BLOOMINGTON – Ask the average Indiana football fan the highest drafted player from the program since 1970 and responses would likely range from Heisman runner-up running back Anthony Thompson to star dual threat quarterback Antwaan Randle El.
But the answer is a little-known former IU defensive lineman who has maintained roots within the state and championed the fight for NFL players to receive full disability benefits.
Former IU defensive tackle Carl Barzilauskas, taken sixth overall in the first round by the New York Jets in the 1974 NFL draft, looks back on his six-year NFL career with mixed feelings. It ended with an injury-shortened season with the Green Bay Packers in 1979.
“They said I had a burner,” Barzilauskas said. “I couldn’t move my arms for two years, and it still never came around. That’s the part -- the medical care was pretty bad, and there was no disability or anything. That was the part that got me in the end.”
The injury sparked an interest in physical therapy and fighting for NFL disability claims. Barzilauskas returned to Indiana after his NFL career ended, becoming president of the Indiana chapter of the NFL Players’ Association while owning a pair of orthopedic physical therapy practices for more than 20 years in Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Barzilauskas joked he became president of the Indiana NFLPA because “no one wanted to do the work.” It was a position he held until five years ago, when a health scare forced him to retire. He organized golf outings and other fundraisers, while making progress in getting the league to recognize and compensate former players for injuries incurred on the gridiron.
It wasn’t always easy. Barzilauskas remembered a two-year stretch when his calls to NFL headquarters in New York went unanswered but said this month the league made progress in increasing pension and medical care benefits for worn out or catastrophic injuries.
“Doing some of the stuff on the head (injuries), it is nowhere near what they say it is,” Barzilauskas said. “You’ve got to be completely disabled in the brain before you get any kind of help, and there’s a lot of guys that fall in the middle there, that don’t have the money to be in a facility, and they are not well enough to be out there by themselves.”
Coming to IU, it turned out, helped forge Barzilauskas’ NFL career. A Waterbury, Conn., native, Barzilauskas spent a postgraduate year at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, and was referred to IU by an uncle who was close friends with then-IU football coach John Pont.
Pont led the Hoosiers to the Rose Bowl in 1968 and convinced the 6-foot-6, 271-pound Barzilauskas to pack up his 1964 Buick and head west.
“The program was still humming,” Barzilauskas said.
But IU went just 11-32 when Barzilauskas played from 1970-73. Pont was replaced by Lee Corso in his final season. Still, Barzilauskas made enough of an impression on the field to generate interest from NFL teams.
“Getting your butt kicked? Yeah, that happened some, but it kind of went away after a while,” Barzilauskas said. “My position coach Bob Hicks, who was really good, he helped me a lot, and I got my speed up pretty well, and things kind of carried on.”
On the day of the NFL draft in 1974, Barzilauskas had a handful of coaches and representatives from NFL teams in his apartment on South Walnut Street. One even cooked breakfast for him. But when Jets coach Weeb Ewbank called to tell him he was the sixth overall pick, the crowd inside his apartment quickly dispersed.
Barzilauskas was named NFL rookie defensive lineman of the year in his first pro season, and the Jets finished 7-7. But when Ewbank left the Jets after the 1974 season, Barzilauskas said things started to unravel. The Jets had five different coaches the next three seasons. Barzilauskas played under former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who coached the Jets in 1976. Holtz nearly quit twice before resigning for good 13 games into the season with a 3-10 record.
“Every year was a different head coach, a different line coach who had a whole different scheme,” Barzilauskas said. “One year we had a guy, I won’t mention his name, but he asked us to what to do.”
Barzilauskas said one of the highlights of his time with the Jets was being teammates with Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath.
“He was a real quiet, nice guy,” Barzilauskas said. “He was so well known people would send him peaches and cookies and stuff, and there was always stuff he would bring in for us to eat.”
Green Bay, Barzilauskas said, provided a similar atmosphere, with fans bringing food to players after practice. As a single father at the time, Barzilauskas said the covered dishes came in handy. His NFL career ended with one interception, five fumble recoveries, no sacks and no regrets.
Barzilauskas, who turned 69 last March, still lives outside Bloomington near Nashville. He follows the Hoosiers, but stopped going to games at Memorial Stadium five years ago after a bout with sepsis.
“I was pretty close to biting the bullet,” Barzilauskas said. “That slowed me down a lot.”
Barzilauskas is surprised he remains the highest-drafted Hoosier since 1974. Five Hoosiers have been taken in the first round of the NFL draft since Barzilauskas, with the highest pick being offensive tackle Kevin Allen, who went ninth overall to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985.
But Barzilauskas said it’s just a matter of time before an IU player gets taken within the first five picks.
“They are getting closer,” Barzilauskas said. “Indiana, I think their recruiting has increased by the quality of coaching here. Because I think there’s more kids around, programs have increased in size and speed. …
“When I was playing here, there wasn’t really any high school football in Indiana that was really good, and there was a very small amount of people that came out of here. That’s changed.”