Looking back more than 55 years ago, John Waszak thinks there was a chance he could have become the next Lou Groza.
For longtime NFL fans — and long-suffering Cleveland Browns fans — who remember the name, “The Toe” should bring back some pleasant memories.
Groza was the Browns’ place-kicker, and he also played offensive tackle for the team, back when they used to win games.
According to “the Toe,” in his autobiography by that title, he hurt his back in a 1960 scrimmage at training camp “and I was out of football that year and thought I was out of football for good.”
He was back for the 1961 season, though, and encouraged John Waszak to join him in what Waszak today says was to be a “package deal.”
At the time, Waszak was a pretty good kicker, an Ohio native who could easily boot the ball 75 yards. Groza would continue to be the placekicker, and Waszak would be the Browns’ punter.
“My hero was Horace Gillom,’ Waszak said. Gillom was also an Ohio native and a punter for the Browns (1947-56). “I got so I could put it on the 5.”
Coach Paul Brown wanted this guy — Waszak — and had him sign a contract that would have paid him $7,800. Waszak was pretty sure Brown wanted to get rid of fullback/punter Sam Baker and keep Waszak.
“(But), I never got a chance,” Waszak said recently, sitting behind a second-floor desk at Frontier Mart in Corrales. For anyone doubting his tale, he can show them a weathered copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer from back in the day, with him in a photo.
As it turned out, Groza kicked for seven more seasons; Baker was dealt to the Dallas Cowboys after the 1961 season.
Waszak said after his release from the Browns, he got a call from the Boston (now New England) Patriots, and remembers thinking, “Who the hell are the Patriots, a second-year team?
“They offered me $9,600 (and said), ‘We need a punter.’ I didn’t go; I wanted to work for a living.”
Now 80, Waszak has great memories, although a bit fuzzy at times, about some of his athletic pursuits back in the day. Someday, his memories rekindled and his wife of 35 years, Jean, willing, there could be an interesting book about his life.
There would be chapters on his short stint playing football for the late Ara Paraseghian at Miami of Ohio, after a chapter of his sports career in high school in Rocky River, Ohio, where he played multiple sports (baseball, basketball, football, track & field, and golf); plus a chapter on his stint in the Army, where he boxed and played football.
After he graduated from high school, Waszak figured he’d play football in college, but, “Nobody promoted me.
“(Legendary coach) Woody Hayes saw me, said, ‘I heard about you, John. Have your coach send me some film.’”
Apparently, that never happened, and then, “A friend told me I’d get lost at (Ohio State University).”
He wound up at Miami of Ohio, coached then by Paraseghian, who led a team referred to as “the Little Giant Killers.” Back then, freshman weren’t allowed to play for the varsity team, and Waszak recalled, “I didn’t start till the third game, against Cincinnati.”
Waszak played outside linebacker on defense, fullback on offense.
“I had an outstanding game, but we lost. … I had this breakout game against Cincinnati’s freshman team. They put four or five guys into the pros, and Joe Morrison was one of them. I had something like 230 yards (rushing),” Waszak continued. (Coincidentally, Morrison also landed in New Mexico, coaching the University of New Mexico football team from 1980-82, after starring in the NFL from 1959-72.)
Paraseghian, watching the frosh play, sent Waszak a note, informing him he’d be a part of the varsity’s backfield the next season, but “I flunked out — by 1/100th of a point.”
Next: “My dad ‘volunteered’ me,” and Waszak ended up in the Army, stationed at Ft. Knox, Ky., where sports continued to be a big part of his life.
“I made an all-star team; there were about six baseball teams at Ft. Knox,” he said.
Waszak pitched, played in the outfield and behind the plate. As part of the Ft. Knox Tankers, he combined with another pitcher to toss a no-hitter.
Later, while stationed in Germany, he said, he played on an Army basketball team, an Army football team, and boxed.
“I had three heavyweight fights,” he said, losing all three.
“It was a fun time.”
After two years with Uncle Sam, Waszak was back in the U.S., when he heard about that opportunity with the Browns.
After that deal soured, “I went to work for a living,” starting with a stint working for his father, a commercial artist, briefly, but that didn’t work out, either.
Since then, he’s had myriad careers.
“He can sell anything to anybody,” Jean chipped in, culminating with designing the building that houses the Frontier Mart, not far from where he met Jean, who had owned the store when it occupied the building immediately north (now the Bunkhouse).
Waszak initially came to New Mexico to visit a sister in the mid-1970s.
“He bought a cowboy hat; I’d see him walking up and down Corrales Road,” recalled Jean, who’d be pestered — maybe stalked — by Waszak, who by then had moved to the area.
“He would come in and buy an ice cream and hang around and hang around,” she said. “I thought that maybe he was a shoplifter.”
Another time, she said, “Here comes that guy again, and I went into the walk-in cooler.”
“I was persistent,” Waszak chimed in.
At the time, Waszak owned a dog, but he wasn’t supposed to have one at the place he was renting, and he learned Jean had a place with a fenced-in yard.
One summer day, Jean remembered being atop her roof, trying to fix her swamp cooler. Waszak walked by, offered to help, fixed the swamp cooler and later fixed some holes in her fence, so his dog had a new place to stay.
Many years and dogs later, the couple happily live and work in Corrales.
Waszak’s a chatty guy. Visit the Frontier Mart, buy something and ask him what he thinks about Baker Mayfield’s chances with the Cleveland Browns, and maybe mention you read he once had a chance to play for that team.
There are more good stories in the Frontier Mart, which the couple have run for 42 years, you can be sure.