Thursday, February 06, 2014
Canadian Ukranian Sharing His Views.
Oldest living ex-Detroit Lion, 94, boasts short career, classic American story, shares fans' angst
February 5, 2014 |
Mike Kostiuk, 94, of Sterling Heights, holds his all-star jersey. He is the oldest living former Lion. / Ryan Garza/DFP
By Carlos Monarrez
Mike Kostiuk still remembers being a kid in Detroit in the 1920s and ’30s —
a time so long ago that hadn’t yet become ubiquitous, even in the Motor City.
Detroit Free Press Sports Writer
“We used to play football on the streets,” Kostiuk said. “Back then, if a or two would come by you’d think, ‘Why don’t you take another street?’ ”
Kostiuk grew up strong, shoulder-to-broad shoulder with his city. He arrived in Detroit when he was 5 or 6 years old, not speaking a lick of English. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who left their wheat farm in Krydor, Saskatchewan, for a better life amid the industrial expanse of an emerging city.
While John Kostiuk traded his plow for a welder’s torch at Dodge, his son got busy forging his greatness on the gridiron. And he was a natural.
Kostiuk starred as an offensive and defensive lineman at Hamtramck High. He played college ball at Detroit Tech, for the Army during World War II and for two seasons in the NFL, in 1941 with the Cleveland Rams and in 1945 for the Detroit Lions.
At 94 years old, Kostiuk is the oldest living former player for both franchises, and he is believed to be the NFL’s ninth-oldest living former player. Kostiuk didn’t have the greatest NFL , but his life has been nothing short of extraordinary.
While working at a Lions game in high , Kostiuk patrolled the end zone at University of Detroit Stadium and saw Chicago Bears great Bronko Nagurski charge toward him.
“I didn’t meet him personally, but I seen him coming,” Kostiuk said. “He had about two, three guys hanging on him, that son of a gun. And he scored. They said he was like a bull.”
Kostiuk turned down a chance to play with Tom Harmon at Michigan in order to follow his high school coach, Hal Shields, to Detroit Tech.
And he was one of the NFL’s frontiersmen, playing in a legendary era among giants like Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson and Sid Luckman. Curly Lambeau was still coaching the Green Bay Packers. Teams traveled by train, and helmets didn’t have facemasks.
Heck, he even played pinochle with Detroit Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk at the Ukrainian Democratic Club in Hamtramck.
But make no mistake, Kostiuk is one of us. His story is our story, an American story, a Detroit story. He was born in Canada, but he is a son of Detroit, a man who made the most of his opportunity.
And he even grouses like us.
Kostiuk sat next to his 90-year-old wife, Jean, at their Sterling Heights home last week as he talked football. Like everyone else, he complained about the Lions’ lack of discipline. Mike and Jean have been married for nearly seven decades and she looks like she has heard this once or twice before.
But Kostiuk is encouraged. He likes new coach Jim Caldwell’s message about more discipline. Of course, it’s probably not going to be the same brand of toughness Lions coach Gus Dorais once doled out to wingback Art Van Tone on the train after a tough loss at Green Bay.
“I remember old Gus coming up to him: ‘When we hit Detroit, you keep on going,’ ” Kostiuk said. “Ooh! That was it. Fired right there.”
Things were certainly different in the NFL back then. In 1941, Kostiuk got a call from Billy Evans, the Cleveland Rams’ and baseball’s famed “boy umpire” who once got into a bloody fistfight with Ty Cobb.
The offer was for $115 a game and Kostiuk jumped at it. In 2013, the NFL rookie minimum salary was $23,823 per game.
But he only played one game for the Rams in 1941.
“And then I got drafted again — by the Army,” Kostiuk said with a twinkle in his eye.
He was a sergeant and served stateside as a drill instructor. When he got out in 1945, he ran into his former line coach at Tech, Julius Goldman.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you sign up with the Detroit Lions? They’re looking for ballplayers,’ ” Kostiuk said. “I said, ‘That sounds good.’
“So he took me to the office. I met Gus Dorais. He says, ‘OK, we’d be glad to sign you. We practice in Canada.’ ”
Kostiuk got a raise, too. This time it was $200 for each of the six games he played during the ’45 season.
Kostiuk got wind that Dorais was thinking about cutting him when he got a great offer from the general manager of the Buffalo Bisons, a new team in the All-America Football Conference.
“Before I could answer, he said, ‘I’ll give you $1,000 to sign a contract,’ ” Kostiuk said. “I said, ‘Whoa!’ Back then, I was a millionaire.”
It didn’t last. Coaches assured him he would play. But after three games, Kostiuk quit.
“The third Sunday, still on the bench,” he said. “I didn’t say a word. After the ballgame, I went to my hotel room, packed up and flew back home. And that was the end.”
He played one last season, in 1947 for the Paterson (N.J.) Panthers of the American Football League. Then he hung ‘em up.
“I’d had enough of it,” he said. “High school, college, army, then going into pro ball.”
Kostiuk had met Jean by then. He knew another life was calling. Marriage, kids and three decades of service as a firefighter. Mike and Jean were married Sept. 20, 1947, in Passaic, N.J.
“Within six months, I married her,” he said. “I was afraid someone was going to steal her.
“On our honeymoon, I had to fly back to Paterson because I’m playing ball the next day. I was a first-stringer. So she came for the ride. Only honeymoon she had. And we’ve been married almost 67 years.”
A wonderful story! The Ukranians and other Europeans made the Canadian west their home. Bronko Nagurski was also born in Canada, the only Canadian in the Hall of Fame in Canton. The name Jackie Kostiuk comes to mind...from Queen's University.