Shortly after Mike Collodi was named Mt. Lebanon’s new football coach in February, he found himself at a nearby Panera enveloped in a three-hour conversation with the man he was replacing, WPIAL coaching legend Bob Palko.
“We were just going over the ins and outs of the program, and making sure this was going to be the right fit for me, leaving Elizabeth Forward to come here,” Collodi said while sitting in his coach’s office this past Tuesday. “And one thing he stressed was, he said, ‘No matter who you retain and no matter who you fire from my staff, the one person you must keep is C.J.’
“That was the only person he said that about, so I said, ‘Who the heck is this C.J. guy?’ He said, ‘No, he’s not a guy, he’s a kid.’ Then he went into telling me a little bit more about him. And then I could see, obviously, the more time I spent with C.J., it’s a no-brainer, he’s going to be a huge success. This is what he wants to do in life. His goal and his aspirations are to do this in the NFL.”
Casimier Joseph Korowicki — better known as C.J. — is a 17-year-old senior at Mt. Lebanon High School and one of the most gifted talents in the WPIAL. With black-framed glasses and standing 5 feet 11, 160 pounds, Korowicki doesn’t look like your normal high school football standout. That’s because he’s not. Instead of carrying the ball on a sweep or sprinting down the field on a fly route, Korowicki’s focus is on the administrative side of things, as he officially serves as a manager and unofficially the director of operations for Mt. Lebanon’s football and girls basketball teams.
“Honestly, he’s probably the glue of the program,” Collodi said.
Korowicki is a teen with enormous goals in life, the biggest being to eventually become an NFL general manager.
“I want to be one of those 32 lucky guys,” said Korowicki, the only child of Caz and Gerri (Talerico) Korowicki.
A high school kid dreaming big like this might sound like just that, a dream. A pipe dream, more specifically. But considering Korowicki’s experience, his smarts (he carries a 4.4 GPA) and his outgoing personality, it’s not hard to see why those who know him think he will eventually achieve those lofty goals.
“He’s going to be a general manager of an NFL team for sure,” said Mt. Lebanon girls basketball coach Jackie DelSardo. “I know that’s his end goal, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to get there.”
The fire that created Korowicki’s career path was sparked by a guy who two seasons ago was named NFL High School Coach of the Year. Palko, who won nine WPIAL titles and two PIAA titles in his 28 seasons (24 at West Allegheny and four at Mt. Lebanon), was Korowicki’s coach when the latter played for Mt. Lebanon his freshman season. But Korowicki’s season was cut short by a concussion, one that effectively ended his playing career.
But instead of just parting ways with the kid, Palko wanted Korowicki to stick around as a manager. It’s a conversation that occurred in a school hallway, a talk that Korowicki said he vividly remembers.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to be a manager?” recalled Korowicki. “I’m like, ‘C’mon coach, let me play.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, seriously, think about it and let me know.’”
This wasn’t a case of a coach just trying to be nice to a kid by keeping him involved. Palko saw something special in the unique teen.
“I knew he wasn’t going to be a player, and that’s OK,” said Palko, now the director of high school relations for the No. 7-ranked Penn State football team. “But the kid was so on top of things. The first thing is, he’s ultra polite. He’s very, very intelligent. He’s a team guy first. Nothing was ever about him. And he had this presence about him that for me being around the game, it was like, ‘This kid is going to be a DFO [director of football operations] of a team.’ And now fast forward a few years and I’m here at this school, and I see the guys who are entrenched in the university. There are all kinds of guys that are in the football program that remind me of C.J.”
So, upon Palko’s advice, Korowicki became a team manager his freshman season, a move that took a bit for his mom to fully grasp.
“I said, ‘Really, is it like the water boy or something?’” Gerri said. “And he goes, ‘Mom, I do so much more. I can’t even tell you.’”
After getting his first taste of the role that first season, Korowicki decided to run with it. He became a manager of the girls basketball team his sophomore year and has served in the position for both teams ever since. He was part of Mt. Lebanon’s PIAA champion football team in 2021 and the school’s PIAA finalist girls basketball team in 2022.
To say Korowicki does a little of everything would be an understatement. More accurately, he does a lot of everything. In football, his responsibilities include getting the equipment and uniforms ready for practice and games, placing orders with vendors, and prepping the field and press box. And he does it for four teams — varsity, junior varsity A, junior varsity B, and the freshman team.
Varsity home football games are especially busy for Korowicki, who referred to those Friday nights as being “nonstop.”
Explained Korowicki, “Home games, I get everything set up here. I get a base foundation. I’ll get changed for the game. Get into my game stuff. Then I’ll finish up. I’ll get the field prepped. No. 1 is the press box. That’s the first thing that gets done. And then the field comes second. As for away games, I prep everything on Thursday night for away games so we have them ready for Friday, and then I help load the equipment truck for away games.”
