April 20, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Every Husky has a story on how he or she got to UW.
Their families have escaped Communism as political refugees. They have taken, as Domanski describes it, "a one-way ticket" from Poland to Seattle, to a new life in a strange world. They have found support inside a church up the street from Husky Stadium, and then in a 101-year-old church on Queen Anne. Their boys have played rugby, chucked the shot put and discus - and cracked jokes along the line of scrimmage during one of the most tense moments Washington football has had in years.
They share far more than their redshirt-junior seasons they are entering or the snaps they are taking in spring practice, Kanczugowski as a backup center and Domanski as a reserve tight end.
Their link runs deeper than perhaps any two teammates in college football, short of blood relatives.
Which they consider themselves to be, by the way.
"We're pretty much brothers," Domanski said.
Their heritage spices up Huskies football. To entertain themselves and their teammates, Domanski and Kanczugowski speak to each other in their fluent family language during practices or meetings.
"Me and Mark talk Polish every day," Kanczugowski told me. "English phrases are really funny to say in Polish, so when we hear someone say something like that, we will say it in Polish and everybody laughs."
Their unbreakable bond began solidifying three decades ago -- in a world that no longer exists.
Mirek and Kamila Kanczugowski and Jarek and Gigia Domanski didn't know each other when they all fled Poland in the 1980s, at the height of Lech Walesa's promising but perilous Solidarity movement. All they knew is they had to get out, to escape the Soviet Union's crackdown against Poland and its quest for independence from being a satellite state of the old USSR.
"Oh, yeah, it was during that time. That was why, yeah, to escape the Communist regime," the engaging Domanski told me Saturday following a spring practice. "It's funny, they actually have pictures with Lech Walesa, and they were part of it. They were part of that whole movement."
Growing up, Marek began asking about that hard life in Poland, and about how his parents got out.
"I figured, somebody would want to know," he told me.
This is what Jarek, who would graduate from UW with a degree in geography and is now a software analyst for the City of Seattle, and Gigia, who has worked here in real estate, told their younger Domanski:
They were 22 and just out of college in Poland, where they had dated, and at a crossroads in their lives. The progress of Walesa's movement and his eventual presidency, the end of Communism in their country, had yet to take hold. And it was no sure thing it would.
"It was just tough," Marek said, standing just off the west end zone of Husky Stadium minutes after a scrimmage. "The economy, it was down. They said the future that they saw themselves having there wasn't what they were looking for, wasn't as positive as they wanted it to be."
They told their parents, Domanski's grandparents, they were going on a summer vacation, a train trip through Europe.
"They got there, and really their intentions weren't just a trip to Spain for the summer," Marek said. "Their intentions were to leave, to stay out."
Domanski's parents actually hitchhiked their way through Western Europe. They got to Spain -- and stayed as political refugees.
"We'd been granted a political refugee status in Spain, and while living there for 18 months we've applied for the same status in the U.S. (through) Immigration (INS) officials at the U.S. embassy in Madrid," Jarek Domanski wrote to me Thursday in an e-mail, clarifying how they got to this country. "(They) reviewed our application, and many others at the time, and after an in-person interview, INS granted us a right to enter to the United States."
Jarek, who was from Lukow, east of Warsaw and Gigia, from the historical city of Sandomierz, then settled in Seattle.
"My older brother was born here, and I was born here," Marek said.
It was about the same time Kanczugowski's parents immigrated to the U.S. They landed in San Diego, to join a similar "sponsor." That was where Daniel was born. Kanczugowski's family moved to Seattle when he was about 3. He then met Domanski, who lived about 10 minutes away from where the Kanczugowkis settled in the north Seattle suburb of Edmonds.
When they got to Seattle, both sets of parents found a vibrant Polish Catholic community -- first at St. Bridget Church in Laurelhurst then at Saint Margaret Catholic Church on Queen Anne hill.
"Not knowing how to speak English, really the only thing in this area that had a community for Polish people was the church. So all Polish people here kind of stayed together, stayed close," Domanski said. "We've known each other, I guess you can say, our entire lives.
"It's not just Daniel and me, you know. In this city, if they are Polish, there's probably a pretty good chance I know them. That's just how it was. We all got babysat together. ... We started getting closer and closer, and now we're pretty much brothers."
"We spend 24-7 together."
When Marek was a toddler, his parents sent him and his brother back to Poland to live for a year with their grandparents, who by then had forgiven and understood their children for fleeing Poland. Marek returned to Seattle to begin first grade here.
