John Banaszak believes in second chances.
When a player walks into the Robert Morris associate head coach's office and asks to be given a second chance, Banaszak's not interested in outlining a particular path or detailing what he wants done. he wants to listen.
"I don't ask a lot of questions," Banaszak said. "I leave that up to them. What I want to hear is, "Coach, I need a second chance."
Mike Stojkovic knows what it's like to need a second chance. He was in that chair across from Banaszak asking for a fresh start earlier this spring. A native of Katy, Texas, Stojkovic started at outside linebacker for the University of North Texas as a true freshman in 2011. He had 48 tackles, fifth most on the team, and had a promising career in front of him.
On January 30, 2012, Stojkovic's career took an abrupt turn. Stojkovic and a teammate were involved in an altercation outside of a Denton, Texas bar. Stojkovic said he was called down to the establishment pick up a friend who had too much to drink.
"Stuff happened, I had my buddy's back, and we got in trouble for it," Stojkovic said. "It wasn't my best decision. I've learned a lot from it. I've never been in trouble with the law, never got in trouble in high school or got into fights."
He pleaded no contest in September 2012 to two counts of misdemeanor assault with bodily injury and was sentenced to 15 months of probation, fined, and ordered to pay restitution for injuries to the victims. Stojkovic also ended up leaving the North Texas program, unhappy with the way he felt the staff handled the situation. He met with head coach Dan McCarney and decided to pursue a fresh start away from North Texas.
"It was stressful. I was miserable there for a little over a year," Stojkovic said. "When I got all my grades situated and legal issues settled, I just felt like I could breathe again. I felt like a little kid again."
Robert Morris was one of the schools that popped onto Stojkovic's radar, and when Stojkovic told his story to Banaszak, the veteran coach believed Stojkovic would walk a straight line.
"Forty years ago, that might have been me. I believe in second chances," Banaszak said. "His dad is a big influence on him also. I would think that the worst thing Michael could do would be to disappoint his father again. I think that weighs heavy on his mind, and that's enough for me."
Robert Morris did its due diligence. Defensive coordinator Scott Farison said the staff visited with the linebacker on multiple occasions to ensure he was on his way to making amends and that Moon Township would be the proper environment.
"It was a lot different than most, because we just got down to the nuts and bolts of his situation," Farison said.
Family played a major role in Stojkovic originally choosing North Texas. UNT was the only regional school to offer Stojkovic out of Texas, and he liked the idea of his family being able to attend games. After his freshman season, his family moved to Rochester, New York. Having his parents four hours away helped make Robert Morris very attractive.
"Family's big for me," Stojkovic said. "They stuck around when I got in trouble, and that's kind of how I decided."
A week into training camp at his new school, Stojkovic is a man rejuvenated by his second chance. He's become close with offensive lineman Jon Hill and linebacker Kyle Cooper, who hosted him on his official visit. And he's picked the brains of fellow linebacker Mike Cook and other defensive players to help transition from the 4-3 defense to the 3-4 alignment Robert Morris uses.
"At UNT, he did a lot off the edge, primarily a blitzer," Farison said. "Getting him to do our system and relate terminology of what we do to what they did, he'll be fine."
"I'm kind of getting used to playing on the line now," Stojkovic said. "I'm banging with the tight ends a little bit more, using my hands, and really it's just the verbiage that gets me."
He's also living the traditional college life again, roaming the dorms and the campus in-between film sessions and daily practices.
"I actually thought I'd be miserable in the dorms. I didn't stay in the dorms at UNT," Stojkovic said. "Marcus (Prather) is my roommate, so it's fun. The younger kids are fun to be around."
It's that latter part that's also enjoyable for Stojkovic. When his football career is done, he wants to be a coach. The fact that he's been able to come out of his own mistake with a fresh start might be a lesson he can teach sooner rather than later.
"Guys like me, Marcus, Paul (Jones), other transfers and the older guys that have been here, we've been through it. We've been through traveling and all that. And I've been through the worst of it," Stojkovic said. "I can try to help them out, try to tell them what to do and what not to do. Hopefully we can go out there and get this NEC title and send Coach Walton out on a good note."
ColonialsCorner publisher Andrew Chiappazzi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.