Korowicki’s responsibilities for DelSardo and the girls basketball team run deep, as well. Not only does he take care of preparing uniforms and practice gear, but he also books hotel rooms for overnight trips, places restaurant orders, and even makes sure DelSardo has water and chewing gum for games. He even takes DelSardo’s cellphone prior to each game.
“He’s literally the director of basketball,” DelSardo said.
About the only thing Korowicki doesn’t do is drive the bus to away games.
“No, I promise, I don’t have that right yet,” Korowicki said with a laugh.
DelSardo and Collodi both referred to Korowicki as an “old soul,” and some of his friends call him “Grandpa” due to his older tastes in music and TV shows. You won’t find Korowicki bumping Drake, Kendrick Lamar or Lil Yachty, or streaming the latest hit shows on Netflix. Instead, he’s a big fan of the Rat Pack — he said he particularly loves “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast” series — and his favorite shows include “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Mama’s Family” and “The Golden Girls.”
Just as he is on the field or court, Korowicki is busy off the field, as well. He’s heavily involved with LeboSTARS, a student-run organization previously known as Best Buddies. The group pairs students with disabilities with nondisabled peers to share in activities and develop friendships. Korowicki helped develop the organization’s ABA (Advanced Behavior Analysis) program. He’s involved in several other school-affiliated groups, and also works each Saturday as a busboy at Union Grill.
“He’s so positive,” Palko said. “He’s that kid who’s going to help the elderly, and at the same time, the kid who you can tell works with special needs kids. He’s like the servant. He’s that unbelievable. In today’s age, with the way things are, he’s such a breath of fresh air. He’s such a team guy, and it’s never anything about him.”
Spend some time with Korowicki talking about his football chores, and chances are he will quickly mention Palko and Collodi as being major influences. Korowicki and Palko remain close. Korowicki said Palko has made “an incredible impact” on him. Palko called Korowicki “family.” Palko’s daughter, Amy, took a photo of her father and Korowicki embracing after Mt. Lebanon’s WPIAL championship win two seasons ago. Ever since then, it has been the photo on the lock screen of Korowicki’s cellphone.
“I’ve gotten words of wisdom from everybody that I’ve worked with, from coach Palko’s staff to coach Collodi’s staff,” said Korowicki. “It’s been a bunch of men that have been able to raise me up. I wouldn’t ask for anything else.”
Of Collodi, Gerri Korowicki said, “I met him for the first time a couple of weeks ago, but I talk to his wife all of the time. What a great young couple and family. Coach Palko is like a second dad to C.J. We’re always in touch with him.”
Korowicki also has formed relationships with former Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and Casey Weidl, a Mt. Lebanon graduate who is the Steelers scouting director. Weidl’s brother, Andy, is the team’s assistant general manager.
Colbert also has shared some words of wisdom with Korowicki.
“Look at film,” Korowicki said. “I’ve started to perfect the administration part of it, but if I can perfect the film part of it, then I can be well-rounded.”
In what would be a really cool reunion, Korowicki could find himself working on the same team as Palko again next season. Korowicki has applied for entrance to attend school at Penn State. If he’s admitted, his plan is to work in football administration.
“The thing about it is, he understands how patient you have to be,” Palko said. “He knows when to talk and not to talk. He has that self awareness on how to do things. And you look up [at Penn State], you look at the students that are involved in [football administration], he’d fit right in.”
Gerri Korowicki said she is taking it all in, in what is her son’s final high school football season. Despite there being an actual game being played, mom said she oftentimes is focused on the sideline to see what her son is up to.
“I’m always watching what he’s doing. He’s got headphones on. Who’s he talking to?” Gerri said, chuckling.
The great pride Gerri has in her son’s accomplishments easily comes through when speaking with her.
“I can’t even put it into words,” she said. “We had senior rec last week, and I felt like a rock star mom. Every time we go to something at school, people are like, ‘Are you C.J.’s mom? Let me tell you what he did.’ He’s very respectful and works hard. He wants to set himself up for the rest of his life.”
Mom wasn’t the only person to call C.J. a rock star. Palko did the same.
Given the vast amount of knowledge and experience it takes, Korowicki likely won’t be in the NFL anytime soon. It’s going to take a bit of time to reach his goals, and he knows that.
Still, it’s fun to imagine where this special teen will be in, say, 20 years.
“Hopefully I’ll be asking him for a job,” Collodi said, laughing. “I always tell him, ‘Don’t forget about me, man.’ There’s no doubt in my mind C.J is going to go really, really far. If he wants to be in the NFL, there’s no doubt in my mind that he will be there someday.”
The man who first began to cultivate Korowicki’s dream agreed that the teen is destined for big things. Perhaps it won’t even be in football, though.
Said Palko, “I don’t know if he’ll go football. I don’t know if he’ll even go athletics. I just know he’ll be a guy who will be successful. And at that age, I hope he doesn’t forget who I am and he’ll pick me up and take me out for coffee. He’s just a remarkable young man.”