Kanczugowski's mother Kamila was born in Sanok, a country town in the southeastern corner of Poland near the borders of what is now Ukraine and Slovakia. His father Mirek was born in Lublin, in the same province where Domanski's father is from. They also sent Daniel back to Poland with his brother to live with their grandparents, for about 18 months when Daniel was 8.
Both players visited Poland each summer until their Huskies football careers began, to reunite with family.
Daniel enrolled at Seattle's O'Dea High School at the same time the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Domanski was going to Shorecrest High in Shoreline.
Kanczugowski got interested in football when former Husky Kyle Benn visited his elementary school in Edmonds during a charity event. Benn started 36 games, including a Rose Bowl, at center for Washington from 1999-2001.
Both Benn and Kanczugowski went to Holy Rosary Elementary in Edmonds.
"I was sitting there was like, `Man, this guy is pretty big. I want to be popular for doing something like that,'" Kanczugowski said.
He finally went out for football and then followed his brother to O'Dea, where Benn also played.
"And I absolutely hated it. I didn't like it my freshman year of high school," Kanczugowski said. "It was physical, and I wasn't as mature when I was younger. I didn't want to hit as much."
Then he said, "something clicked" before his sophomore year of high school.
Meanwhile, Domanski became an all-conference defensive lineman at Shorecrest. He was also a standout in track, in the shot put and discus. He won the district title in discus as a senior.
By then, the two best friends were dead set on becoming Huskies, even if the Huskies didn't have scholarships for them. But first, the happy-go-lucky Kanczugowski found a side sport.
He decided to play rugby for the Seattle Vikings. He quickly impressed the Washington Loggers, the state's all-star rugby team designed for players who aspire to play for the U.S. national team.
He plays the positions of the 8-man, directing teammates at the very back end of the scrum, and the tight-head prop. The latter is a rugged frontline player who rams into the opponent at the scrum's clash point.
Kanczugowski is good enough to have a standing invite to try out in Florida for the U.S. team, and his grand future plan is to play for Poland's national rugby team. But his concern over injury has put that sport on hold until his football one ends.
Besides, as he noted, "it's a lot harder to make it in football than in rugby, in my opinion."
These guys know the tough way to becoming Huskies.
Each walked on. At least Marek was invited by UW coaches. Kanczugowski just tried out, as a defensive end.
Soon, Huskies coaches switched Kanczugowski to the offensive line. His value skyrocketed last season, to the point he achieved the ultimate for a walk on.
At practice during the first week of August, coach Steve Sarkisian called the team together and announced he had a few extra scholarships available.
"All the walk-ons, we hold our breath for what seems like forever," Kanczugowski said. "And they say your name, you feel like you are in a dream. I had to pinch myself a couple times."
Then in late September, Sarkisian walked up to the backup lineman who usually wears No. 63 the week of the USC game and told him he was going to play tight end, one of UW's thinnest positions last season. Days later, the coach played him in at tight end wearing 91, as an extra blocker for UW's "power quad" running play.
Initially, no one knew who this previously unlisted 91 was. And Kanczugowski couldn't have cared less.
"I'll do anything to get on the field," he says.
When the Huskies scored on "God's play" against the Trojans with Kanczugowski blocking, a new tight end was born. The Huskies also used Kanczugowski to pass block that night in Los Angeles.
On the game's final play, Kanczugowski found himself lined up next to linemate Senio Kelemete readying to block on Erik Folk's attempt to win it with a field goal. The Trojans called consecutive time outs in an attempt to spook Folk and the Huskies. That's when the Polish walk-on rugby player with zero career starts began cracking jokes.
"I mean, we were out there and got frozen twice in a row, so I'm looking at Senio and saying, `I've never been in a worse position in my life than right now,'" Kanczugowski said. "And I said, `We better block for this.'"
It wasn't the only time Kanczugowski was in on the final, winning play last season. Seven games later at California, he joined an unbalanced line on the right side and plowed the Bears' defense just about out of Strawberry Canyon. Chris Polk walked in for the winning touchdown as time expired, keeping UW's bowl dreams alive.
Weeks later Kanczugowski's mother, father and brother were with the Domanskis in San Diego to end December. They watched their two, unique Huskies beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
The rest of Kanczugowski's family watched that game from back there, too, on television.
"My grandfather tries to say he doesn't it like it, that's it's a barbaric sport. But they watch it, just because they always want to watch my brother and I play," he said.
To think: Kanczugowski and Domanski were there in San Diego as Huskies, as Americans, because of a gutsy decision their families made almost 30 years earlier to escape Communism and move to the unknown.
Talk about clutch performances.
"They heard they had a chance to come here, and they saw it as a one-way ticket," Domanski said. "You have one shot. Are you going to take it? Or are you going to leave it?
"They took it."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.