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From walk-on to bowl game starter

Klarkowski has had an amazing journey since graduating from Southwest

Isaac Klarkowski
Green Bay Southwest graduate Isaac Klarkowski went from a walk-on on the Rice University football team to a starter in his team’s bowl game. Photo courtesy of Maria Lysaker/Rice Athletics

By Jordon Lawrenz

Contributing Writer

GREEN BAY – Isaac Klarkowski, a 2019 graduate of Green Bay Southwest High School, proved it pays to bet on yourself.

With no guarantee of seeing any playing time, Klarkowski applied to Rice University and decided to walk onto its football program. Rice has an 11% acceptance rate, but the high school football and wrestling standout was also his high school’s valedictorian. Ultimately, Klarkowski was accepted into Rice, and the rest is history.

Tim Birr, Klarkowski’s coach during his tenure at Green Bay Southwest, saw his player wreak havoc on the field. Klarkowski was one of the rare players to earn all-conference and all-region on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. To go along with it, he was a semifinalist for Wisconsin’s top offensive lineman, known as the Joe Thomas Award. 

It wasn’t just football that Klarkowski was proficient in. Klarkowski wrestled all four years in high school, lettering each year. With over 100 career wins, Klarkowski seemingly succeeded in every sport he competed. All his hard work began in third grade when he first wrestled and stepped foot on the football field.

“Football was pretty big in our house so I realized I wanted to play in college fairly early on,” he said. “We’d always watch college football on Saturdays, so it became a dream of mine to play on that stage.”

Klarkowski had the tough decision to make of chasing that college football dream or continuing to wrestle. College athletics are much different than high school, so doing both simultaneously was never an option.

“It really came down to a decision between playing football at Rice or wrestling at Wisconsin. It was a really tough decision and I struggled with it for a couple weeks. I was going to be a preferred walk-on at both places so scholarships weren’t a determining factor. Both places gave me the opportunity to study at a world-class university and compete at the highest level, which were my goals with finding a college.” 

At the end of the day, Rice was the destination.

“I ultimately chose Rice because of its location and connection with NASA and the aerospace industry — going into college I was thinking I would go into aerospace after graduating,” Klarkowski said.

Focusing on football

The decision was made, but the work was just beginning. One of the people who worked closest with Klarkowski was Sanders Davis, the offensive line coach at Rice. Davis was the offensive graduate assistant in 2019 when Klarkowski walked on, but he later took over as the O-line coach in March 2020.  “It’s very rare when we have someone who we don’t know come into the program,” Davis said. “We were undecided whether to play him on offense or defense as he played both in high school.”

After it was decided that Klarkowski was playing on the offensive side of the ball, the young player knew his role on the team.

“As a walk-on, I wasn’t expected to do much other than play scout team,” Klarkowski said. “I expected to be a scout team player for freshman year and then work my way up the depth chart as a sophomore and junior, and then be a starter for my senior year and beyond. For most of freshman year it was what I expected — I was learning a lot about the scheme of football, getting better at technique by working on scout team, and growing as an athlete in the weight room.”

Not every college program runs out of an NFL playbook, but Rice is one of those teams.

“We threw him into the fire and he picked up on everything quickly,” Davis said. “His wrestling background definitely helped him a lot, but he’s also off the chart smart and works incredibly hard. He’s more of a quiet worker who never has to be questioned.”

All of Klarkowski’s hard work paid off quicker than he could imagine. A few Rice players were battling some injuries, and it was a last-minute start for the true freshman.

“I didn’t know I was starting until the Friday before the game, and even then it was still a little bit up in the air,” Klarkowski said. “I was expecting to start, but it was truly solidified on Saturday in the pregame walk-through. I was really nervous on Friday and Saturday morning leading up to the game. Thankfully all the older guys had faith in me and encouraged me.

“I roomed with Brian Chaffin, a fifth-year center who transferred from Stanford. The night before the game he helped review plays and that was very helpful. I thought it was really cool, though, when all my nervousness kind of washed away on the bus ride over to the stadium. By the time I got there I was feeling good, confident in my ability and knowledge of the system.”

Klarkowski’s confidence was never in question and Davis, along with the rest of the coaching crew, were confident they made the right decision to start him,

“It’s very rare for a lineman to start as a true freshman,” Davis said. “We knew he had a bright future and that all was put on display. He had an incredible game and we couldn’t have been more proud.”

After his start against North Texas, Klarkowski also started the next week against UTEP. The true freshman walk-on’s season ended with him being awarded a scholarship.

The scholarship didn’t make Klarkowski feel complacent as he was still working hard on a daily basis. Injuries are what granted him the starting spot, but they also affected Klarkowski.

“When you play football, especially college football, injuries are a part of the game,” Klarkowski said. “My mentality has always been that if I can play through it, I will. So, when I tore a tendon in my pinky finger sophomore year, I already knew it wasn’t going to hold me out. I had a conversation with my coaches about whether I should have surgery on it right away, and we decided it would be a good idea.

“It happened before we played any games, so there were a few weeks where I could have surgery and then be cleared to play with a cast before the week of the first game, and that’s what I did. Since I knew I’d still be playing when I got cleared, I continued to practice for the couple days leading up to the surgery. A couple of my teammates looked at me like I was crazy, but the tendon was completely torn so there wasn’t any more damage that could be done. Playing the rest of that season with a cast on my hand made it very difficult, but it forced me to be crafty and think outside the box, which I think is pretty fun.” 

Davis can’t say enough about the toughness Klarkowski displayed.

“It’s a big part of why he’s been successful — the toughness,” Davis said. “He battled through a lot of injuries but he always fought his way back through it.”

Rich head coach Mike Bloomgren helped out Klarkowski with a little meet-and-greet. Bloomgren set up a Zoom meeting between Nick Mangold and Klarkowski. Mangold played center in the NFL, getting drafted in the first round in 2006. He enjoyed a 10-year career with the New York Jets and was a seven-time Pro Bowler. 

On to his next venture

Klarkowski’s football career culminated when he was able to play in a bowl game.

Rice fell to Southern Mississippi 38-24 in the LendingTree Bowl on Dec. 17, but the experience will never be forgotten.

“Playing in a bowl game was awesome,” Klarkowski said. “There’s a certain energy around it that makes it really fun with the whole team together at the bowl location and everyone’s done with school for the semester. I think it’s a perfect way to honor all the dedication and hard work that the old guys like Shea, Clay, Trey, George, Wiley, etc., have put in to build up Rice football the past few years. It’s great for the morale of the program and hopefully it’ll be a launch pad to propel the program even higher.”

After spending a total of four seasons with Rice, Klarkowski is officially done with football.

“I had to make another tough decision this year and that was to step away from football after this season,” Klarkowski said. “It’s been a really fun career and I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had, but it felt like it was time to be done. I’m done with football but still love to push myself and compete, so I entered my name in the NCAA transfer portal as a wrestler.”

Klarkowski hasn’t wrestled since high school, but he still has the desire to prove himself.

“I still have two years of eligibility, with a possible third year if I apply for a medical redshirt from breaking my leg as a junior,” he said.

Rice doesn’t have a wrestling team, so Klarkowski will find himself in a new home sooner than later.

Davis isn’t shocked that Klarkowski still wants to compete, because that’s what he is — a true competitor.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen that full progression from walk-on to playing in a bowl game,” Davis said. “It’s really cool to see his hard work pay off, and it’s no surprise to see him want to get back into wrestling.”

Klarkowski still has a lot left to prove, but for the next few years he’ll be doing it on the wrestling mat instead of on the football field.

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