Jordan Kunaszyk’s football career started better than most. The 6-year-old scored a 60-yard touchdown on his first-ever snap in organized football. Not bad for a first-timer.
He was involved in organized tackle football early on, playing for the Oakmont Junior Vikings in Roseville, near Sacramento. The league had just opened, and Kunaszyk (pronounced: kuh-NAH-shick) was enrolled in the “Mighty Mites” division — a level below Pee Wee — which had no kickoffs. The teams started at their own 40-yard lines, and because the Mighty Mites were the youngest division, they were the first team to play on that fateful weekend.
Kunaszyk played running back at the time, and on the first down of the day, he took a handoff to the house, weaving through opponents and maneuvering his way to a score. The play was not only impressive, but also rather symbolic.
It was one of the first instances of football manifesting itself as Kunaszyk’s true calling, and though he has switched sides of the ball since then, the Cal inside linebacker hasn’t stopped running. He has navigated himself through the various roadblocks that have come his way — including his undersized frame and recruitment difficulties — and ended up as a starting linebacker for the Bears.
It has by no means been easy, but Kunaszyk has found a path forward, and his wheels keep turning.
Malcolm Gladwell best described a phenomenon termed the “relative age effect,” by which youth sports participants gain a major advantage by being born earlier in the selection period and being on the older side of their age group. Kunaszyk knows firsthand why this can also be a disadvantage to others.
Born in October, Kunaszyk was consistently one of the youngest players in his division growing up. At no point, however, was he discouraged by his lack of size. He had found his passion, and he stuck with it. And very quickly, he realized he had standout talent and a high football IQ, excelling on both sides of the ball.
“It was everything to him. It was his calling. Ever since he was 6 years old, he said to me, ‘Mom, I’m going to play for the Raiders,’ ” says Kunaszyk’s mother, Audria Brott. “He looks forward to every day, the sweating, the grinding, the throwing up. There was nothing that turned him off about the sport.”
But despite his knack for the game, the age gap eventually caught up to Kunaszyk. Combined with the absence of a well-timed growth spurt, he found himself struggling to get snaps. While about eighth grade, when others started growing and getting faster than him, he put on unwanted pre-puberty weight.
“I kind of hit an awkward stage. I kind of lost my speed. I still started, but I didn’t play offense eighth grade. And then, freshman year of high school, there were a couple games where I didn’t start and I didn’t play,” Kunaszyk says. “I was pretty embarrassed, just from my standpoint — always being that star player — and it humbled me, and it really made me work harder, ‘cause I never wanted to feel that way again.”
Entering Roseville High School as a 5’4”, 130-pound freshman, he took up weight training in order to build his lower body so that he could overcome his size and preparing, hopefully, for an eventual growth spurt. Again, despite his small stature, Kunaszyk stuck to his childhood goal in order to compete for his coveted spot on the field.
As per the suggestion of his coaches, he started putting in early-morning workouts, diligently working to improve his body and his game.
“He had within him the instinct of the game, and he was very coachable — to do whatever it took for him to succeed,” says Robert Kunaszyk, Jordan’s father. “His coaches helped him every morning. He would wake up by himself, making sure that I was able to take him to school, so that he would not miss his weight training.”
The work eventually paid off, and so did Kunaszyk’s patience. As the long-awaited growth spurt finally hit late during high school, he quickly filled out into a 6’1’’, 215-pound frame. By the end of high school, he was twice named an All-Sierra Foothill League selection, and he served as team captain his senior year.
But the age gap imposed itself against Kunaszyk for the second time shortly thereafter. Having played a large part of his senior season as a 16-year-old, he was overlooked entirely by NCAA Division I colleges, only garnering the attention of Division II and III schools and a few NAIA programs. Determined to play Division I football, Kunaszyk had to give strong consideration to the junior college route — one or two years at a lower level, then transfer.
“I went on an official visit to an NAIA school out of high school, and I remember one of the kids on the team said, ‘Hey man, the thing about JuCo that you’re going to realize is that everybody’s individual, and everybody’s going to be playing for themselves. But if you come here, you’ll be part of a team,’ ” Kunaszyk says.
Kunaszyk, who had his mind set on playing at the highest level, didn’t heed that advice. When he subsequently decided to attend American River College, he was lucky to find that stereotype to be the furthest thing from the truth.
