BROCKTON, Mass. -- Clifford Lechtur takes a front row in the home bleachers at Xaverian High’s Hawk Bowl to watch his beloved Brockton Boxers in their annual scrimmage with St. John’s of Shrewsbury, on this Saturday morning that is beginning to darken as Hurricane Irene makes its way up the Atlantic Coast.
The kid he’s here to watch today, 18-year-old quarterback Paul Mroz, just might be the best-kept secret in New England, and he’s putting on a show to kick things off. He hits a wideout perfectly in stride 40 yards down the right sideline on the very first play from scrimmage, setting up a rushing score one play later. On the second play of the Boxers’ next offensive series, he takes off down the left sideline unscathed, slips outside of a vicious crackback block, and races 70 yards to paydirt.
Four plays, two scores, all in the time it takes to change the oil on one’s car.
He is as nimble on his feet, with borderline-4.5 speed, as he is strong with his arm despite his skinny 6-foot-1 frame. Those high-arching fades and darts in tight space account for just three incompletions in four offensive series.
Lechtur -- family friend of Mroz’s mother, and the kid’s mentor from age three on -- is watching something special unfold, and it’s putting a sheepish grin on his face. All those car rides, money loans and life lessons just might be coming full circle.
“It’s a good story. I think at some point in his life, he coulda gone the other way,” he says.
So what, then, kept this kid from going the other way?
Lechtur takes a long pause.
Ten, fifteen seconds.
‘I was stupid, really dumb’
Lechtur finally responds softly, “He’s basically a good person. A lot of encouragement from myself and his brother.”
So what, then, would that other way have been?
“Well, he has some friends who he went to junior high with,” Lechtur starts before pausing to clear his throat. “They were good friends, they played AAU basketball together, I used to drive them to their games at the time. A couple of those kids, even though they were good kids, they used to get themselves in trouble, and a couple of them landed in jail ... As far as I know, two of his best buddies went to jail for some time.”
And that’s your starter kit for this story.
Most of it, as Mroz explained over lunch with ESPNBoston.com a few weeks ago, just simply takes too long.
“I’ve got issues, I can go on for days about what happened to me in the projects,” he chuckled.
“You used to go outside, and gun shots were right near you,” he continued. “It was pretty bad, but it’s a lot better now.”
Mroz has grown up in Brockton’s Crescent Street condominiums -- or as he calls it, the “East Side Projects” -- and found himself constantly quarreling with the neighborhood kids, a few times getting into trouble with the law “for dumb things” (he’ll leave it at that). It was enough that he ended up taking boxing lessons at the popular Cappiello Brothers Boxing facility for two months during the seventh grade, to learn how to fight.
To this day, Mroz is prone to spontaneously start dancing the way a boxer does around the ring, mimicking the footwork he’s studied on many a grainy YouTube highlight of Brockton’s most famous son, Rocky Marciano. That means he could be doing it in the middle of the night in his living room, with no lights or music, or outside on the pavement with his friends, mid-sentence.
More importantly, like many of the other sports he dabbled in growing up, Mroz said “anything I could do I was into, because it was boring in the projects and I was trying to get the hell outta there.”
Football became his first love, and he first picked up shoulder pads at 10 years old, playing quarterback in the city’s Midget League under the tutelage of his brother, former Weymouth North star running back Rick Mroz. After the Boxers’ last Division 1 Super Bowl victory in 2005, won at their home venue Rocky Marciano Stadium, little Paul snuck into the locker room and began celebrating with strangers.
But Paul also had other things going on. He had a bad attitude, hair down almost to his waist, and hated school.
When Howie Long was in high school in his native Charlestown, aimlessly wandering around the streets, he once went 45 consecutive days without showing up to a class (Hence the subsequent transfer to suburban Milford High). During his freshman and sophomore years at Brockton High, Mroz was probably the next lowest denominator.
