ORONO, Maine —- University of Maine standout defensive end Mike Kozlakowski didn’t give it much thought.
On the first day of hitting in practice last August, he reached his arm out and felt it cramp up on him.
“I had no idea what happened,” said Kozlakowski who figured he’d miss a few days of practice.
“The next thing I know, the doctors told me I had a ruptured bicep,” said Kozlakowski.
He returned home to Lynbrook, New York, and conferred with his doctors. He was told he was staring at a three- to six-month recovery period after having surgery to repair it.
“It blew my mind. It was devastating. It was the first injury that has ever sidelined me,” said Kozlakowski.
“It was a fluke injury,” said Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove. “You see a lot of injuries on a football field, particularly knees and ankles. But you don’t often see a torn bicep.”
Kozlakowski stuck religiously to his rehabilitation regimen and did get to play in Maine’s last game, the 41-27 home playoff loss to New Hampshire. He made a tackle.
“The coaches and training staff really helped me and my teammates made sure I was doing fine,” said Kozlakowski.
It was a difficult fall for Kozlakowski, who had to stand on the sidelines and watch his teammates capture the football program’s first outright conference title since 1965. Maine went 7-1 in Colonial Athletic Association play and clinched an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoff spot and first-round bye before losing to UNH in the second round.
Watching his teammates celebrate the conference title-clinching 41-0 victory over Rhode Island on Nov. 16 was the most difficult moment for him.
“I just wanted to be out there, suited up,” he said.
But instead of indulging in self-pity, he used it as motivation.
“It motivated me to work harder so I could get back out there,” said Kolakowski.
He participated in spring ball and will play in the Aug. 30 opener against Norfolk State.
“I felt great throughout spring ball. It was almost like a journey. I can’t wait to suit up [against Norfolk State] and get after it,” he said.
Two years ago as a redshirt freshman, he led the Black Bears in tackles for losses with 9.5 for 56 yards. He was second in sacks with five and sixth in tackles with 47 (25 solos and 22 assisted tackles).
With career sacks leader Michael Cole (29 sacks) having graduated, Kozlakowski’s return gives the Black Bears an imposing pair of bookends on the defensive line along with junior Trevor Bates of Westbrook, who had four sacks and nine tackles for losses a year ago.
“He is a tremendous player. He is a great addition to our defense,” said Bates. “He loves to get after the quarterback. He loves to play physical. He is relentless and he will add a spark to our defensive line.”
Bates added that Kozlakowski “definitely has a chip on his shoulder” after having to miss virtually the entire 2013 season.
“You can see it in practice in his intensity. It burns every day,” said Bates.
Kozlakowski and Bates talk about having an All-American type of year.
“The sky is the limit for us,” Kozlakowski said. “I’ve never felt better. I’m faster and stronger than I’ve ever been.”
He does feel a little pressure.
“I’ve got to make up for lost time. But a little bit of pressure is good because it will motivate me to go harder and harder in every practice,” said the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Kozlakowski, a former first team all-state and All-Long Island selection in high school.
Cosgrove said he is “thrilled” to have him back.
“To go through what he had to go through last year, being on the sidelines, on the outside looking in, that’s a tough place to be,” said Cosgrove. “But he persevered through it. He had a great rehabilitation and a great off-season.”
Cosgrove called him a “playmaker who makes our defense better.
“I’m obviously excited about his productivity. Back in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, he had us really excited. He has a really high motor. He plays hard,” said Cosgrove, who also noted that Kozlakowski has become a “much more disciplined player.
“Based on what I’ve seen so far in camp, he is playing within our scheme. He has embraced the function of our defense and has done everything we’ve asked him to do,” said Cosgrove.
Kozlakowski is eager to help the Bears get back to the playoffs.
“Last year really set the tone. We set the bar high. We want to keep getting better and better as a program,” he said.