NEENAH — St. Mary Central head football coach Jeff Brightwell sees a different mindset in the team’s players this season, and he believes an addition to the coaching staff has helped fuel the change.
Ryan Sawlsville is serving as an assistant coach for the Zephyrs. In June of 2013, Sawlsville, now 25, was featured on the ABC television show “Extreme Weight Loss.” The show chronicled his yearlong journey to lose more than 200 pounds. Sawlsville’s weight had climbed to 410 pounds due in part to the effects of a 2009 automobile accident in which he lost his left arm.
“In the (Milwaukee) Washington game (27-26 victory), we came back multiple times,” said Brightwell, now in his fourth year at SMC. “Since day one, my purpose as a coach has been trying to change the football culture here. I love football. I’ve coached for almost 25 years. We are trying to build a winning culture. We played a tough game against Algoma (35-8 defeat). They beat us, but they didn’t beat us emotionally. We battled. We stood toe-to-toe and fought. We scored our touchdown with less than a minute left and they still had starters on the field.
“It goes hand-in-hand with Ryan’s message,” he added. “You keep fighting through adversity. These kids are doing it. I love the game and want to compete, but you are going to have things a lot bigger in life where you are going to need that perseverance.”
Sawlsville played football in middle and high school. He attended St. Mary Central (Neenah) prior to graduating from Appleton West. His previous coaching experience includes assisting his father, Robin, at Seton Catholic Middle School in Menasha. Sawlsville coached the current SMC sophomore class when they were eighth graders.
“Knowing the kids beforehand was definitely a big motivation for me to come back, being able to see them grow,” he said. “I had coached some of the juniors as well. I welcome the opportunity to impact their lives more than just football. I try to be a positive influence outside practice and the games by supporting and encouraging them whether it involves school or other things going on in their lives.”
Sawlsville primarily works with the offensive and defensive lineman on the field. He also shares strength and conditioning tips and techniques that he learned from Chris Powell, his trainer on “Extreme Weight Loss.” Eleven of the current sophomore players appeared in the episode. The NFL invited Sawlsville to bring the group to the Super Bowl XLVII Play 60 event in New Orleans.
Alex Rosiejka, a running back on offense who plays multiple positions on defense, was among the players on the trip. He is pleased to have Sawlsville as a coach again.
“You have coaches that lead you, but he does more than that,” said Rosiejka. “He is a friend to you. During practices and the games, he will talk with me, tell me to keep my head up. That’s what you really need on a football team to be successful, a coach to interact with you.”
Rosiejka added that everything Sawlsville has overcome serves as motivation for the team in dealing with struggles.
“He doesn’t say, ‘Look at me.’ He doesn’t have to,” said Rosiejka. “The program is definitely building. The class in front of us and my class are pretty big. There’s a lot of hope for the future.”
Hope was missing for Sawlsville. He considered himself damaged goods after the accident. Following his transformation, he created his own T-shirt with the slogan “Damaged Goods Restored.” A cross serves as the “t” in “restored” as a symbol of Sawlsville’s faith.
“My goal is to teach the players how to be God-honoring young men,” he said. “We are at a Catholic school and faith has always been a big part of my belief system. It’s made me who I am today. That’s what I’m hoping to build in these kids as well.”
In addition to improving his health by losing weight, Sawlsville, a Packer fan who was shown working out with Clay Matthews on the show, also conquered another goal. He learned how to ride a bicycle. In honor of his uncle, who died at age 43, Sawlsville completed a 43-mile ride. He was joined on by former Packer wide receiver Donald Driver. While practicing and during the ride, Sawlsville fell off the bike, but in life, “you have to pick yourself up,” he said.
“Everybody has something challenging in life,” he said. “Life is not easy. The thing is not what challenges you, but how you overcome those challenges. I lost an arm. I was able to fight and get through it. It’s about how you face those tough times.
“My hope is that people can take something from the things I’ve had to overcome. There’s no better opportunity than to impact kids and help steer them in the right direction. Working with youth is a passion of mine and to be able to combine that with football, there’s nothing greater.”
The Zephyrs fell to 1-3 after a 20-13 defeat at Oconto last Friday. Sawlsville sees a bright future for the young team.
“These kids are getting better on a daily basis,” he said. “Maybe we are going through some growing pains right now, but they just need to trust the process. The kids need to believe in themselves and we will develop into a winning program and qualify for the playoffs. I have believed in these kids from day one. Coach Brightwell believes in them. They just need to continue believing in themselves.”