You wouldn’t know it today to look at his hulking 6-foot-3, 270-pound frame, but soon-to-be Division I offensive lineman Tyler Samra actually began his football career as a slender running back.
What’s not nearly as surprising -- at least not to anyone who knows Samra -- is that his lead blocker in those early Fair Lawn Football Association days was a chunky kid with big ears named Mike Strizak.
To this day, the pair remains inseparable best friends.
“If you see me around town, you’ll see him around town, and if you see him around town, I’ll be with him,” said Strizak, who’s since grown into a chiseled 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive lineman standout. “We’re always together."
Samra and Strizak – both of whom came up through the Fair Lawn youth football system before moving on to star at national high school football powerhouse Don Bosco for the past four years – will embark on an exciting new journey next school year.
In June, they’ll both head north to pursue their lifelong dreams of playing Division I college football.
Only now for the first time, they won’t be doing it together.
Last May, Samra signed on to play for Coach Paul Pasqualoni at the University of Connecticut. Strizak, despite having twice visited UConn, ultimately decided to attend Boston College. The teams are unlikely to meet outside of a bowl game.
“We were talking about different schools, you know, if you go there, I’ll go here,” said Strizak, of he and Samra’s plans to attend rival schools that would play one another each season. “We tried, but we gotta do what’s best for ourselves.”
While they may never face off on the field during their collegiate careers, the Fair Lawn friends will be close geographically.
The best friends have already discussed their plans to offer each other motivation from afar.
“We’ll definitely be texting each other all the time,” Samra said.
“After every game or seeing each other on TV,” continued Strizak, finishing Samra’s sentence as he is apt to do. “There’s no reason to not support each other or anything like that. We’ve been best friends since second grade.”
Strizak’s mother, Pamela Coles, said she thinks the separation will provide a chance for both boys to grow as people.
“It’s time for life to expand and it’s time for them to take on their own individualities and create the next stage of their lives, which is becoming young adults,” she said.
Both Coles and the boys credit much of their success to the toughness, work ethic and sense of community preached at Don Bosco.
“Going to Bosco prepared us not only for football -- because that’s just what you’re going to get when you go to Bosco -- but it prepared us to be a man,” Strizak said. “And after football, come out into the workforce and work hard, work smart and overall become a successful person.”
“They tried to keep us but there was no question about it,” Strizak said. “I wanted to go out and get myself better…and the coaches obviously pulled the talent out of us up there [at Don Bosco]. I think it was the best decision for both of us.”
That’s not to say academics weren’t also a primary factor in the decision to attend a private school. Both boys have maintained stellar grades at Don Bosco and are headed to top-notch academic institutions.
“As a student-athlete, you gotta think academics first and then athletics,” said Samra, who plans to pursue a career in Sports Medicine.
“It is every little kid’s dream to go to the NFL, but how practical is it? Not very practical,” added Strizak, a future Finance major. “You really can’t major in football, so you gotta pick the best academic school and you gotta prepare for an injury…Going to the schools that we chose were the best overall decisions.”
Having gone through four years worth of legendarily grueling Don Bosco practices, neither Samra nor Strizak are concerned about adjusting to the college game.
“Honestly, Bosco is just like a college program, if not even harder. No one prepares us like Bosco, absolutely not,” said Samra, who has no regrets about sacrificing trips to the beach each summer to spend eight hours a day in the gym. “I feel once we get [to college] we’re going to have an extra step above everyone.”
“I’ve even heard from the older guys, like Justin Trattou, that have been on Florida (and now the New York Giants practice squad),” Strizak said. “He said there’s nothing like Bosco. You will never go through another Bosco practice again – that hard, that intense and with that much passion for the game.”
Strizak said the intense Bosco regimen has prepared both he and Samra to succeed next year not only physically, but mentally – an important distinction given that both will be away from each other, their families and in the process of learning to play new positions in college. Samra is expected to move on the offensive line from tackle to either guard or center. Strizak will likely be sliding from the defense line to inside linebacker.
“Obviously everything is difficult, I don’t think anything will come easy,” Strizak said of switching positions. “But the skill sets that we learned, I think it’s really more mental than physical...I think that’s what we’ve learned and that’s what we’re going to take to the next level– just be mentally more prepared than the other person.”
The strength of mind and body that both boys have developed through a lifetime of hard work and commitment on the field and in the classroom is only enhanced by the extraordinarily supportive relationship they share.
“We want everything the best for each other,” Strizak said. “We want each other to do amazing in everything that we do. And I think we push that in every single aspect of each other’s lives.
“The memories that we have with each other, me and Ty together, you can’t pay for something like this,” he continued. “You can’t want anything more than a true friendship and I think that’s exactly what we’ve built."