American River is known for being one of the top junior college football programs in the nation, feeding roughly 20 players per year into four-year universities and an estimated five to 10 players to Division I schools per campaign. The coaching staff at ARC works hard to develop a Division I team culture on a community college budget.
“We’re trying to provide to help facilitate student athlete learning and replicate what they’re going to see at the four-year level,” said ARC head coach Jon Osterhout. “They’re showing up at these four-year university programs playing extremely well because they’ve been held accountable (to) a certain standard of how to operate and function within an organization.”
Regardless of ARC’s pedigree and the opportunity it presented, more issues still loomed for Kunaszyk.
American River presented Kunaszyk with an apparent fast track to Division I, but his enrollment there was followed by a more unforeseen obstruction, and this one far more unfortunate — injury.
In his first junior college game, he broke his hand and was forced to medically redshirt the 2014 season. But his journey had already served as a sense of encouragement, and he was determined to return stronger and make an immediate impact upon return. So he did.
The 2015 season became one to remember. Kunaszyk quickly made his impact known as he emerged as one of the defensive leaders of the team. He led all California junior college players with 118 tackles, and he was named a Freshman All-American, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and First-Team all-conference.
“He’s one of those rare students,” Osterhout said. “If my son were to become 75 percent of the student-athlete and person of character (that Kunaszyk is), I’d know that my wife and I did a fantastic job raising our son.”
But beyond the accolades and praise, the most important thing to come from that season was scouts’ attention. The road to Cal had opened up.
“Everything about Cal was attractive to me. The academics, the program, the area, close to home,” Kunaszyk says. “I couldn’t be more happy that I chose this school.”
The drive that it took him to get here hasn’t let up, and neither has his respect for his teammates or for the game of football. Ball remains life for Kunaszyk.
“I feel like for me, I’ve got to earn the respect of my teammates. I’ve always kind of been a leader and a vocal leader, but when I first came to Cal, I didn’t want to step up in that role too fast because I felt like I didn’t earn it,” Kunaszyk says. “You’ve got to show that you do things the right way, you’ve got to show your teammates that you work hard and that you’re accountable and you’re disciplined.”
That respect was undoubtedly earned in his first season with the Bears. During a double-overtime home game in 2016 against Oregon, Kunaszyk batted and came up with the game-sealing interception. The play secured Cal’s first victory over the Ducks after seven straight Oregon victories. But it also was the first play that put the Kunaszyk name on the map.
“It was just a great feeling to bring joy and to be able to see people in the stands jumping around and smiling,” Kunaszyk says. “Because the game is bigger than me. I do it for my family and my teammates, and it was just a really good feeling to be able to do that.”
Since then, he has continued to impress, most notably in this season’s effort against then-No. 8 Washington State in a 37-3 domination by the Bears. Kunaszyk tallied 11 tackles with 2.5 sacks and an interception en route to winning his first Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week award.
That stellar performance also coincided with a season-ending injury to senior linebacker Devante Downs. It was little surprise that Kunaszyk ultimately stepped up to fill the tremendous void. In his first two career starts after Downs’ injury, Kunaszyk recorded consecutive career highs for tackles with 14 against Arizona and 16 against Colorado.
It’s clear that Kunaszyk has learned a lot on his road to Berkeley. He doesn’t know where this trip will end, but whether it leads to him swapping his Cal jersey for the childhood dream of an Oakland Raiders jersey or with him pursuing his strong interest in coaching football, one thing is for certain: He cannot imagine the game not being forever a part of his daily life.
“I feel like I could impact a lot of young kids’ lives and be a mentor and lead them in the right direction,” Kunaszyk says. “I’ve always wanted to coach, and I see our great coaches, and the way that they attack every day makes me want to coach even more.”
There’s simply nothing beyond football on his agenda. Ever since the day that football became his passion, Kunaszyk hasn’t stopped working to pursue what he loves.
“(Football is) all I’ve ever known. I’ve never really had a job and really just played football. Every decision I make really impacts football. Everything I do really is on the basis of ‘Is this making me a better football player?’ ” Kunaszyk says.
At this point, it‘s safe to say the road has been the right one, and the only question left is where it takes him.
“I just continued from when I was 6 years old and had some bumps in the road, but I’m here now, living the dream, so I’m blessed and fortunate.”
Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].