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November 7, 2013

Football still in his blood

By: Jimmy Robertson

Former Tech kicker and punter Jack Simczak has retired and moved to South Carolina with his wife, but he hasn’t quite given up the game he loves

Jack Simczak (43) was a record-setting punter and placekicker
for the Hokies in the late 1960s, and his holder for kicks is a
name familiar to Tech fans – current head coach Frank Beamer (25).

Jack Simczak doesn’t spend much of his spare time on the Internet. So he expressed surprise when his wife informed him recently that one of his records at Tech had been broken.

“I said, ‘What was that?’” Simczak said. “She said [punt] yardage against Alabama on X amount of punts. I told her that wasn’t a really good record.”

Then he added, laughing, “The 55-yarder was nice for a while [his 55-yard field goal against Kentucky in 1969 was a school record at the time], but … I don’t know how quite to take that one.”

The former Tech kicker and punter set a record with 564 yards punting in the Hokies’ game against Alabama in 1968, a record that stood until this year when A.J. Hughes’ 586 yards punting, coincidentally also against the Crimson Tide, in the season opener broke the record. Simczak’s record of 14 punts in a game, which also came in that 1968 Alabama game, still stands, as Hughes came up a punt short of tying that mark.

Simczak doesn’t remember much about that game, nor does he have any fond memories of playing the Crimson Tide – Tech and Alabama played three times in his career. On one occasion, he got injured, suffering a hip pointer that caused him to miss a few games.

“I do remember kicking off, and I do remember [Alabama coach] Bear Bryant wanted me out of the game,” he said. “He sent three guys at me, and they made contact, and I think each part of my body went in a different direction. I got a hip pointer. I was able to continue on in that game, but I missed three or four games after that. But I’m not remembering what year that was.

“I have a friend, and he can tell me about every play he played at Virginia Tech. Who he tackled, what yard line, things like that, but I just don’t have a whole lot of recollection on what I did or did not do at Virginia Tech.”

What he did was become one of the best punters and kickers in school history. He averaged 41.2 yards per punt as a sophomore, breaking the school record, and his career average of 39.3 yards per punt also set a school record. Both have since been broken.

Simczak also served as one of the rare football players who both punted and kicked. He made 59 of 64 extra points and he also connected on 21 field goals in his career, including the 55-yarder against Kentucky.

That Simczak made it to college and became a good kicker is a success story. The Highland Park, N.J., native sat the bench for three years in high school before winning the starting quarterback job as a senior. By the end of the season, he started getting college scholarship offers.

But he had never thought about going to college. He always expected to work at the local General Motors plant, just like his dad did.

“My father talked to the high school coach, and we came up with the idea to send me to Fork Union Military Academy,” Simczak said. “My dad had to take out a second mortgage so I could go. I took the courses that I needed, and I was able to get my college entrance scores where they needed to be.”

The Vietnam conflict occurred during this time, and like many young men, Simczak thought he would get drafted. A shoulder injury, though, caused him to fail his physical, thus leaving him an opportunity to go to college after his year at Fork Union.

He got his test scores late and appeared to be stuck without a school. He called Terry Strock, a former Tech player and assistant, and asked for a scholarship.

“He didn’t know if there was anything he could do,” Simczak said. “Then a week later, he called me and told me that they had found me a scholarship. That’s how I ended up at Virginia Tech.”

When he arrived on campus, he immediately ran into Luke Linden, the equipment manager at the time. Linden asked Simczak if he was the kicker. Simczak wasn’t sure. He expected to play quarterback, though he had done some kicking.

Linden wanted to see Simczak punt. So Simczak put down his suitcase and changed into his kicking shoes. Gene Fisher, Tech’s punter at the time, was working on his punting, and Simczak joined in, kicking the ball just as far as Fisher.

“I guess that’s how the whole thing started,” Simczak said. “Then, when we played Navy, the plebes [first-year students at the military academies] – we couldn’t play varsity football back then – and I was punting. We didn’t make a first down, and Coach [Dick] Redding wanted me to go in and punt. I said, ‘Coach, let me try a field goal.’ He said, ‘No, it’s too far.’ I said, ‘But I think I can make it.’ He finally let me try it, and I made it. I think it was around 38 yards.

“He called Coach [Jerry] Claiborne and my quarterback days came to an end. Coach Claiborne was a big advocate of special teams and the kicking game.”

Simczak served as the starter for three years from 1968-70. In 1971, he graduated with a degree in physical education.

That spring, the Denver Broncos drafted him and later released him. He tried to latch on with the New York Giants, but that situation didn’t work out either. He later played for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League.

Simczak then went back to New Jersey and began a career as a businessman, starting up a few small businesses and making “a few bucks here and there.” But he missed football and took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself to allow him to get back in the game.

“I don’t know how many years later, but I got a call from my [former] roommate at Virginia Tech,” Simczak said. “I knew him from New Jersey because I had run track against him. He got a head coaching job at Perth Amboy High School and called me and asked me if I wanted a job coaching. I said, ‘Well, what do I have to do?’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to be a teacher.’ I didn’t know if I wanted to be a teacher, but I followed him and went over there. I became a full-time substitute teacher, and I coached football and track for three years. I pretty much worked with the special teams.

“I had some businesses and did what I had to do to survive. I got married, and I’ve got a great wife. She was influential in my coaching. She watched me and told me, ‘You see things that other people don’t see.’ So I ended up starting my own kicking camp. I’d do one-on-one coaching, and I’m still doing that to this day.”

Three years ago, Simczak and his wife sold their home on the Jersey shore and moved to Goose Creek, S.C., near Charleston. Simczak had recovered from open-heart surgery, but as he pointed out, “Blizzards and open-heart surgery do not mix.”

Rather than play golf every day, he decided to talk to the coach at Goose Creek High School and offer to help as a volunteer. Chuck Reedy, a former head coach at Baylor and current Goose Creek coach, accepted the offer, and Simczak has been working with the kickers and special teams ever since. Three years ago, Goose Creek won a state championship.

Simczak works with kickers during the offseason and has his own website - Kickers from as far as New Jersey have traveled to South Carolina to receive instruction from him.

“It’s been fun, and it gets me out of the house,” he said. “I’m just not playing golf every day now, but I truly enjoy it. You just can’t take the football out of the football player.”

Simczak keeps in touch with many of his former teammates and gets to Blacksburg on occasion. He plans on coming up next spring for the spring game.

A group of his teammates gets together every January in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to play golf, but mostly to reminisce about the old days. Simczak may not remember vividly the specific plays and games, but he remembers the impact that playing football at Virginia Tech had on his life.

“Coach Claiborne was a disciplinarian. That was the best thing that happened to me – being able to survive what we went through,” he said. “We had 80-some guys come as freshmen or something like that, and out of all those players, only 10 or 11 made it to be seniors. That was a heckuva accomplishment to do that because it wasn’t easy.

“There were times I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t because of my parents. I remember lying in bed with tears in my eyes because I was so sore that I couldn’t sleep. There were times I didn’t think I could do it, and I thought about my parents and what they had invested in this. I knew I had to stick it out, and I’m glad that I did.”