By Jill Millis, UWEC Sports Information
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Blugolds.com) – For most people, homecoming is a time to celebrate school spirit, reminisce with college friends and to cheer on your team on a fall Saturday afternoon. But for the Burzynskis, homecoming is also a family affair.
While it's not unusual for the Blugold football program to have brothers on the team, there is a little more to the story of fifth-year senior Austin Burzynski and junior Sam Burzynski, who both play defense for UW-Eau Claire.
Austin and Sam are the youngest of the seven, with five of their older siblings having donned the blue and gold themselves.
While for Greg, the oldest and first of the Burzynski clan to head to UW-Eau Claire, the campus was already a familiar place. Their uncle, Bob Wozniak, is a Blugold Hall of Famer who ranks as one of the most successful wrestlers in school history and earned many honors both on the mat and in the classroom. As a pre-engineering student, he went on to UW-Madison to earn his degree in mechanical engineering.
Another Wozniak that found her way to Eau Claire was cousin Brooke Wozniak (Schmidt), who was a standout three-sport athlete (volleyball, basketball and track and field). The All-American married another Blugold, football All-American Bob Schmidt.
According to mom, Jane, a big reason Greg chose to continue his wrestling career at UW-Eau Claire was Hall of Fame Coach Don Parker with whom Greg had a great relationship. The proximity to their home in Stanley was also a huge plus. He now is the Success Coordinator at Stanley-Boyd High School and is also the head wrestling coach and is an assistant coach for football. His daughter, Taylor, is currently a junior at UWEC.
The only sibling to graduate in different colors is Brad, the second oldest, who chose to compete in track and field at UW-Stevens Point. But the reason why isn't surprising.
"Brad didn't have any siblings at Eau Claire at that time, but he had cousins that wrestled at Stevens Point," said Jane. "The kids were all so close growing up and going there he was able to be with family."
Brad, like uncle Bob, also went on to a career in engineering and is the Chief Manufacturing Engineer at Pierce Manufacturing.
Sisters Jenny and Julie also called UWEC home for their collegiate careers, as both were liberos on the volleyball team which saw a Burzynski in the #2 jersey for eight seasons. It was another familiar face that helped bring them to Eau Claire, as current volleyball coach Kim Wudi coached Jenny's club team prior to taking the reigns at UWEC.
Jenny now resides in Boyd with husband Greg Sonnentag - a Blugold wrestling alum - and works for Market & Johnson while Julie is a school psychologist in Wausau and is to married Blugold football alum Dakota Nichols.
Brother Scott – who is now a strength and conditioning professional in Madison - was the first Burzynski to take to the gridiron for Eau Claire, which is something current Blugolds Austin and Sam remember well.
"I got to see how great Eau Claire was then," Austin said, speaking of watching Scott play. However, the Blugolds struggled in the years that followed, but that didn't deter Austin when it came time to make his college decision.
"It came down to who I am as a person…and what I wanted to do as a player," said Austin, an elementary education major. "I wanted to be a part of the change. I knew where this program had been. I wanted to help change the culture and bring it back to where it should be and what it will be in the very near future."
For Sam, playing on the same field in the same uniform as his brothers makes game day extra special.
"Sometimes when I make a good play, I am reminded of memories of watching Scott play and it's nice to be connected to him that way," said the physics major who plans to become a mechanical engineer. "It's exciting to play and have my family there in the stands."
While all his older siblings played sports at the college level, Sam still wasn't sure if he had the skill to follow the same path. But big brother Austin, who was already playing for the Blugolds, kept encouraging his brother as he knew he had the talent. What sealed the deal though, was a meeting with former Blugold head coach Dan Larson.
"When Coach Larson came to meet with me in high school it really opened my eyes to the fact that I could play at this level," said Sam. "I was recruited by other schools, but they were never under consideration…I wouldn't have played football anywhere else."
While it's clear the Burzynski family loves UW-Eau Claire, in 2012 it was the Blugolds who were able to show their love and support for the family. That fall, while Scott competed on the football field and Julie on the volleyball court, their niece, Greg's daughter Lakken, battled brain cancer.
"Lakken had cancer at age 10 and UWEC did so much for our family," said Jane. "With fundraisers, cancer awareness events and such supportive coaches – it was so much more than just winning or playing a game."
T-shirts were made in honor of Lakken, with her own quote, 'Never let anything dull your sparkle.' Though it was years ago, you don't have to go far to see the shirt, just check in with Austin or Sam after the game as the two have been wearing the shirt under their jerseys on game days ever since. Fortunately, Lakken won her battle and is now a senior in high school.
While life hasn't always been easy on the family, Jane credits the tough times for bringing them closer together and the pride they have in one another is evident when they talk about their family.
Talking with her children, it doesn't take long to see the love and respect for Mom Burzynski – and deservedly so. The woman's track record with raising successful children speaks for itself. But, like her kids, she is quick to give credit to others.
"So many people helped along the way, it really does take a village," said Jane. "I am very blessed and I am grateful every day that God made me a mom and I am so blessed to be on this ride."
If you are looking for the Burzynski clan on game day, just look for the proud mom with a bright smile, and #2 and #99 on her shoes.