There’s book smart, and there’s football smart.
Some guys are one. Some guys are the other.
Joe Bonczek is both.
Just not at the same time.
“I’ve always been taught football is a different animal,” Bonczek said during a break in a recent St. Augustine practice. “Once you step on the field, it’s a whole different mindset.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bonczek is a rare mix of big-time brains and big-time brawn. He’s a 4.0 student who earns a “B” in a test about as often as he misses a tackle. He’s a Princeton recruit who made 119 tackles last season, including 15 for losses.
“He’s just one of those kids who does everything right on the field, off the field,” St. Augustine coach Pete Lancetta said of Bonczek.
St. Augustine will enter the season as the No. 2 team in the Inquirer Top 25. The Hermits were 5-5 in 2017, when they played a demanding schedule under difficult circumstances.
Lancetta was hired in late May 2017 after former head coach Mark Reardon and his top assistant, Charlie Roman, resigned earlier that month. Soon afterward, top players such as quarterback Josh Zamot and running back Kyle Dobbins transferred to other schools.
“Last year was tough,” Bonczek said. “It was an adjustment for everybody with all the changes that happened.
“This year, we’re all settled down. We’ve had a whole school year with Coach [Lancetta], hanging out downstairs, working out.
“We’ve all bought into his system. Everybody has bought into his team. There’s a lot more teamwork. Last year, it was an adjustment just getting used to everything. We’ve all learned Coach Pete’s philosophy, and he feels more comfortable with us, too.”
St. Augustine junior tight end/defensive end Isaiah Raikes, who has scholarship offers from Baylor, Rutgers, Temple, Duke and Wake Forest, among others, regards Bonczek as an “ideal leader” for the Hermits.
“Everyone respects him,” Raikes said.
Bonczek, who lives in Northfield, said there are times when his excellence in the classroom contributes to his success on the football field.
“In a sense, the classroom can help on the field,” Bonczek said. “Film study is the thing. A bunch of film study. I try to do so much film study that I read plays and call them out before it happens.
“My role model is [Carolina Panthers linebacker] Luke Kuechly and seeing him call out plays before they even happen. That’s kind of what I want to be able to do.”
Bonczek, who was a starting outfielder for St. Augustine’s Non-Public A state championship baseball team in the spring, plans to major in biology at Princeton, with an eye toward entering the medical field. He’s projected as an inside linebacker for the Tigers.
“Princeton, that’s where my heart is and that’s where my home is,” Bonczek said. “It’s just a great family feel. They welcomed me with open arms. I truly could see myself going there.”
Despite his excellence in the classroom and future as an Ivy League student with plans on becoming a doctor, Bonczek says he’s a different guy when he puts on the pads and steps on the field.
If he had a theme song, it might be Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”
“I’ve always been taught, you can’t be nice on the football field,” Bonczek said. “So many people who have influenced me — Coach Reardon, Coach Roman, now Coach Pete and mentors I’ve had like [former teammates] Jim Brady, Quinn Dolan, Dean Kolonich — they always taught me that football is a different animal. You can’t be nice. You have to be a different person.
“Step off, you can be the nicest guy in the world. That’s what you should do.
“When on the field, you’ve got to be tough. Once you’re off the field, make friends.”
South Jersey linebackers to watch
Tirek Austin-Cave, Camden junior: He’s a transfer from Camden Catholic who has a Rutgers offer.
Joe Bonczek, St. Augustine senior: He’s a Princeton recruit who made 119 tackles last season.
Azim Baker-Coley, Holy Spirit senior: He’s the heavy-hitting heart of the Spartans’ defense.
T.J. Franden, Eastern senior: He’s a three-year starter for the Vikings.
Keison Fowler, Delsea senior: He made 100 tackles last season for the South Jersey Group 3 champions.
Dante Gazzola, Cherry Hill East senior: He was a first-team, all-National Division player.
Clarence Henderson, Timber Creek senior: He was a first-team, all-National Division player.
Jamar Holbrook, Millville senior: He’s the leader of the Thunderbolts’ defense.
Gabe Klaus, Haddonfield senior: He was a first-team all-South Jersey selection last season for the South Jersey Group 2 champions.
Anthony Morina, Paulsboro senior: He made 130 tackles last season for the South Jersey Group 1 champions.
Jake Paratore, West Deptford senior: He made 86 tackles last season for the South Jersey Group 2 finalists.
Josh Pearcy, Moorestown senior: He was a first-team, all-Royal Division player.
Mohamed Toure, Pleasantville senior: He’s one of the top recruits in the class of 2019.
Jon Searcy, Shawnee senior: He is a rangy OLB who has offers from Bucknell and Colgate.
Makhi Scott, Penns Grove junior: He made 163 tackles last season.
Jay Wright, Delsea junior: He led the team with 101 tackles last season.
Angelos Vokolos, St. Joseph sophomore: He’s out until midseason if not longer with a dislocated ankle, but his return would be a big boost for the Wildcats heading into the playoffs.