At his worst, Mroz would show up for a day “and then miss a couple weeks”, popping his head into the building “usually just to see friends”. The rest of the time was spent at home taking care of his mother and his sister’s infant child, or out by the basketball courts across the street, or at the dirty pond nearby, trying to catch turtles with his bare hands, fetching sunfish using a wire and a hook attached to a stick.
It was enough for law enforcement to show up at his front door from time to time, with the threat of lockup for his repeated truancy issues.
“I didn’t care about school, it was really bad. I was stupid, really dumb,” he said. “And I knew in my head that, how am I gonna stay on the freshman team if I can’t keep my schoolwork up? But I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why. It was like a disability for me, or something, I dunno.
“Just couldn’t do it, for whatever reason. Sent to the office every day, ‘You’re being disruptive’, stuff like that. It was really bad.”
Embracing this opportunity
Even today, Brockton head coach Peter Colombo marvels of Mroz, “Frankly, I never thought he’d play. I knew he had problems at home, difficulties, and just figured the odds were too great.”
On the verge of heading down that dreaded path Lechtur alluded to, and unable to cope with the schoolwork at Brockton High, Mroz transferred to Champion School, a charter school across the city where he would receive more one-on-one attention on lesson plans, and would then have to present what he learned to a panel of teachers and guests.
With specialized guidance, Mroz found interest in subjects he used to loathe. Problem was, the school was not yet part of the Brockton public schools system, and therefore he was relegated to the upper rows of the bleachers, long hair and all, watching the game he loved from what might as well have been an eternity away.
When Champion was integrated into the public school system for the 2009-10 school year, allowing him to join Brockton High’s athletic squads, Mroz saw a second chance. And then, after a long talk with Rick, Paul hopped in his brother’s Jeep with two buddies, took a ride down to the local Supercuts and chopped off all his hair.
“I thought he would chicken out, to be honest with you,” Rick cracked.
It wasn’t until Thanksgiving that Mroz found his way into varsity action. But during last summer’s preseason, Mroz won the starting job despite his lack of experience, and in the first game of the season made his presence felt immediately, throwing for 183 yards and two scores -- including a 53-yard strike to current Boston College freshman cornerback Albert Louis-Jean -- in a 16-6 win over rival BC High.
From there things only blossomed. He guided the Boxers to an 8-3 record as he threw for 1,322 yards and 12 scores, adding eight more touchdowns on the ground.
Still, Mroz was going to need a hardship waiver from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, since he is technically going into his fifth year of high school. Mroz is currently scheduled to graduate from Champion in January.
There are several elements to a waiver application, but often the dealbreaker on granting these things can come down to the student-athlete’s personal essay. Mroz made sure to pour his heart out in writing, unveiling his past troubles with full transparency, and explaining how sports have re-shaped a life once thought to be destined for danger.
Early last month, Mroz came home from a workout with an urgent message from his mother to call Colombo back. The coach gave him the news that his waiver had been granted, and Mroz pretty much lost his mind.
And then Colombo peered out his window. “I looked up over the East side of Brockton to see if he was in orbit,” he laughed.
Mroz got his waiver granted on his first attempt, which to some was a surprise based on history with these requests.
“I know how much he wanted it, and he deserved it, and I commend the MIAA for doing the right thing,” Colombo said. “Waivers are created to help people change their lives, and give people opportunities, and he just deserved it.”
Of his waiver, Mroz said, “I can’t thank the MIAA enough, because they just helped me out a lot in my life. This is a huge year for me. Now I know what to do, I know how to be a leader, the guys respect me that much more on the team, and around Brockton. I love Brockton.”
As always, Mroz wears his heart on his sleeve, and the newfound bounce in his step has been significant. During a photo shoot with ESPNBoston.com the morning before the first day of MIAA-sanctioned practices, Mroz was heard barking orders at his fellow seniors to pay attention and follow the photographer’s orders, even politely apologizing in private on behalf of the group afterwards.
