By David Fong
TROY — Within the Troy High School football team’s locker room, a trio of bronze plaques featuring the chiseled visages of epic legends from the Trojans’ past stand sentry, a constant reminder of the accomplishments and accolades of former college All-Americans Tommy Myers, Tommy Vaughn and Bob Ferguson.
For years, Troy High School junior Hayden Kotwica would walk past those plaques, perhaps stopping to give an occasional glance, but never giving much thought to any of them — not even that of former Northwestern University All-American and Detroit Lion Myers, the man who once played quarterback at Troy, the same position Kotwica now plays.
“I really didn’t know that much about him,” Kotwica said. “I just saw the plaque he had in the (Trojan) Alumni Victory Room.”
Little did Kotwica know, but both the plaque and the man who inspired its creation were watching over his shoulder all season — both literally and figuratively — as he broke some of the school records Myers set during his playing days at Troy.
While the Trojans struggled to a 2-8 record as a team this past season, Kotwica had a season for the ages, tying or breaking three of Myers’ records — passing touchdowns in a game, passing yards in a game and passing yards in a single season.
Those records are particularly significant considering Myers set them in 1960 — more than half a century ago. With the passage of time — and Troy’s reliance on a run-based offense that produced record-setting running backs for decades — many historians began to think Myers’ records would never be broken.
“I never gave it much thought for the first 25 years — but I guess after that, I was a little surprised the records were still around,” Myers said in a telephone interview from a putting green in North Carolina, where he now lives following his retirement both from the NFL and as an airline pilot. “When I would go home and see I still had the records, I would always wonder what was going on. The players are bigger, better and faster than when I played and the game has changed so much … but my records sort of hung around.”
Myers’ stranglehold on the record books finally came to an end this season as Kotwica tied his record for touchdown passes in a game with five against Xenia (something Myers did four times in his career), passing yards in a game with 431 against Butler (Myers threw for 376 against Belmont) and the most revered one of all, passing yards in a season with 2,125 (Myers threw for 2,009 in 1960).
Kotwica also broke the school record for the longest pass with a 97-yard touchdown strike to Hayden Jackson, breaking the record set by Tom Calloway and Richard Vorpe (94 yards vs. Piqua) set in 1963.
So long had Myers held onto the records — and perhaps so little talked about because many assumed they would never be broken — that the player chasing them wasn’t even sure what the records were, who once held them or that he was even close to breaking them.
“I had no clue what the records were,” Kotwica said. “I didn’t even know I was close until I read an article you had written saying I was close.”
Kotwica was able to make a run at the records, in part, because of a new offensive philosophy put in place by first-year head coach Matt Burgbacher and offensive coordinator Jason McGaharan. After decades of ground-churning offenses at Troy, the new coaching staff opened up the playbook, allowing Kotwica to throw the ball 288 times this season — nearly 30 times per game.
“Going into the season, it never crossed my mind that we’d throw the ball as much as we did,” Burgbacher said. “We knew that in the Greater Western Ohio Conference, you have to be able to run the ball — you can’t be one-dimensional. And we knew that in 2015, kids like to throw the ball. But we never thought we’d end up throwing the ball as much as we did.
“But as we got closer to the the start of the season, we realized that with the personnel we had, we would be better suited throwing the ball more often. We decided we had better adapt the offense to the kids we had rather than trying to adapt the kids to the offense we had.”
That started with Kotwica, but also included a relatively small offensive line more suited to a passing attack than a power running game and a fleet of talented receivers. Kotwica had a number of options to throw to, as three different receivers had 300 or more receiving yards.
Senior Luke Robinson caught 43 passes for 671 yards, the second-highest single-season receiving total in school history (Vaughn, an All-American at Iowa State, had 703 receiving yards in 1959).
“I had great receivers to throw to and the line did a great job blocking for me,” Kotwica said. “But I don’t think I ever expected us to throw as much as we did. Things just kind of took off after the first game. Troy has always been kind of a running team, but the concepts Coach McGaharan put in really opened things up. It was pretty sweet to see happen. It was like playing backyard football.”
Like Kotwica, Myers also benefited from a coach who was willing to throw the ball in legendary coach Lou Juillerat and a fleet of talented receivers, led by Vaughn, with whom Myers would be reunited in the NFL while playing for the Lions.
“Back in my day, we used the shotgun, which was almost unheard of at the time,” Myers said. “I don’t think there were any pro or college teams using the shotgun when we were. My sophomore year, a lot of teams were still running the single-wing offense. Coach Juillerat was way ahead of his time. I got to play in a wide-open offense.”
As good as Kotwica was this season, both he and Burgbacher agree there’s still room for improvement. Burgbacher said he’d like to see Kotwica improve on his completion percentage — he completed 150 of 288 passes this season (52 percent) — and also said he’d like to see the team run the ball more successfully next season.
Burgbacher was hired last winter, meaning Kotwica has yet to have a full year in the system. While he’s come a long way, Kotwica is the first to admit he still has a lot to learn and will benefit from having a full off-season to grow.
“I learned so much this year,” he said. “I really learned how to read defenses this year. I’ve still got a lot of room to improve, though. I want to be better next year and do whatever I can to help the team.”
His biggest fan will be Myers, who was thrilled to see someone finally start breaking some of his long-standing school records.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Myers said. “That’s what records are for, right? They are there to be broken. When I heard Troy had a quarterback that was on a tear this season and might break some of my records, I had hoped I would be able to get back to some games and watch him play. I would have loved to have been there to see him break my record. I still hope to get back from some games next year to watch him play.”
Even if Myers can’t get back next season to see Kotwica in person, the plaque that bears his name and likeness will forever be in the Trojan locker room, watching Kotwica’s race for the records.
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong