JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mark Baniewicz runs his own wealth-management company. Brad Meester went back to school for motorcycle repair. Initially, Erik Olson owned a Cold Stone Creamery franchise.
But 21 years ago, all three were Jacksonville Jaguars.
They were part of an 11-member draft class, charged with making a team that was fresh off its second AFC Championship appearance in four years. They lived together in the Extended Stay Hotel at the St. Johns Town Center long before it was the Town Center; the only restaurant within walking distance was Bono’s BBQ. They felt the wrath of Tom Coughlin’s “militaristic meritocracy” first-hand – with the fines to prove it.
21 years after being drafted, they’ll all sit on their couch this weekend and watch the next generation of NFL hopefuls. Some will have 14-year careers like Meester, the Jaguars’ second-round selection in 2000. Others, like Baniewicz and fourth-rounder Joey Chustz, spent almost their entire, abbreviated careers on Injured Reserve.
Maybe, just maybe, one of those NFL hopefuls follows in the footsteps of Pick No. 199 from that 2000 NFL Draft.
“Some of these kids, I don't even know if they were born yet [in 2000]. And Tom Brady was already playing in the NFL,” Meester laughed. “It’s crazy.”
Even crazier: it’s been 21 years since they – Brady, Meester and 252 others – had their names called in the NFL Draft. Only Brady is still playing. Where are the others?
Earlier this year, Yahoo Sports took a look back at some of the draftees from that first draft of the new millennium.
This is the Jaguars 2000 NFL Draft: Revisited.
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“First 10 years of life after the NFL, I really just had to try a bunch of different things.”
Erik Olson opened his first Cold Stone Creamery in Fort Collins, Colorado, before his NFL career ended prematurely thanks to a groin injury. Later, when he would speak to students at his alma mater, Colorado State, he’d remind them of that career jump.
“I went from playing football at a 70,000-seat stadium to singing songs behind a Cold Stone counter, serving ice cream to people in Fort Collins,” Olson recalled his opening line recently. “’So you're telling me you're too good for this job?’”
Shortly thereafter, Olson found himself hanging out with Lil John and Pitbull.
(Don’t worry: it was part of a job at Sidney Frank. The two rappers were brand ambassadors for an energy drink account Olson worked on).
“First 10 years of life after the NFL, I really just had to try a bunch of different things,” said Olson, now a managing partner at Virtus Insurance in Fort Collins.
He’s not alone. Not even in his own Jaguars Draft class.
Joey Chustz never played a down for the Jaguars after suffering a back injury in training camp. He spent his entire rookie season on Injured Reserve.
“And then, finally, the following March, I guess they realized, like, physical therapy wasn't going to fix what was going on,” Chustz’s wife, Libby explained. “So they did let him go at that point. We came home [to Louisiana]. I mean, it was kind of bittersweet because, you know, we missed home, but it was still kind of a letdown.”
Chustz’s degree from Louisiana Tech was in finance, and his father was a CPA. Logically, Chustz took a desk job doing accounting work for his father. While he appreciated the opportunity, it was not a match.
“About six and a half years before he passed away [in 2017], he ended up coaching at our high school where we graduated, Denham Springs. And that was it. That was definitely his place,” Chustz explained. Joey passed away unexpectedly in May 2017.
“And like, in hindsight, I'm really thankful for that six and a half years that he got to [coach] because he was so happy doing that. That was the happiest I've ever seen him. So, I'm glad he got to experience that.”
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“If I could go back and do it again -- in a second I would.”
Like Olson and Chustz, injuries cut Baniewicz’s career short to just four seasons. A projected Day One selection, doctors discovered Baniewicz had a torn patellar tendon at the Combine. He had no idea how significant the knee injury was – and what it would do to his draft stock.
“My agent said, ‘well, it looks like you'll probably be picked as early as 48 and then you might last until into the 60’s somewhere. But the potential to be a second-round pick,” Baniewicz recalled. “Well, that didn't happen.”
The second-round passed. Then the third. Suddenly it was the seventh-round, Baniewicz was surrounded by family and friends at his Draft party, and he had not been selected.
Then, Tom Coughlin called. Pick 247.
“He asked if I was healthy; of course, my answer was yes,” Baniewicz said. “And he said, ‘Okay, we're gonna pick you.’ And as I'm having that conversation with him, my name is going across the bottom of the screen.”
