Shortly after quarterbacking his high school football team to a state championship game, the chances to play in college came into focus.
Yes, NCAA Division I programs had sent letters but extended no official offers other than to ask if being a walk-on piqued his interest. But an NCAA Division II school in Warrensburg kept pressing and, ultimately, seemed like the best fit.
Was it ever. Eric Czerniewski (pronounced Sir-nah-ski) became a star for the University of Central Missouri, putting together a career that eventually led to the Harlon Hill Award – the Heisman Trophy of D-II – and finished with the fourth-most passing yards in D-II history, with a whopping 12,800-plus yards.
Which is why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Czerniewski with the Class of 2020.
In fact, counting his high school career, Czerniewski threw for a combined 24,405 yards.
“I had two or three offers from (D-I) schools to walk on but there were no official offers,” said Czerniewski, who had led Montgomery County High School to a Class 2 state runner-up finish in 2005. “I thought (UCM) was a better opportunity and a chance to have success than any other school.”
In 2010, when he won the Harlon Hill, Czerniewski set D-II records with 5,207 yards passing, a nation-leading 46 TD passes and total offense (5,203). He was voted a First Team D-II All-American by every publication in addition to being named the National, Regional and MIAA Offensive Player of the Year.
He also set 20 UCM records. That came as he threw for more than 300 yards 10 times as a senior, a season that also led to selection to the Cactus Bowl Division II All-Star Game — he was named MVP – and the Vernon Kennedy Award as UCM’s Top Male Student-Athlete.
In essence, UCM’s new coach, Jim Svoboda, opened up the playbook after the Mules’ offense was a balanced attack of run and pass. His tenure followed assistant roles at Northwest Missouri State, UCLA and Montana State.
“He came in and allowed me to do some things to mold my game,” said Czerniewski, who had been recruited and coached by Willie Fritz, now at Tulane University. “One of the biggest things was he designed plays to get the ball out quickly and get the ball to our playmakers.”
UCM players such as Anthony Stewart, JaMorris Warren, Taylor Dyer, Reid Allison and tight end DeMarco Cosby helped Czerniewski settle in as the Mules won two playoff games to reach the national quarterfinals that season, finishing 11-3.
It marked UCM’s second ever NCAA playoff appearance, first home playoff game and first playoff victory in school history.
In Week 2, UCM nearly upset Illinois State of the Football Championship Series – one level above D-II – before falling 55-54. The Mules went on to finish second (8-1 record) in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, having beaten Pittsburg State and No. 17 Missouri Western. In the regular-season finale, they lost only 17-16 to No. 3-ranked Northwest Missouri State.
“Offenses were changing all across the MIAA and all levels,” said Czerniewski, whose prior years of studying MIAA defenses made him ready for the moment. “A lot of the game became more mental than physical. Guys who are recruited (in the MIAA), they are already physical.”
Czerniewski was a three-year starter at Montgomery County, where quarterbacks coach Skip Stitzell played an important role. He finished his career as the state’s all-time leader in pass attempts (1,236), completions (775), yards (11,557) and touchdowns (140).
“He helped me clean up my footwork,” Czerniewski said. “I played baseball and he changed my arm angle, too.”
Those Montgomery County teams had a no-huddle, run-and-gun offense. In his senior year, he led the team on the go-ahead TD drive that ultimately helped beat Blair Oaks in the first round of the playoffs. Blair Oaks had ousted Montgomery County each of the previous three seasons in the first round.
Looking back, Czerniewski thanks many for his success: his wife and high school sweetheart, Danielle, and their sons, Emmitt and Maveric; as well as parents and family who have supported him endlessly through his football career and in everyday life, plus friends who never missed an opportunity to cheer him on.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind for sure,” Czerniewski said. “It’s hard to believe a kid from a small town can be recruited to play college football and go on to win an award like the Harlon Hill. Sometimes it’s surreal to think about.”