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Big foot
Tim Layden
December 20, 1999
Sebastian Janikowski's powerful leg could win a national championship for Florida State—and reunite mother and son
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December 20, 1999

Big Foot

Sebastian Janikowski's powerful leg could win a national championship for Florida State—and reunite mother and son

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A year later, at 33, Henryk left Poland for the U.S., leaving Halinka and Sebastian behind. His soccer career had peaked in 1981, when he was one of the last players cut from Poland's World Cup team, and was in steep decline. He came to the U.S. ostensibly to play for club teams in Bridgeport, Conn., and Yonkers, N.Y., but really "to find a better life in America," he says.

Henryk risked immigration problems by staying in the U.S. when his visa expired, and after three years he divorced Halina and married an American. "I was lonely, I was in love, and it was the only way I could stay," he says. Halina and Sebastian, meanwhile, lived for eight years in a three-room apartment. Halina worked occasionally, but they subsisted largely on whatever money Henryk sent from America. Sebastian spent long hours in the school yard, honing the shot that would be his salvation. "I always knew where to find him," says Halina. At 15 Sebastian earned a place on the Polish under-17 team. A year later, in '94, Henryk sent word that his marriage made it possible for him to finally obtain a visa for Sebastian to come to the U.S. The marriage also meant that Halina would have to stay in Poland.

That April, Halina put Sebastian on a plane bound for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The years have done little to dull the pain of that moment. "The farewell at the airport was so difficult," says Halina, her voice cracking over a phone line from Walbrzych. "Sebastian didn't want to leave me. I told him to go. I told him I would join him someday."

Sebastian's eyes mist as he tells the story. "Lots of tears," he says. "Very tough. I didn't want to leave my mother alone."

Nearly as difficult was his arrival in New York, where he was greeted by a father he didn't know, a man who had visited him and Halina once in eight years. "I saw him, and it was kind of weird," says Sebastian. "We didn't know how to act with each other, whether to hug or kiss or shake hands or high-five."

They settled on an awkward embrace and went to Orlando, where Henryk, who had retired from soccer after two seasons in the U.S., was living with his new wife and working in maintenance at a nursing home. Sebastian enrolled in the 10th grade at Orangewood Christian Academy and was overwhelmed by class work in a language that he didn't speak. "Every day I felt stupid," he says. "Once, my English teacher called on me, and I didn't even know what she said. It was quick motivation for me. I learned that if you're going to live in this country, you had better learn to speak English."

Sebastian also joined the Orlando Lions under-19 soccer team, coached by Argentinian expatriate Angelo Rossi, who had played low-level pro soccer in his native country and in the States. Janikowski had grown to a muscular 215 pounds, yet Rossi was astounded by his quickness in small spaces, vital to soccer excellence, and by the power in his left foot. "In our first practice he took a shot that hit the side of the goal and moved the goal about six inches," says Rossi. "I fell in love with that shot."

Rossi was also the coach at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach and encouraged Janikowski's father to move Sebastian there, where the high-profile soccer program would expose him to top college recruiters. Henryk agreed but remained in Orlando. Sebastian lived with the Rossi family for 2½ years. Under Florida's transfer rules Sebastian had to sit out his junior year, but Rossi took him on a two-week trip to Argentina, where Sebastian played in two friendlies with a club team and, according to Rossi, was offered a two-year, $1.8 million contract to turn pro. Sebastian declined, uncomfortable with the culture and fearful of the demands on a young professional.

In the halls at Seabreeze High, word had spread that the bald-headed guy (Sebastian shaves his head) in their midst was a soccer stud. Some football players, in particular lineman Brad Cjeka, badgered Sebastian to try out his leg during spring practice. "Everybody was talking about what a great kicker this big kid was," says Cjeka, who would join Sebastian at Florida State. "We wanted to see what he had." So one afternoon Sebastian, wearing shorts and sneakers, walked onto the practice field, set a football on the tee at the goal line, took two steps back and pounded it high over the head of Kramer, who was standing at midfield. "One of my assistants was in the other end zone, and the ball bounced past him on one hop," says Kramer. Practice came to a halt.

Sebastian joined the football team for his senior year and turned Seabreeze games—and even practices—into sideshows. "We'd have 20 cars parked along the fence with people watching Sebastian warm up," says Kramer, "and they'd all leave when the game started." Some of them were college recruiters, who watched Sebastian kick four field goals of more than 50 yards, including a 60-yarder in a key late-season win over Palatka. One of the recruiters was Florida State assistant coach Bill Sexton, who encouraged Bowden to sign Sebastian. Bowden refused because he already had Bill Gramatica, the younger brother of former Kansas State and current Tampa Bay Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, on scholarship. Sexton begged Bowden to look at Sebastian on tape. Recalls Bowden, "I saw him and I yelled at Billy, 'What are you doing here? Go sign him.' " In 1997 Janikowski beat out Gramatica, who transferred.

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