John Malecki was once an NFL football player. Now he lives out a new dream as a builder of custom furniture.
Un paese vuol dire non essere soli, sapere che nella gente, nelle piante, nella terra c’e’ qualcosa di tuo, che anche quando non ci sei resta ad aspettarti.
A village means that you are not alone, knowing that in the people, in the plants, in the earth, there is something that is yours, waiting for you even when you are away.
John Malecki’s NFL dreams are older than him, born when Angela Malecki turned to John Malecki, Sr. and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we ended up with a professional football player?”
Her thought was not as fantastical as it would have been for some parents. Mrs. Malecki had been a star softball player from age eight until her senior year in high school. Her career ended after a knee injury and before she could accept a college scholarship. Mr. Malecki had been a basketball standout but did not have the opportunity to develop his skills through organized sports since he had to work from a young age.
Fourteen months after John was born, his brother Geoffrey entered the world. Mrs. Malecki recalled indications of extreme athletic talent in both boys before they even started grade school. “John and Geoffrey had to be on two different t-ball teams,” she recalled. “It wasn’t fair to have them on the same team.”
John grew up across the street from Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania. “We could hear the noise from Friday night football the first day we moved into the house,” he recalled. He wanted to hear his name called over that intercom system one day. He wanted a stadium full of fans cheering for him.
“Every time I heard the crowd or watched a game, I hoped I could be one of those guys on the field someday,” he said. Watching them walk out onto the field slapping each other’s shoulder pads left an impression as well. The boy who would grow into a 6’2″, 300-lb offensive lineman disclosed, “I would gawk at their size and how cool they looked.”
John remembers the exact moment his parents asked, “Do you want to play organized football?” Of course the answer was “yes.” It was the late nineties and John was going into sixth grade. Before he joined the team, his dad, a maintenance worker at the high school, made sure John understood that kids would be out there on the field trying to hurt him. Mr. Malecki tried to prepare him.
“We were on top of the hill outside the back door when he made me tackle him,” John remembered. “He obviously went down to make me feel like I was big and strong, but then he looked at me and said, ‘You might be the best kid in the backyard, but someone out there is going to be bigger and badder. There will always be someone bigger and badder.'” A round of roughhousing ensued when the elder John asked his son, “Are you gonna let them beat you?” John recalled, “I fought back and we got all dirty.”
Eventually, the boy who heard the cheers and intercom announcements from his house, and as a fan in the stands with his dad, became a football hero himself. In 2005, John led Franklin Regional to a victory in the AAA Pennsylvania State Championship. It is one of the best memories of his football career, not just because of his stellar performance on the field. “It was a great moment sharing that victory with the guys I’d been playing with since sixth grade. They are still my friends to this day.”
John stayed close to home after high school, playing on the offensive line for the University of Pittsburgh. College football was a positive experience full of close friendships. “We did everything together,” he recalled. “When we weren’t playing football, we were hanging out together, playing ping pong, BSing in the lunch room.”
John was living the dream– his and his parents’. After college in 2010 John was signed by the Tennessee Titans, where Mike Munchak was head coach. Then, as John likes to say, “I bounced around the league for a bit.” His employers included the Browns and Tampa Bay where he was released before he had even unpacked his suitcase. There was also a brief stint with the Redskins.
John had been on more teams in a year than he had in the past eight. “I was young and green when I got to Tennessee,” he said. “I thought the same things that got me to that point in my career would help me out in the NFL, but it is such a quick-turnover business. Someone becomes available on the waiver wire, and you’re gone. You’re a number on a paycheck for every team in the league.”
After leaving Tampa Bay in 2011, John went home to Murrysville, just twenty minutes from Latrobe. Then, he received some unexpected news. One of the Steelers had left the team abruptly, leaving an opening on the offensive line. John recalled, “My agent told them, ‘Hey, I’ve got a kid 20 minutes away.’ I hopped in the truck and drove right over there.” And with that, John became a Pittsburgh Steeler.
He saw playing time during one game in December 2012 against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. His whole family was there along with childhood friends and former teammates. “It was great to see the smile on my dad’s face,” he said. Mrs. Malecki recalled, “We were glowing. It was the greatest thing.” She also remembers telling an obnoxious Brown’s fan to keep it down. “I said, ‘OK, listen. My kid is going on the field. I’ve been listening to you the whole game. I want to be able to enjoy this and I don’t want to turn around and have an argument with you.'”
