TAMPA — On opening night, when the University of South Florida football team races through the tunnel at Raymond James Stadium on Aug. 30 before facing the Western Carolina Catamounts, emotions will run high for Bulls players.
Particularly for USF junior offensive lineman Thor Jozwiak, who missed last season following surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat.
“I don’t know of any words that can describe the emotion, intensity and feeling I’m going to have on that field,’’ said Jozwiak, a 6-foot-4, 321-pounder, son of a former first-round NFL draft pick. “I get goose bumps just talking about it.’’
As he said it, Jozwiak’s arms did, in fact, have goose bumps.
“Thor isn’t a shy guy,’’ said Jozwiak’s older sister, Brianne. “He lives life to the fullest. He’s funny. He’s lovable. He speaks his mind.
“I guess the biggest thing is he has always had such a big, big heart.’’
Even Jozwiak’s sister smiled at the irony of that statement.
During the second day of last fall’s training camp, Jozwiak passed out during individual workouts, right after stretching. An irregular heartbeat, detected during spring football, had been controlled through medication. But after checking into Tampa General Hospital, doctors diagnosed Jozwiak with an atrial fibrillation, a failure of the electrical impulses generated by the right atrium and pulmonary veins.
He needed surgery.
“The first thing I thought when they wheeled me into the room was ‘My career is done,’ ” Jozwiak said. “You’re laying there in the hospital bed, 20 years old, by yourself most of the night, just looking at the ceiling, I thought I was done playing ball.
“That was a real scary thing. It was not fun to go through. But God is good and He helped me through a lot. The surgery did the trick. I’m excited to be playing again. He gave me a second chance to play the sport I love.’’
After starting the final five games as a freshman in 2012, Jozwiak was ticketed to start last season. Jozwiak’s return provides a huge boost for a veteran offensive line that has grown bigger and stronger.
“He brings a demeanor to our offensive line that we didn’t have last year,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said. “I love him. He brings toughness, he brings leadership and he brings a positive attitude.’’
In turn, the Jozwiak family loves Taggart.
“When Coach Taggart came in (following the firing of Skip Holtz), he probably had no idea who Thor was,’’ Jozwiak’s sister said. “The fact there was a heart issue, he could’ve easily said, ‘Why do we need you?’ But he was there every step of the way.’’
“Without my coaches and teammates, I probably don’t get through this,’’ Jozwiak said. “Every single day, I got a text from Coach T. My offensive linemen were there for me. I felt like I was needed and part of a family.’’
Teammates are delighted to have Jozwiak back in the locker room. He keeps things loose and makes sure everyone is involved. There’s no telling what kind of hairstyle he will sport — he has gone Mohawk and multiple color shades — or whether he will have any hair at all.
He speaks with the confidence, elocution and colorful language of a professional wrestler — just like his father, Brian Jozwiak, a former West Virginia All-America offensive tackle who was a first-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1986.
Jozwiak, who consistently visits hospitals and speaks to elementary-school children, was nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team for his off-field dedication to community service.
“It’s crazy, but Thor and Brian are the same kind of player and same kind of guy,’’ said USF radio analyst Mark Robinson, who was a teammate of the elder Jozwiak with the Chiefs from 1986-87. “They are both so outgoing, borderline outrageous, but the most incredible people who would do anything for you.
“There was never a dull moment with Brian, let me tell you.’’
Robinson remembers when his wife was pregnant with their second child, a girl. The elder Jozwiak found out.
“Another girl?’’ he said. “Well, my next kid is going to be a boy. And I’m going to name him … Thor!’’
The elder Jozwiak never changed his expression.
Back and forth went the discussion between husband and wife. “We can’t name him Thor … what if he goes into business?’’ Johna Jozwiak said.
The compromise: Thornton Joseph Jozwiak.
The reality: He’s Thor.
So, what happened on Halloween?
“I just go as myself,’’ Jozwiak said. “When they asked who I was, I said, ‘I’m Thor.’ I really don’t need a hammer. There are certain things you have to live up to, but I like my name. It’s very different.
“Once people come to know me, it’s never too bad. But when they used to ask me my name at a drive-thru, I’d say, ‘Thor.’ They’d say, ‘Four?’ No, it’s Thor. T-H-O-R. I have to spell it. I’m used to it. It’s who I am.’’
He’s a gentle giant. He’s the life of USF’s locker room. He’s a smash-mouth lineman who should make a difference. He possesses a super-hero persona, but also the compassion of an old soul. Not even a medical crisis could stop his big heart.
So, who is Thor Jozwiak, really?
“In a word? Powerful,’’ his sister Brianne said. “He’s powerful in every way.’’