Tommy Kaczocha reconnects with Polish roots while playing for Bialystok Lowlanders

As Tommy Kaczocha sits in his Polish apartment, smiling ear to ear, he thinks about an undersized kid with a lofty dream and how far he’s come.

“I wanted to be the next Randy Moss,” he laughs, remembering when the 16-0 New England Patriots first caught the eye of the soccer playing son of first generation immigrants. “I always had dreams to keep playing football. Once I fell in love with the game, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Here he is, more than a decade later, still doing exactly what he wanted as a kid, even if it might not be quite where he imagined it would be. Growing up in the football heartlands of Florida and Tennessee, it would have seemed ridiculous that his future career would land him back exactly where his family started out. So goes the tale of the American son of Polish immigrants playing American football in Poland.

Growing up thousands of miles away from his extended family, the Bialystok Lowlanders defensive back points out just how long it had been since he visited Poland and saw the wealth of relatives living there.

“The last time my grandparents or my aunts and uncles had seen me was 2007,” Kaczocha says. “My uncle didn’t even recognize me.”

Tommy Kaczocha playing DB for Finland’s Kuopio Steelers making tackle versus Helsinki Roosters, July 31 Photo: Jari Turunen

It’s a unique gift to be able to reconnect with one’s family and culture while playing the very sport they love so deeply and it’s why a grateful Kaczocha has been thinking back on those early days when he thought he would be the next Randy Moss. It was not long after that he last saw his grandparents and had a simple interaction in the basement of his family home that seems immensely powerful in retrospect.

“When my grandparents came to visit us in the States, I was still very young and I was playing Madden in our basement. It was the Superstar Career mode and I was playing as myself. My grandpa came down and started watching me. He was shocked at the technology. He turned to me and said ‘I can’t wait until I get to watch you play on TV’,” Kaczocha recalls with a soft smile. “Seeing his face now when I am able to give him some gear or when he can see me on Polish TV, its special. I look back on that moment in the basement in Tennessee and think, wow, look how far you’ve come. This is why you play.”

Getting to Poland was by no means an easy path however. His journey started at tiny Centre College in Tennessee, where Kaczocha felt like his dream to keep playing was somewhat out of place.

“Going to a D3 school, everyone loved the game but a lot of those guys had the mentality that this was their last stop. I never felt like that was right,” he explains. “My senior season I just knew this couldn’t be my last year playing football, there had to be something more.”

Tommy Kaczocha returning a punt for the Bialystok Lowlanders against the Tychy Falcons Photo: Jean-Francois Nicollet

On the advice of a coach, he signed up for Europlayers and the response was instant. There were four solid offers within a week and more than 30 coaches viewing his profile. Having been told most of his life that he was simply too small or that he didn’t have the measurables to keep playing, Kaczocha’s often dismissed dreams were now validated.

“It was a surreal moment when I got to tell my parents I was going to be able to keep playing and I was actually going to get paid for it,” he says.

Kaczocha signed with Finland’s Kuopio Steelers and had little time to celebrate before experiencing the purest form of European baptism by fire. Straight out of Division III and with next to no practice, the undersized defender was matched up against a prototypical Division I receiver with a thousand yard resume.

“I graduated May 19th, 2019 and I flew out literally the next day. I landed on the 21st and our first game was on the 23rd. I had literally two days of practice and my job was to go against Nnamdi Agude, one-on-one the whole game,” Kaczocha recalls. “I’m looking at him and he’s a 6’4 guy from Sacramento State.”

As Kaczocha is fond of saying, he didn’t prove the doubters wrong, he proved himself right. The fresh-faced import handled Agude and hasn’t looked back since.

“It was cool for me to be able to play that game against him and know that I did my job, that I took him out of the game,” Kaczocha beams with pride.

That experience has nothing on the roller coaster of emotions Kaczocha has experienced this year. Arriving in early January for the Finnish season, the American was in Kuopio when lockdown struck. It was a mess of confusion, uncertainty and devastation that ultimately ended in elation. The Steelers took home the Maple League crown in the COVID-shortened season, redeeming themselves after two straight finals losses. Kaczocha describes it as an unreal experience.

“You take all the players on that team and only two had ever won a championship at any level, then you add in the fact that all those Finnish players had been to the finals three straight years. It’s incredible. These things don’t come a dime a dozen. Winning a championship in any league, a lot has to go your way and you have to put a lot into it,” he marvels. “Just to see the looks on guys’ faces who have been working so hard for so many years, it really humbles you.”

Tommy Kaczocha playing DB for Centre College Photo: Centre College

Now in Poland, Kaczocha is chasing his second title of 2020 with the Bialystok Lowlanders. Getting ready for a semi-final matchup against the Tychy Falcons, the defensive back anticipates a heated contest.

“We are expecting the kitchen sink,” he stresses.

That’s partially due to an earlier meeting between the two clubs in which the Lowlanders narrowly edged out the underdog Falcons. Kaczocha knows that will be central to the motivations of both teams going into Saturday.

“We came in and took them very lightly the first time we played them. We expected to go into that game and just do what we do. The challenge they pose to us now is they don’t fear us. They’ve seen weakness and they want to beat us,” Kaczocha explains.

The risk is that Bialystok gets caught looking ahead to a potential finals rematch with the Wroclaw Panthers. Kaczocha stresses that his team must stay focused on the task at hand.

“The message is that right now we aren’t thinking about the championship, we are focused on this game,” he emphasizes. “For this week, the Falcons are the championship.”

Of course for Kaczocha, there is some added motivation. A win means another week exploring with his ancestral homeland and reconnecting with his family and language. He relishes the ability to walk the historic streets and understand what strangers are saying, to refine his fluency with teammates and not have to force awkward language switches at practice. Most importantly, he treasures the moments with family.

“It’s been a crazy experience just to have my family able to watch the games and see me play. To have my grandparents able to watch me play and me see them for the first time in 13 years,” Kaczocha says glowingly. “That’s an opportunity that I will be able to hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life.”

Watch the Bialystok Lowlanders play the Tychy Falcons in Polish semifinals, Saturday, October 31 on AFI.tv.

JC Abbott
J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.
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