Within a week, Baniewicz, along with the Jaguars other rookies, was living in the Extended Stay Hotel, being bussed to and from practice every morning. He had only been to Florida once before. He had never been to an NFL game.
“They put us in like these little coffin lockers in the middle of the locker room. We called it ‘Skid Row.’ You're in, like a box in the middle of the locker room.”
When the 90-man roster was trimmed to 53, Skid Row was wheeled out of the locker room. Baniewicz was elevated to a real locker.
“I found my jersey hanging with my nameplate. It was one of the coolest experiences in my life.”
Baniewicz spent more time on Injured Reserve than on the field during his four-year career, the first two of which were spent in Jacksonville. He had five operations between his knees and his upper arm.
“They have this joke that the NFL stands for ‘not for long.’ I mean, it was the case for me,” Baniewicz smiled. “But I'll tell you this: making the 53-man roster my first year as a seventh-round pick is a really cool, humbling accomplishment.
“People ask me, ‘do you miss it?’ And of course, I miss it. If I could go back and do it again? In a second I would.”
Baniewicz was the fifth of five, seventh-round picks by the Jaguars that year; Olson was the first. It remains a point of pride for both men that all five of those seventh-round picks made the 53-man roster.
“They didn't draft a lot guys of the same position. So, I think everybody felt like, ‘hey, we've got a good chance to make the team,’” Olson added. “It's almost like being in a fraternity, I think, because you have no one else. You're away from your family. You're trying to make a team. The stress is unbearable.”
That was a constant refrain from all the former players interviewed: the stress and grind of the NFL.
“I remember looking around, and it's like: I didn't think I was gonna make that team,” Baniewicz reflected. “I mean, they had an all-star roster that they had just won 14 games with.”
“And now the stresses of: am I gonna make the team?” Olson added. “Who else is down there? What kind of team is it? What kind of defense do they run?”
Many of those stresses never got to Meester until later on in his career.
Many are still wondering if those stresses will ever get to Brady.
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“I mean, he looks younger than he did in college.”
Brad Meester will be the first to tell you: he was blessed to spend his entire, 14-year career with one team.
He was also blessed to, largely, get by on natural athletic ability those first few years.
“I got into like Year Nine and Ten. I wasn't as young as I used to be; I couldn't do the same things,” Meester explained. “So, I had to really refocus what I was doing. I couldn't do the same things anymore. I had to refocus my diet and my exercise regimen. And it took everything I had to do all that to really get back to where I needed to be. I had to rethink how I was doing everything.”
That got him through the next four or so years. Then, he hit the wall.
“I knew I could still play and I really felt, ‘yes, I could probably play another year if I wanted to.’ But I couldn't do it at the same level I was doing it before. I just wasn't quite the same player. And I just, I felt it was time,” Meester said. He recalls sitting in his hotel room with three games to go that season, knowing and accepting his career was coming to a close. Although much earlier in their careers, Baniewicz and Olson expressed hitting a similar, proverbial wall.
And yet Tom Brady has marched right through it.
“I don't think he feels that stress [of playing and maintaining a spot in the NFL]. He's thinking about more productive things. He's using that energy in ways that are making him better,” Olson said. “The stress then is keeping your body healthy, managing your injuries, doing things that can prolong your career.”
“He had to go through the same thing I did,” Meester added. “I'm sure he changed his regimen and realized diet, exercise, whatever you had to do to continue to maintain that. And really, the mental part of it is crazy.”
Working in wealth management, Baniewicz lives in a “world of probabilities.” He still can’t figure out how the numbers aligned just right for Brady – how he avoided a severe injury like so many other NFL players, let alone has played for two decades.
“I mean, he looks younger than he did in college… I get they say your career ‘just falls right off a cliff.’ Right? It happened with Peyton Manning. And, you know, they've been calling the end of him for a while, but it's just not happening.
“My first career was football, and I often joke: I was 48 picks after Brady. Who in the world thought that there was only that big a gap between Brady and myself?”
