Philadelphia Eagles’ Stefen Wisniewski brings football family to cusp of its 1st Super Bowl
Philadelphia Eagles left guard and former Penn State lineman Stefen Wisniewski (center) poses with his dad, Leo (left), and uncle Steve (right). All three played at Penn State and in the NFL. (Photo courtesy of the Wisniewski family)
Leo Wisniewski assumes it happened more than six decades ago, shortly after his dad joined the Army. That’s when football first seeped into his family.
As Leo tells it, Jim Wisniewski learned the game while preparing to fight in the Korean War. He adored the discipline and physicality it required and passed the sport down to his three sons. Two, including Leo, starred at Penn State and played in the NFL. Football soon intertwined with a firm Christian faith to craft the fabric that bound the Wisniewskis.
This brings us to the starting left guard for the Philadelphia Eagles, Leo’s son and a football man in the truest sense. A player whose grit and grimace and giant shoulders reflect an upbringing rooted in the sport.
Stefen Wisniewski faces an opportunity Sunday to accomplish the one goal that has eluded a family decorated with All-America honors and All-pro awards. He has a chance to end 65 years of climbing. Should his Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in South Philly, he’ll become the first Wisniewski to clinch a spot in a Super Bowl.
“It would be cool to make the Super Bowl for a lot of reasons,” Stefen said, “but it’d be really cool to be the first one in my family to do it.”
Stefen knows the significance that would carry. He knows his father never helped the Colts wiggle free from their struggles in the 1980s. And he knows his uncle, Steve Wisniewski, enjoyed a decorated 13-year NFL career that ended in the most heartbreaking fashion: His Oakland Raiders lost in the playoffs to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the controversial Tuck Rule Game on a snowy night in January 2002.
Stefen knows his uncle retired after that; he knows the sting of faltering on the cusp of a championship can linger for years.
He knows what’s at stake Sunday and how long he’s worked for the moment. He knows that a family with a love for football launched him to this point — and he knows what it would mean if he could pull the other Wisniewskis up to the sport’s grandest stage.
Steve Wisniewski (76), Stefen’s uncle, made eight Pro Bowls in 13 NFL seasons. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
‘THE WHOLE FAMILY’
Steve Wisniewski’s football story begins in State College. He said he was around 9 when he tagged along for Leo’s recruiting trip to Penn State in the 1970s and met coach Joe Paterno.
“He put a Nittany Lions hat on my head and said, ‘Kid, we’re going to be recruiting you someday,'” Steve recalled this week.
Right then, Steve was hooked. Football had already been a part of his life growing up in Pittsburgh. While in the military, Jim Wisniewski crossed paths with Weeb Ewbank and learned football from a famously understated coach who went on to take Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath to NFL championships, Leo said.
Jim was hands on when teaching the game to his sons, Vince, Leo and Steve — the youngest by about 7 years. All three were good players, Leo said, and Steve’s development soared when the family moved to Texas, offering the little brother a chance to play against heightened competition in massive high school stadiums.
Leo played defensive tackle for the Colts for three years after a stellar career in State College. Steve followed his path to Penn State, just as Stefen did two decades later.
“That’s one of the cool things is that it’s not just that we all went to Penn State,” Steve said. “All of our wives also went to Penn State, and Stef’s sister, Sarah, went to Penn State. The football aspect of it involves the whole family.”
Stefen Wisniewski poses on Halloween with his sister, Sarah. They both went to Penn State. (Photo courtesy of the Wisniewski family)
That type of atmosphere, Stefen said, led to his own rise as a player. When he was young and Steve was routinely making Pro Bowls as an offensive guard for the Raiders (he earned eight nods from 1990 to 2000), Stefen’s family tried to see his uncle play in person at least once a year.
They’d drive to a Raiders away game somewhere near Pittsburgh or make an occasional trip to Oakland.
Stefen couldn’t get enough of the game. He said his football dreams crystallized after attending the Raiders’ 27-0 win over the Dolphins in the 2000 NFL playoffs.
“I remember being in the locker room,” Stefen said. “I was a little kid; that was really cool. So I always grew up thinking being in the NFL was the coolest thing in the world.”
Stefen became obsessed with the sport, like his uncle did after Paterno’s gesture and his grandfather did before the war. He’d watch college football for hours with his dad on Saturday, and at the end of the night, he’d begin dissecting the next day’s NFL games.
“When I wasn’t around, he was always calling my wife Cindy into the room — ‘Hey, you gotta see this catch, Mom. You gotta see this or that.'” Leo said. “We joked about that. Football was nonstop for him.”
