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Baranek: Easy to see that Jets’ Kotwica is special

Bremen football coach Dan Stell New York Jets special-teams coach Ben Kotwicwho were teammates Andrew High School. | Tony Baranek~Sun-Times

Bremen football coach Dan Stell and New York Jets special-teams coach Ben Kotwica, who were teammates at Andrew High School. | Tony Baranek~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 2, 2013 7:28AM



When Bremen football coach Dan Stell talks about Ben Kotwica, he doesn’t hold anything back.

So it was on Saturday morning at Bremen’s fourth annual Proud and the Brave Camp when he introduced his longtime friend as a top football player at Andrew and West Point, an American war hero, and as the new special-teams coach for the New York Jets.

One of the kids raised his hand. He had a question.

“How come I don’t see you on TV on Sunday?”

After the laughter died down Kotwica smiled and asked the young man if he liked watching football.

“Being a special-teams coach, it’s probably a good thing when you don’t see me,” he said later with a laugh. “If you see the special-teams coach, that usually means something went wrong.”

No ego here.

What there was plenty of at Saturday’s camp was enthusiasm, as Kotwica, Stell, other Bremen coaching staff members and also coaches from Stagg and T.F. South high schools spent four hours teaching football skills to area kids from third through eighth grade.

Also doing some coaching were members of Bremen’s varsity football team, who served as squad leaders for the upward of 75 kids who turned out.

The best part about the camp? Other than getting to spend almost four hours with a fantastic football instructor and a true American hero, it was free.

“The NFL is nice enough to give you a grant to run camps like this in various areas across the country,” Kotwica said. “Another good thing was the community involvement.”

Bartolini’s Restaurant in Midlothian provided lunch for the camp participants, while Hog Wild, Dr. Robert H. Manoogian and Massat Trucking also were among the sponsors.

“A key element of this are the (Bremen) players,” Kotwica said. “The players who have the jerseys on are integrating with the young kids. That’s the formula for this. That’s the bloodline. They’re instrumental in being role models for the younger kids in the area.”

The event was conceived four years ago by Kotwica and Stell, who were football teammates at Andrew and continue to be close friends.

“He was the best man at my wedding (Kotwica returned the favor to Stell), and we’ve had that brotherhood that people talk about, going all the way back to the days we played for Mike O’Neill (at Andrew),” Kotwica said. “When I got into the NFL (as a coach), after my second year I did some research and kind of wanted to get the camp thing going. So I brought it up to Dan, we were able to resource it, and now we’re in good shape.”

Kotwica’s athletic career at Andrew was one to remember.

During his junior year, 1991-92, he was a starting linebacker (and Stell a tight end) on a football team that went 12-1 and advanced to the Class 6A state semifinals.

“We had a good run there,” Kotwica recalled. “We played Homewood-Flossmoor our second week when John Wrenn was there and they were a juggernaut. And we were able to get a win there and it kind of catapulted our season moving forward.

“Then we got into the playoffs and, shoot, we beat a Bogan team that was pretty good up there in Chicago. We beat a Brother Rice team at our place. We beat Thornwood, but then we ran into that East St. Louis team coached by Bob Shannon. They were pretty good.”

The following spring, Kotwica was the starting third baseman on an Andrew baseball team that went 33-5 and won the Class 2A state title.

Major achievements would follow him into adult life.

At West Point, Kotwica was a three-year starter at linebacker, including 1996 when the Black Knights had their winningest season at 10-2.

After his graduation from West Point, he spent the next seven years in the Army, earning along the way the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star.

He has served our country in Bosnia, Korea and Iraq, the latter of which he served as a combat attack helicopter commander. He flew more 1,000 combat hours.

And then there’s the NFL.

After leaving the military, Kotwica spent two seasons as a defensive coordinator at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. It was there that he caught the attention of the New York Jets, who hired him as a quality control coach on defense and special teams.

He was promoted to special-teams assistant coach for the Jets in 2009 and was hired for the top spot when special-teams coach Mike Westhoff retired after the 2012-13 season.

That’s quite a profile.

“I’ve just been fortunate enough to do a lot of different things at the age of 38,” Kotwica said. “When I made the decision to go to West Point in 1993, I didn’t know where the journey was going to take me. Twenty years later I look back and consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve the country and get back to the game I love.

“Coaching football is always something I’ve wanted to do, and to be the special-teams coordinator for the Jets is a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to building on what we set forth the past couple of seasons.”

Saturday, however, he was just Coach Ben, and all about kids, many of whom might just be looking a little harder to find him on the sidelines while watching a Jets game some Sunday afternoon.

“This is just a credit to the type of guy he is,” Stell said. “Even with all his awards and accolades he’s received over the years, he’s extremely grounded. He’s down to earth and an approachable guy.

“I think his personality is going to take him a long way. As a special-teams coordinator, this is just the beginning for him.”



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