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Urban Renewal in Jacksonville
Before his career came to a close, before he was released by the Jaguars: Mark Baniewicz enrolled as a graduate student at the University of North Florida. He earned his MBA in 2003 and moved to South Florida to begin his company, Socius Family Office, shortly thereafter. He doesn’t get up to Jacksonville very often, but he and his family detoured through Duval County on their way back from summer vacation in Ocean City, New Jersey, this past summer.
Baniewicz does still keep tabs on the Jaguars and the NFL.
“I enjoy watching offensive line play. Like you know, I get how the game has changed. But it goes in cycles. It always goes back to the core fundamentals of the game, even though schemes change, and it's a really neat sport.”
Baniewicz and Meester have stayed in touch over the years (Baniewicz also remains good friends with another, seventh-rounder from that Jaguars draft class, Rob Meier). And, of course, Meester shares Baniewicz's passion for offensive line play. He is the O-Line Coach and run-game coordinator at Mount Vernon High School, just outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I'll talk about guys from my era of football [to the high school players]. And they'll have no idea who I'm talking about. And I'm like, 'you have to know who that is,'” Meester laughed. “Like, seriously, you don't know who that -- and they're like, ‘I don't know who that is.’ I'm like, ‘Oh no! What have I done now!?’”
Besides coaching and playing chauffer for his six daughters, Meester’s passion for building motorcycles has expanded. He works at a shop in Mount Vernon; his current project is restoring a 1970s White Bronco.
In addition to his other passion project: the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“We always try to come back every year for a home game. And we used to come back for the home opener. But since I started coaching football, I can't leave,” Meester explained. The family also attends every road game within driving distance of Mount Vernon. COVID-19 policy put a wrench in scheduled trips to Green Bay and Minneapolis this year.
“I got NFL Sunday ticket, and I watch [the Jaguars] every Sunday,” he smiled. “We'll watch the Draft. We want to get to a few games this year and cheer the Jaguars on and see some playoff games again. We'll be at every one of them.”
Maybe he can call up his old friend Erik Olson. Because Olson happens to be old friends with one of the newest Jacksonville Jaguars: head coach Urban Meyer.
For it was a young, wide receivers coach named Urban Meyer in the 1990s that first introduced Erik Olson to Colorado State University. Olson ended up choosing CSU; Meyer was on staff his freshman season before leaving for Notre Dame. But not before Meyer and his wife, Shelley, made a life-long connection with Olsen.
“When I came out to Colorado, his family had me over to his house because he had four or five kids that he recruited [in Southern California], and so we got to know the Meyer’s early on,” he said.
More than a decade later – after Cold Stone Creamery and Pitbull – Olson worked at Colorado State’s Business School. He invited Meyer back to teach a leadership course. In 2018, with Olson’s mother terminally ill with cancer, Meyer gifted Olson’s family tickets to the Rose Bowl game. After living in California for 75 years, it was the first time his mother had ever watched a game at the Rose Bowl.
After not having a connection with Jacksonville for more than a decade, Olson has taken Meyer’s hiring as a sign. Seriously: of the 32 NFL teams Meyer could’ve ended up with, it had to be the one Olson had previously played for?
“I'm excited to bring my kids [to Jacksonville] now that are of age that they would really sort of enjoy and respect that I played for the Jaguars. That whole thing's cool in the sense that there's a renewed interest in me personally, to have a relationship with Jacksonville because Urban's there, too.”
As his fellow 2000 draftee Brady has proven: it’s never too late to start over – and win again.
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The Jaguars 2000 NFL Draft Class:
Round One - R. Jay Soward (WR, USC)
Round Two - Brad Meester (Center, Northern Iowa)
Round Three - T.J. Slaughter (LB, Southern Mississippi)
Round Four - Joey Chustz (OT, Louisiana Tech)
Round Five - Kiwaukee Thomas (CB, Georgia Southern)
Round Six - Emanuel Smith (WR, Arkansas)
Round Seven - Erik Olson (S, Colorado State)
Round Seven - Rob Meier (DT, Washington State)
Round Seven - Shyrone Stith (RB, Virginia Tech)
Round Seven - Danny Clark (LB, Illinois)
Round Seven - Mark Baniewicz (OT, Syracuse)
First Coast Sports would like to thank Brad Meester, Libby Chustz, Erik Olson and Mark Baniewicz for sharing their stories.
You can watch all three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft LIVE on ABC25 April 29-May 1, 2021