It still is.
‘A HUGE ADVANTAGE’
Leo Wisniewski said he was careful never to push Stefen toward football. It’s clear he loved the game, though, and unlike many kids, Stefen was happy to play on the line when he first joined Pittsburgh-area youth leagues around age 9.
“He knew his dad was a defensive lineman and his uncle was an offensive lineman, and that sort of role suited him fine,” Leo said.
Stefen studied hard and practiced endlessly. He yearned to emerge as a top-tier player. It just took some time, his dad said, because Stefen began his football career as an undersized lineman, and his only varsity appearances as a freshman came after he developed one specific skill: long snapping.
Then a growth spurt arrived. Stefen grew four inches and gained about 55 pounds – going from 175 to 230 — before his sophomore year of high school, according to Leo.
After that, Stefen landed a starting spot on the line at powerhouse Pittsburgh Central Catholic. When he combined appealing size with his background in football, sound technique and intelligence, Stefen rocketed up recruiting rankings.
He said he owes those achievements to his dad and his uncle. Other youth players didn’t have the advantage of learning football from seasoned professionals.
“I went to high school and was already doing NFL technique drills,” Stefen said. “It was a huge advantage my whole life. And it’s not just football-specific drills. It’s learning how to train, learning how to weight lift, learning how to eat. These are things that some people don’t even think about until they’re 20 or even 25, and I had it when I was 16.”
That, Stefen said, explains how he developed into an All-American at Penn State, entered the NFL as a second-round pick in 2011 and, eventually, arrived at the doorstep of a Super Bowl.
Philadelphia Eagles guard Stefen Wisniewski (61) prepares to block Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins (96) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
The NFL paths of two Wisniewskis crossed for one season. Stefen’s rookie year with the Raiders was Steve’s lone season as Oakland’s offensive line coach.
Both said they enjoyed working together, as Steve turned the off-hand tips he gave his nephew for years into official coaching points. Stefen had similar habits to Steve, the eight-time Pro Bowler explained, but they were their own players.
Steve said he used to pour over notes and schemes the morning of a game during his playing days, and Stefen did the same thing. The difference? Steve said he’d do it dressed in full uniform, while his nephew wore shorts and a t-shirt.
“And as the coach, that would kind of get me nervous, because I’m the guy who has to have them out on the field on time,” Steve said. “That goes to show you, that we are a family, and we are individuals with our own careers.”
Stefen’s career took more twists and turns than Steve’s or Leo’s. After four years in Oakland playing center and guard, he spent one in Jacksonville and moved again to Philadelphia to sign with the Eagles before the 2016 season. He started six games for the Birds that year but was mostly a reserve player.
He didn’t open 2017 with a starting job either. That irked Stefen. He repeated in interview after interview he believed he was good enough to play a major role for an NFL team.
Through that, though, teammates and coaches said they never noticed Stefen’s workout regimen or study routine waver. The 6-foot-3, 310-pound interior lineman with a brown goatee and burly chest leaned on his Christian faith and passion for the sport to stay grounded.
“He’s just one of the most consistent football guys I’ve been around,” All-pro center Jason Kelce said.
.@Eagles #TheWIZ gets 3 for 1 on the [?] biggest play of the day. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/UsNELVTGNI
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) January 14, 2018
When Stefen finally claimed the left guard spot for good in October, the Eagles’ offense ascended. More holes materialized in the running game and pass rushers had a difficult time getting to quarterback Carson Wentz.
Kelce said Stefen’s intelligence and steadiness propelled the offensive line and helped the unit pull together after losing Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters. In meetings, Kelce said he and Stefen often work with position coach Jeff Stoutland to nail down game plans.
And on days the offensive line spends time together away from the facility at movies or dinner, right guard Brandon Brooks said Kelce and Wisniewski will talk for hours about schemes and formations while others are goofing around.
In last weekend’s divisional round win of the Falcons, Stefen earned kudos for his athleticism — not just his smarts — when he bulldozed three defenders to pave the way for Jay Ajayi’s 32-yard gain on a screen pass.
Now, Stefen and his team sit one win away from the Super Bowl, from the apex of a sport that’s much so much to the Wisniewski family.
The opportunity has led Leo and Steve to reflect on their pasts and allowed Stefen to ponder how the people around him lifted him toward his wildest aspirations. But all three men offered the same response after listening to a question about the Super Bowl.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Leo said. “The Vikings are a great football team, and you have to take things week to week.”
That’s a football answer. And this is a football family through and through. One that sits a victory away from an accomplishment 65 years in the making.
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