Outside Brockton’s circles, coaches are told of Mroz’s reversal of fortune and often remark about his good nature. It’s a respect well-earned.
“In the city of Brockton, there’s other decisions that have ended a lot of careers, nothing to do with [football],” Colombo said. “You know, you’re out there in the streets, doing things you shouldn’t do. He’s all about football, really, 24 hours a day. The kid just loves to play football, and that’s why his life has changed.”
Raw talent still needs polish
Mroz is the first to admit last year was all about winging it.
That I-have-arrived strike to Louis-Jean in the first week of last season? Winging it.
In Week 9, with five seconds left and down five to highly touted Catholic Memorial, Mroz said a prayer in the huddle, called up four vertical routes, and heaved up a 41-yard Hail Mary strike to Lucas Depina for the thrilling win. That, too, was winging it.
And so, too, was the following week’s gut-wrenching loss to rival New Bedford, statistically one of Mroz’s worst outings, one that eventually gave the Big 3 title to the Whalers and sent the Boxers home with no playoff berth for the first time since 2001. Mroz recalled dropping to the turf and “bawling my eyes out”, adding, “win or lose, it’s the quarterback’s fault”.
Mroz admits he is still fairly new to the mental aspect, an element so crucial to the quarterback position. In the last month, since returning from the National Underclassmen Combine in Oklahoma, he has been getting pro bono lessons from former UConn quarterback and Arena League vet Shane Stafford on reading defenses, getting rides from Lechtur down to Stafford’s house in Connecticut for study sessions.
For all of the promise shown in that first scrimmage last Saturday, Mroz is still a raw prospect. But with his athletic ability, the ceiling is undisputedly high.
Last spring, Mroz took home the Division 1 state championship in the javelin with a throw of 169-8, just a year after first picking it up.
Last June, he showed up at the inaugural New England Nike SPARQ Combine in Waltham, and drew praise from ESPN recruiting analysts. Senior analyst Billy Tucker wrote in his recap, “Mroz had the best all-around day at the quarterback position. He demonstrated a very natural throwing motion, good arm strength and very polished footwork.”
A month later, Mroz took the trek out to the NUC Camp with Lechtur and was one of six out of 500 talented campers to receive an award. This one was for leadership: “He could end up getting some late D-I offers, if not he would make a very good FCS quarterback ... He came across as being very polished while having good leadership.”
Colombo won’t go so far as to make a comparison to former Brockton great Mark Hartsell, who went on to star at Boston College and had cups of coffee in the late '90s with the Bears and Redskins. But the potential might be there.
“He’s not Mark Hartsell, who stood in the pocket and threw rockets, although his arm strength is very, very good,” Colombo said.
Mroz took an unofficial visit to UConn over the summer, and attended both the Huskies’ as well as Boston College’s camps. He said the Huskies are showing the most interest right now.
But his route to college ball is still up in the air. Officials at Champion are awaiting a verdict from the NCAA on whether the core courses there will be recognized as such courses as required for eligibility. Current NCAA requirements call for passing grades in 16 identified core courses for Division I, and 14 for Division II; new legislation passed last year calls for a student-athlete’s grade point average to be frozen after eight semesters, with the exception of core courses.
Mroz is set to graduate in January, and accepts that junior college may be a route. But as much as he’d enjoy reuniting with former teammate and defensive tackle William Carruthers out at Ventura (Calif.) College, he says “If I don’t have to do that, I don’t want to.”
You get the feeling, though, that wherever his future takes him, he’ll find a way to the top. Because, after all, he’s a fighter at heart.
“I’ll tell you though, sometimes I felt like giving up, not gonna lie,” Mroz said. “Coaches, I didn’t feel like they wanted me to play. They weren’t even looking at me, it felt like, didn’t even know I existed. Wasn’t even there, I’ll tell you that much.
“Sometimes, something happens and you just feel really down, and you’re like, ‘Ah! I give up on everything!’ That happens to me a couple times too, just like anyone else. But I never let it happen.”