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The Journal Gazette

  • Purdue University Leo graduate Mike Augustyniak is due to be inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame on Friday night during a Leo home game against Columbia City.

Thursday, October 05, 2017 1:00 am

Augustyniak had no easy path to Hall

Leo grad walked on at Purdue, was cut once before joining Jets

JADE WASHBURN | For The Journal Gazette

The plight of the walk-on, undrafted underdog is a common story in athletics. Seemingly every team has a player that would fit the profile of the average Joe who made it.

During the 1970's and into the '80's, Fort Wayne native and Leo graduate Mike Augustyniak was writing his own long-shot tale.

That tale will come full circle Friday night, as Augustyniak, 61, will be inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame during a Leo home game against Columbia City.

Augustyniak graduated from Purdue in 1979, and after spending training camp with the New Orleans Saints in 1980 (only to be released), joined the New York Jets as a free agent in 1981.

The road that led him there began, quite literally, on Indiana roads.

Car tour

In 1975, Augustyniak was off to a promising start to his senior season at Leo. As the team's starting running back he had already rushed for more than 1,000 yards by his fifth game before a severe ankle sprain limited his playing time and production.

After the injury, college recruiters took less interest in Augustyniak and he received no scholarship offers.

Instead of giving up on football, Augustyniak hopped in the car with his mother, Dee, and his father, Gene, visiting colleges all around the state, including Ball State, St. Joseph's in Rensselaer, and Indiana.

At the time, Lee Corso was the coach of the Hoosiers. After meeting with Augustyniak, who said he wanted to be a “big fish in a big pond,” Corso laughed and told him he'd be better off as “a big fish in a small pond.”

Purdue was the last stop on the Augustyniak family's list. The coach at the time, Alex Agase, encouraged Augustyniak to walk on, where he initially practiced as a strong safety.

“I didn't have a clue that I could play Big Ten football, and my father convinced me I could do that,” Augustyniak said. “He believed that I could do it, and I believed that he was right.”

A coaching change in 1977 would impact Augustyniak's role drastically. Purdue replaced Agase with Jim Young from Arizona, and as Augustyniak recalled, Young had no preconceived notions about his players as a first-year coach in the Big Ten.

“Jim Young came in in 1977, didn't know anybody and gave everyone a fair chance,” Augustyniak said. “He saw some potential in me. ... I had all the good practice skills and was ready to start playing some football in 1978.”

Augustyniak was redshirted for the 1977 season and earned a scholarship. When starting fullback John Macon suffered a shoulder separation one week before the 1978 Old Oaken Bucket game, Augustyniak was named the starter and made the most of the opportunity, rushing 23 times for 135 yards in a 20-7 victory over the Hoosiers.

After the game, Corso personally delivered the trophy to Augustyniak in the Purdue locker room and congratulated him.

“That was the best experience,” Augustyniak said. “Like, the best thing that ever happened, especially against Indiana.”

Purdue to the pros

Augustyniak became a regular contributor during one of the brightest periods in Purdue football history, playing alongside names such as Mark Herrmann, Dave Young and Bart Burrell.

Between 1978 and 1980, Purdue was 28-7 and won three-consecutive bowl games, including the 1978 Peach Bowl, when Purdue defeated Georgia Tech 41-21 in Atlanta. That three-year window marks the second most successful stretch of Purdue football since the World War II era, behind only the 1966-68 seasons (25-6), capped by Bob Greise leading the Boilers to a win over USC in the 1967 Rose Bowl.

Never gave up

After graduating from Purdue and being cut by the Saints at the end of training camp, Augustyniak figured his playing career was over. He took a job with an auto parts manufacturer in Fort Wayne, but six months later he received a phone call from an agent his father had met at a Detroit Lions game, eventually signing with the New York Jets in 1981 for $25,000.

He beat out six other fullbacks that year and ended up played four seasons with the Jets, earning $150,000 in 1984.

“If I had to describe myself, it definitely would be an overachiever,” Augustyniak said. “I never lifted one weight in high school because we didn't know. We didn't train (as much) back in those days.”

During his time in New York, Augustyniak became a fan favorite, as well as a popular man in the locker room. Home crowds could occasionally be heard chanting “Augie! Augie!” while teammates were endeared to his work ethic and humility.

Former Jet and longtime friend Bruce Harper called Augustyniak's Hall of Fame induction “well deserved.”

“Our friendship extended beyond the playing field,” Harper said. “We were friends not because he was a great player but because of who he is: Augie, the person.”

A knee injury finally forced Augustyniak to retire in 1985. He returned briefly to Fort Wayne to work for Magnavox, before entering the insurance industry in Jacksonville, Florida, where he currently resides.

Looking back, Augustyniak attributes much of his success to his parents' steadfast belief and encouragement.

“If I really knew what I was getting into, I would have said, 'I can't do that, that's crazy,'” Augustyniak recalled. “But I had someone behind me who believed in me and supported me. That was so big in my life.”

Dealing with CTE

Augustyniak struggles with complications from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, including severe headaches, depression and memory issues. He took part in a recent study by Boston University examining the effect of concussions on former NFL players' brains. Augustyniak described it as a “scary and deteriorating condition,” but also said he plans to donate his brain to the BU study upon his death.

In spite of the challenges he now faces, Augustyniak is excited and grateful to be recognized by the Indiana Football Hall of Fame for his accomplishments.

“This definitely is an honor, but I feel kind of funny that the spotlight is on me,” he said. “But I worked hard, and my mother used to always say, 'The harder you work, the luckier you get. If you get lucky, you are going to get opportunities.' I learned that going to Leo and Purdue. This Hall of Fame honor is kind of my last football hurrah and the last chapter in my story.”