May 4, 2006
Evanston, IL (CSTV U-WIRE) -- Four and a half years may have passed since he took his last meaningful snap, but Zak Kustok is still as much the quarterback today as he was when he guided Northwestern to a share of the Big Ten title in 2000.
From his 12th-floor corner office in downtown Chicago, Kustok is a stock trader for a company called GGET - specifically the Bavaro Group, named after former New York Giants all-pro tight end Mark Bavaro.
Jerry Fitzgerald, a former DePaul basketball player who shares the office with Kustok and Jon Kleidon, a former Buffalo basketball player, sees the old QB in Kustok just about every day.
"He's got such a presence about him," Fitzgerald says. "He'll crack a joke to lighten a situation, he'll make everything easy ... I think he's one of the best traders around. He's definitely building a name for himself, not only here but in New York and Boston."
Not that you'd hear Kustok ever admitting it.
As a standout quarterback in college, Kustok was always known more for his humility and leadership than his on-field accomplishments, mostly because he never bragged about them. "A quarterback in the body of an offensive lineman" is an apt phrase to describe him, both because the linemen were his best friends (he roomed with offensive linemen during his years on campus) and because he was as humble as the big guys who quietly did the dirty work.
"As a person Zak is, besides being one of my best friends, probably just one of the most hard-working, honest and caring people I know," says former NU offensive lineman Lance Clelland.
"Is that cheesy enough for you?"
Perhaps, but the sentiment is shared by many. Kustok's friends say his personality - easygoing, courteous, always willing to help - comes directly from his family, which established for him a rock-solid foundation.
Kustok's dad - "Big Al," as Clelland calls him - played football at Illinois, but he never pushed sports on Kustok or his sister Sarah, who played four years of basketball at DePaul and is now a Blue Demons assistant coach. "The No. 1 thing was being a good person," Kustok says.
But sports fell into Kustok's life. He accepted a football scholarship from Lou Holtz at Notre Dame and probably would have been happy in South Bend had Holtz not retired during his freshman year. Seeing that he was buried in new coach Bob Davie's depth chart, Kustok decided to transfer to NU the following season.
All he wanted was a chance to prove he could be a quarterback. When he got his chance, he made the most of it, starting every game except his first one.
That chance - granted to him by NU coach Randy Walker - was denied him by the NFL.
THE PRO FOOTBALL JOURNEY
Kustok graduated after the 2001 season as the second-most prolific passer and offensive player in NU history. Then he joined the likes of Joey Harrington, David Carr, Eric Crouch and Kurt Kittner as a Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist, honoring the best senior quarterbacks in the country.
But the pro scouts didn't seem to care about his college success. They determined he was undersized at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, questioned his arm strength, his pocket presence and speed (USA Today mistakenly added three-tenths of a second to Kustok's 40-yard dash time, listing it at a torpid 4.97 seconds).
He was unlucky, too - an oversight by his agent caused him to get excluded from the 2002 NFL Scouting Draft Combine. When draft day rolled around, Kustok watched from home as, hour by hour, teams plucked players off the board who didn't have nearly the resume he did.
Thus began, Kustok says, a two-year period when he devoted himself to breaking into the National Football League.
The experience was alternately fun and frustrating, filled with unexpected pleasures, like taking snaps on Monday Night Football (albeit in the preseason) and training with Brett Favre in Green Bay. But in the business of professional football, it's about being in the right place at the right time, and Kustok never was.
Just days before final rosters were set in 2002, Kustok was released by Miami when the team traded for backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels. "If they don't make the trade and I'm the third-string guy for that year, who knows, I may still be down there," Kustok says. He was released by Green Bay the next summer when the Packers acquired Akili Smith. He had a brief stint in 2004 with his hometown team, the Chicago Bears, but they too released him.
"When I was in college, I told myself I was going to give it two years to make it to the NFL," Kustok said. "If it doesn't work out, then I knew at some point I was going to have to stop playing football. I have a lot of respect for Kurt Warner and other guys who take whatever route they can to get into the league, but that was not me."
Kustok found his calling in the real world.
After getting cut by Green Bay in July 2003, Kustok used an old friend to help him land a job in the Chicago Board of Trade. Kustok, who has an economics degree from NU, spent three months learning the business before opening an account and training on the floor.
Along with Fitzgerald and Kleidon, he was approached by Bavaro last year and asked to start a Chicago office. Three weeks ago, after spending seven months in New York, Kustok moved back to his Lincoln Park apartment to do business in the Windy City.
Looking back on his football career, Kustok has no regrets.
"It was a fun experience," Kustok says. "It was definitely something that growing up was probably beyond my wildest dreams, that I would be playing with an NFL jersey on.
"When I got released from the Bears, I just continued with the trading that I was already doing on the floor at the Board of Trade. It was an easy transition back to that."
Kustok still gets recognized now and then, but he doesn't like to dwell on it.
"Instead of people saying, 'Oooh, that's Zak Kustok, quarterback of the football team,' I'd rather have them say, 'Zak's a great guy, I enjoyed talking to him, he's a good kid,' " Kustok says.
It's that philosophy that has endeared him to so many and will probably continue to do so, even as football fades deeper into memory.
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