The welcome he received from the rest of the offensive line was also memorable. “It was the first time I got out on the field. Willie Colon, Max Starks, Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky embraced me as the underdog, but accepted me into their brotherhood that included Super Bowls and playing together for years,” he said. “They let me hop right in.” He also recalled, “I got to be in the huddle with Ben and Heath. I watched those guys as a kid growing up. Those dudes were some of the best guys I’ve ever met in my life.”
John’s career seemed even more promising in the wake of that game. After all those years bouncing around, then the 2013 training camp, and all four preseason games, he made the final Steelers roster. The atmosphere at home was celebratory. “We were thrilled,” recalled Mrs. Malecki. “It was a dream come true.”
The day after the good news, John and his dad took a trip to a hunting and fishing store. While there, his phone rang. It was the Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert. This time, it wasn’t good news. John found out he had been cut. “It went from the highest of the highs to the lowest low in 24 hours,” recalled Mrs. Malecki. The dream ended. “When it’s over it is heart-wrenching,” she said.
l’unica gioia al mondo e’ cominciare. e’ bello vivere perche’ vivere e’ cominciare, sempre, ad ogni instante
The only joy in the world is beginning. It is good to be alive because living is beginning, always, in every moment.
“Football was my life for such a long time, I felt like it was the only thing I knew,” John disclosed. “I still miss the ramp-up to the first game of the season. I miss training camp. I miss the banter. The meeting room. All the stuff you can’t replicate outside of that environment.”
The abrupt end of the NFL dream was a disappointment, but it was also an opportunity for a new beginning. John has since found his second passion and career in building custom furniture. Like athletic endeavors, creativity also had ties to home and family. Mrs. Malecki is a hairstylist, and her mother, an Italian immigrant, had a drapery business. Her dad, also Italian, worked with concrete and approached it as an art form, despite its utility.
John’s brother Geoffrey is a musician in California. The elder Malecki worked in construction for a while and was always very handy. There were also lots of building projects going on when John was growing up. “Italians stick together,” John said. “Everyone grabs a tool and gets on board.”
His first projects were for former Steelers teammate Baron Batch, an artist who had just bought a quirky home whose unique spaces demanded custom furniture. He and Baron worked together, building everything from tables to cabinets that reflected the character of the spaces they were created for. “We filled that bad boy up,” John said. “That’s when I really started rolling out pieces.”
Much of his furniture is made from reclaimed wood and metal, some of which is sourced from the infrastructure of Pittsburgh itself. “Home remodelers will give me the old timber out of the walls. I can transform it into a beautiful piece that holds the timeless character that only comes with age,” he said. “Pittsburgh was at the heart of the industrial revolution. The industrial concept of my work really shows the true character of what Pittsburgh means to me as someone who grew up here.”
His repurposing of old materials into something simultaneously modern and historic mirrors his personal transformation. While his profession is relatively new, he continually draws on his experience as a football player, even down to the way he approaches work.
“I work deliberately and diligently,” he shared. “I put my headphones in and get to work, focused and quiet.” He described it as “exactly the same experience” as when he worked out and trained for football. “As a football player, I was locked in to what I was doing, focused on every repetition. I do the same thing when it comes to woodworking,” he said.
Working together at Studio A.M., John the Builder and Baron the Artist try to replicate the camaraderie, competitiveness, and high standards they once knew as football players. “I always want to get better,” said John. “If you can learn to become a great team player, you can take it and apply it to business. Our team dynamic functions because Baron and I have experienced it on other teams.”
Even the experience of getting cut 13 times has benefited John in his work. He said, “Bouncing around and not knowing where I was going taught me to stay really level-headed.”
Though Kevin Colbert’s call marked the end of a dream John hoped would continue, it wasn’t really the end. The fulfillment of that dream has provided the underpinnings of his new calling. “I had the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream and play in the NFL,” he said. “I was never the tallest, biggest, fastest, or strongest. I just worked really, really hard. I take that same mentality and apply it to business.”
Recently, his parents moved out of his childhood home. “It was such a part of my youth. It got me thinking about all the things my old man taught me.” He continued, “I hope some other kid gets to enjoy it, and hopefully learn something in that backyard like I did.”
Just as he salvages materials from old homes to transform into new furniture, so John Malecki has resurrected and repurposed the lessons learned in his childhood home and applied them to his present and future. The fleeting advice given to a young child learning to play football has become a timeless foundation of his life,
For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past?
Originally published at Behind the Steel Curtain. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: Ben Petchel