knew he wanted to be around football and have the ability to make a positive impact on a younger generation. 

He took his shot and began reaching out to local coaches in Pinellas County in search of an opportunity. Don Mesick, the coach of Clearwater at the time, gave him just that and added him as an offensive line coach as well as a reading teacher.

“The love of football and what it does, and what it means to be a student-athlete, what it means to have a sense of culture and a brotherhood, and to be able to take that and use it on and off the field is what drove me to this profession,” Jozwiak said. “[But] while I was educated, I was not trained to be a teacher.

“But coaching and teaching are one in the same. I teach reading, so instead of coaching football, I get to coach reading. Instead of talking X’s and O’s, I get to talk sentence structure and how to analyze a text.”

That drive to educate is something common not only in Jozwiak himself, but also in his family. Brian, who had been an educator in Florida since 1998, recently retired from teaching in July. Jozwiak’s mother is a principal and his sister is a teacher, both in Polk County.

Before making an impact in the classroom, Brian was making plays on the field as an All-American offensive lineman at West Virginia in the 1980s en route to being a first-round NFL draft pick in 1986.

A hip injury three years into his career ended his playing days and forced him to call an audible in his own life. The sudden change allowed him to find a career in teaching where he could also be around what he knows best — football — but this time, as a coach.

“I never sugarcoated anything with either one of my kids, I told them straight up,” Brian said. “Thor would have a bad practice or something and we’d get into the psychology of it, the molding of the mind to maintain a positive attitude no matter what.

“You can be neck deep in it and so long as you’re breathing you can still be in the battle, no matter what that is. We got to do that every day. How do you put a price tag on that? That’s so special.”

In his first season on Clearwater’s staff in 2019, Jozwiak worked alongside Rob Montie in coaching the offensive line, but in 2020 the responsibility fell solely on him.

Mesick stepped down Dec. 17 after leading the Tornadoes to six straight playoff appearances and an overall record of 45-21, and suddenly the top position was open for the taking.

Just two years into his coaching career, Jozwiak put his name in the ring for the job and ultimately came out with the gig.

Handing over the keys to a successful football program at a school with as much history as Clearwater, built in the early 1900s, to someone with relatively little experience can be jarring, but Jozwiak’s life has forged him for this moment.

“I think I have the biggest medical book over at USF. That thing can probably stop a bullet at point-blank range,” Jozwiak said. “[I] was always in the training room, always injured and always finding a way back. … Coaching, climbing, it’s all about perseverance.”

Jozwiak’s medical book isn’t just filled with bumps and bruises. In early 2013, he started to develop heart issues and had to go on four different medications in an attempt to regain control.

That was just the start of the issue, however, as he collapsed at practice during the second day of fall camp and was taken to Tampa General Hospital for further evaluation.

He had a cardiac ablation in October 2013 to restore a normal heart rhythm, but it took Jozwiak a year to fight his way back onto the field and eventually win the starting job he was scheduled to have before the health scare.

“[That] was a rough year in my life, but without going through that, you don’t end up who you are,” Jozwiak said. “This game, and the life lessons you learn, picking yourself up over and over and over again, that’s what brought me back to being a player at a high level.

“It was just that ‘no-quit’ mentality. You’ve got to continue to push, even when it’s at its hardest, you’ve got to continue to push.”

Although he’s just starting at Clearwater, Jozwiak already has some lofty goals, including winning Pinellas County’s first state title, and he’s digging deep into his toolbox to shape the program in his vision.

“I don’t have to use [everything in my toolbox] all at once, but for different situations you can pull whatever you need out from something you’ve learned from somewhere,” Jozwiak said. “And that’s what I find myself doing in this position.

“I want to be able to win by doing it the right way. Winning is great, but when you do the little things the right way, winning comes.”