BRADENTON, Fla. – Artur Sitkowski took a pounding last year – physically and mentally.
Despite being rated among the top four pro-style quarterbacks in the nation for the Class of 2018, Sitkowski’s team at Old Bridge (New Jersey) ran a run-heavy veer offense.
“The amount of adversity I faced last year … I took some shots, man,” said Sitkowski, a 6-4, 220-pounder who is now at IMG Academy in Bradenton. “When you run that triple option in high school, it’s tough. As soon as you pitch that ball, you are going to get hit.”
Rich Cardaci, who trained and coached Sitkowski from third to eighth grade with the Old Bridge Rebels and is still close to him, saw the punishment his pupil took.
“Early last year, I don’t know how he didn’t have a broken jaw,” Cardaci said. “He took a helmet to the jaw. He had guys constantly diving at his legs. But he didn’t miss a snap – tough kid.”
Sitkowski needed that toughness for the mental abuse he took. He led his team to the state semifinals, but he often got razzed at road games and ripped on social media because his numbers were unimpressive: 49.9 percent completions, 1,216 yards, six touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
“No one went through what I did last year with all the critics coming at me, ‘Why are you ranked this high?’ “ Stikowski said. “I think I’m the most mentally tough quarterback in the country.”
That toughness is being tested again this spring.
Sitkowski, despite his national ranking and a scholarship that awaits him next year at the University of Miami, is not guaranteed a starting job as a senior.
Zack Annexstad, who was IMG’s backup last year, is battling Sitkowski.
Annexstad is a 6-3, 200-pounder with offers from Cincinnati, Western Kentucky and Southern Miss.
“I expect the battle to go through the first game,” IMG coach Kevin Wright said. “Art is adjusting to the fact that the higher you go up in football, guys don’t get as wide open.
“Art played at a small public school in New Jersey, but he has a very high ceiling. He’s a big kid with an extremely strong and accurate arm. He can also run, and he’s a hard worker – you have to chase him off the field 45 minutes after practice is over.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
For Sitkowski, having to fight for his spot is normal. Working hard to get ahead is something he learned from his parents.
His dad and mom, Rafal and Boguslawa, were born in Poland, but they never knew each other in the old country. They arrived in the U.S. late in their teen-age years and met within 12 months upon settling in Queens, New York.
Neither knew much English at the time, but they soon got married and followed the American dream.
Rafal took odd jobs as a locksmith and an employee at a deli and a soup kitchen while going to New York University and graduating as an engineer. He now works for JP Morgan as a director of software development.
Boguslawa, meanwhile, was graduated from Monmouth University and is now a middle-school math teacher.
“Knowing that there is a goal and you can achieve it,” Rafal said, ‘hopefully that has helped Artur and will help him in the future.”
Sitkowski’s parents knew nothing about football when he was growing up – soccer was Rafal’s game – but Artur saw the sport that would become his passion on TV and asked for his mother’s permission to sign up for a league.
She was originally against the idea, fearing he might get hurt, but she soon relented. For years, Sitkowski played tight end, center, defensive end and linebacker … but not quarterback.
But in the first game of Sitkowski’s eighth-grade year, the Old Bridge Rebels’ long-time starting quarterback broke his leg. Cardaci remembered seeing Sitkowski throw on the side – “He had a beautiful throwing motion” – and gave him a shot at QB.
As a freshman, Sitkowski earned the starting quarterback job for the Old Bridge junior varsity. That summer, he went to a Rutgers camp, where the Knights gave him his first scholarship offer.
Sitkowski earned the starting varsity job as a sophomore and, by his how admission, “blew up” that summer, getting 19 scholarship offers.
“A number of coaches told me he was the best thrower they saw in the 2017 or 2018 class,” Cardaci said. “No one knows his true ceiling because he got such a late start at quarterback.”
LOCKED AND LOADED
When he’s talking football, Sitkowski is an intense young man. He talks quickly and with purpose, and he pounces on questions even before they have been fully formed.
His favorite NFL quarterbacks?
That’s easy: Brett Favre because “he would do anything to win,” and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning because of their work ethic and game preparation.
Sitkowski enjoys the mental challenge that comes with playing QB at IMG, which patterns its offense after the Oregon Ducks’ pass-heavy, up-tempo style.
“Our playbook is huge,” said Sitkowski, who is still just 16 years old. “It’s a college-level playbook that our offensive coordinator brought over from Oregon.
“There are a lot of concrete rules and progressions that you have to follow. Many protections, check downs, you have to get your receivers and running backs lined up, half field, full field, sweep read … but that’s why you come here.”
Sitkowski didn’t hesitate – and in fact answered even faster than usual – when asked to describe himself as a player.
“I’m a leader,” he said, channeling his inner Tim Tebow. “I’m going to give everything I have to my team.
“It’s my responsibility to lead those guys down the field and put the ball in that end zone. I’m going to run through a brick wall for those guys. Every guy on this team means something to me. Those are my brothers until the day I die. I would die for the guys on that field.
“If I don’t give it my all, that’s a problem.”
So far, no problem for the IMG Ascenders as they appear to have found their leader for the 2017 season.