In context: Tony Kunczewski was hired in April 2012 to build Berry College’s first football program. The first game was in the fall of 2013 and it was a tough start. But then came the first win, then the first of a string of conference championships and also competing in the post season. That’s a lot of success in just eight season. But Kunczewski has something else that motivates him — and that’s the successful adult lives of his players.
By Leanne Cook
Berry College Head Football Coach Tony Kunczewski has never learned to like sweet tea but he embraces everything else about the South. Especially Rome and Berry College.
Originally from Pennsylvania where he went to college and met his wife, Nicole, the couple moved from there to Maine’s Bowdoin College, then eventually to a job at LaGrange College. He went there thinking it would be for three to five years. During his fifth year, he was a finalist for a position at Reinhardt University in Waleska. During that process, he was asked by LaGrange’s Vice President Linda Buchanan to lead a tour for some leaders from Berry, one of whom was Chief of Staff Debbie Heida.
Kunczewski didn’t get that job but when Berry began looking for a leader for its developing football program, he was at the head of the list. “Everything always works out for the best. Once I heard about Berry, I felt like it was the better fit for me, for my family. But let me tell you — it was a very thorough interview process,” he laughs. “President Steve Briggs and Debbie Heida know how to interview.”
The most important question he was asked was how he defined success. Kunczewski believes his longest-lasting success is seen in his players’ lives.
“I’m fully aware of our big, beautiful scoreboard at Valhalla (Berry’s stadium) and that we want to see the numbers going in our favor on gamedays. We work hard and we want to win. And we are winning so I’m feeling good about the coming season. But when I answered that question in my interview, I said that true, lifelong success is the effect that playing football has on shaping character,” Kunczewski says. “To play football, you have to work incredibly hard. You have to be willing to lose, and learn to lose gracefully. The question is how football shapes players when they leave Berry. What kind of parent are they? What kind of spouse? Football takes discipline. That can’t help but set you up for success after college.”
When Kunczewski thinks about success, he sees two of his former players who are equally successful, though they are both living very different lives after football.
Mason Kinsey is a 2019 graduate who has been in the news quite a bit in recent weeks. Originally signed by the Tennessee Titans in 2020, Kinsey didn’t make it through final cuts. He next went to the New England Patriots practice squad but never played a game for them. In December, he returned to the Titans for a tryout and was finally signed to a futures contract in January.
In preseason games, Kinsey is one of only five players across the NFL with at least 10 receptions and the only one of the five with a touchdown catch. Whether or not he remains with the team into the regular season, Kinsey is focused on his goal of playing pro football. He also still feels an affinity to Berry, and he remains grounded in the faith that he shares with Kunczewski. This week, his Twitter feed addressed these two points:
Also this week, another Berry football player was featured on Channel 11’s newscast talking about his very different version of success.
Justus Edwards suffered an extremely serious injury in a 2018 game and was told by doctors it was very unlikely he would ever walk again. Kunczewski remembers that when he ran out onto the field, Edwards acknowledged he couldn’t move or feel anything below his waist. But he also recalls Edwards looking up into his eyes and saying, “I’m going to be all right. God has got me.”
And today, Edwards is more than all right. He plans to graduate in December from Berry with a B.S. in Exercise Science and go on to become a doctor of physical therapy. He has beaten incredible odds and walks and works out daily. He is now a sought-after motivational speaker.
Both of these young men had very different outcomes to their football careers at Berry but both were impacted by their time under Kunczewski’s leadership. Amazingly, both of them often refer to the same verse from the Bible that appears to have become deeply embedded in their minds while at Berry.
Kinsey displays his on top of his Twitter profile, whereas Edwards keeps his in his wallet, on a piece of tape he was wearing the day of his injury. The Bible verse so close to both men is Proverbs 14:23. In part, it says, “All hard work brings a profit.”
In a recent article in Berry’s Viking Fusion, Edwards said this proverb was one he and his teammates would keep in mind when training over the summer.
Kunczewski talks openly about his faith and how it guides his life and his coaching style. “Faith and belief are our touchstones, along with hard work, in the football program. I wouldn’t be correct in saying we find the right guys for the football program – I believe that is God’s work. And Berry as an institution draws them, too, because of what the college offers. Our football program is yet another way to live out Martha Berry’s philosophy of educating the “head, heart and hands.”
When looking to this year, Kunczewski is riding the tide of a nice winning streak. According to Berry athletic department statistics, “in eight seasons at the helm of the Vikings, Kunczewski has compiled a 52-26 overall record and an impressive 28-2 record at Valhalla, Berry’s home venue. He has coached 131 All-Conference selections, seven Southern Athletic Association major award winners, more than 200 SAA Academic Honor Roll honorees, a Geico Play of the Year winner and was named the league’s Coach of the Year honor four times.”
But when asked what his new five-year plan is, Kunczewski laughs. “I don’t make five-year plans anymore. Not because I don’t believe in progress but because I don’t want to lose sight of what’s going on today. We are an operation that puts one foot in front of the other because we know what is important is the ‘right here and right now.’ There’s nothing wrong with goals. We had them for our scrimmage last night and now we are thinking about Maryville, our first opponent this weekend. Then the next week, we focus on the next game. Then we focus on the next goal, and if in front of us, the region and the state.”
A man with a unique perspective on Kunczewski is Dr. Brad Bushnell, a member of the Berry College Board of Directors, one of Berry’s team physicians and someone who has grown into a deep friendship with the coach. He tells a story after the football team’s first-ever win, two-plus years into the program.
“We were all at Tony’s house, celebrating the win against Washington University in St. Louis. His wife, Nicole, was talking about how this was one of the top days in her life. I looked around for Tony because I realized he wasn’t with us. I found him sitting quietly with his head down. When I asked him why he was just sitting there instead of celebrating, he said, ‘Brad, I’m happy we won. But it’s just one win.’ ”
Bushnell recalls this moment as one that showed him Kunczewski’s true core. “He’s got the right perspective for football, and for life. If there is anyone that should be helping mold future leaders, it is Tony.”
When asked to comment on his winning formula with athletes and the secret to his success, Kunczewski says, “I focus on what’s important. And right now, what’s important is that I get into my kitchen and make some pancakes for my kids and some of their friends who spent the night. I promised them pancakes and they are hungry.”
Some information in this article is the property of Berry College, and was reproduced with the college’s permission, including some of the photos used. An article in the Feb. 20, 2021, Viking Fusion by Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier assistant sports editor, and Taylor Corley, arts & living editor, also was very helpful. You can read their article here.