By Zak Lantz
Of The Spirit
PUNXSUTAWNEY — These days, you may best recognize him as "Big Chill," a member of Punxsy Phil's Groundhog Club Inner Circle, but long before he was such an integral part of Punxsy's biggest party, Jason Grusky was on the radar of members of the community for a different reason: his impressive athletics career at Punxsutawney Area High School.
Grusky — a member of the class of 1991 — was a three-year letterman in football, and he set the single season rushing record in 1990 for Punxsutawney, a record he still holds, with 1,417 yards over the 10-game season on 191 carries. That's an impressive average of 7.4 yards per carry.
The single season rushing record was complemented by a single-season scoring record the same year, with 22 touchdowns and four two-point conversions giving him 140 points on the season.
And while football was the sport he may have been most well-known for, he also excelled as a thrower and runner in track and field. In fact, his career-best shot put throw of 55-6, while shy of a school record, remains one of the best throws in school history.
Grusky was a three-time letter winner in track and field and a four-time District IX champion with two titles in the shot put (1990 and 1991), a title in discus (1991) and a fourth as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team (1991). That same year, he finished ninth at the PIAA State Championships and ran on the then-school-record-setting 400-meter relay team, which finished in 45.2 seconds at the state championships. Grusky also cites one of his greatest achievements in high school athletics as being given the James Manners Award for excellence in D-IX track and field. In addition to his accomplishments on the field, Grusky was named a two-year member of the National Honor Society.
In 2007, Grusky's hard work in high school was recognized as he was inducted into the Punxsy Sports Hall of Fame.
Despite the impressive high school history, though, Grusky's most recent honors have come for his performance at the collegiate level. Grusky went on to be a two-sport athlete at Carnegie Mellon University, and in his four years there he helped the team to an overall 31-8 record and three University Athletic Association (UAA) championships.
The UAA — a Division III athletic conference that consists of eight schools that are known for their academic strength including CMU, Brandeis University, Case Western, Emory, New York University, University of Chicago, University of Rochester and Washington University in St. Louis — was founded in 1987 and is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.
"The idea of the conference when it was formed was that it was for small, private schools in big cities," Grusky said. "There were eight, or nine, schools (Editor's note: Johns Hopkins University was formerly a member, but dropped out of the UAA), and the draw was that it was for these smaller private schools in bigger settings."
As a part of the 25th anniversary, Grusky was notified last year that he was named part of the conference's 25th anniversary football team.
"Back in December, I received an email and a letter that I'd been named to the anniversary football team," Grusky said. "I told a friend of mine, but I didn't think it was a very big deal. He actually went behind my back and let some other folks know, but it didn't really go anywhere."
More recently, though, Grusky received another notification: one informing him he had also been named to the UAA 25th anniversary track and field team.
"Last month, I got another letter that was for track, and both of these things were pretty unexpected for me," he said. "I knew I had a pretty good career, but I didn't know I was doing this, and for that long of a period, it's pretty exciting to be mentioned among the peers this groups me with."
As impressive as his high school career was, Grusky's college numbers spoke for themselves, as well.
In his four-year football career in the UAA, he amassed 1,913 yards — good enough for second best in the conference — and he still holds the UAA record for single season rushing touchdowns in conference play with 11 over a four-game conference schedule in 1994.
He was a three-time selection to the All-UAA team and was named a pre-season All-American by The College Football Preview and the Football Gazette in 1993.
His track and field career at CMU saw him break the CMU shot record as a freshman in 1992 — a record that had stood for 50 years and was just recently broken after 15 years with Grusky at the top.
He was a two-time shot put gold medalist at the UAA Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships and a four-time silver medalist at the outdoor championships. With a humble spirit, Grusky spoke about the great honor it was to be named to the anniversary teams.
"It's a huge honor," he said. "I never played for awards, honors or records, but they are always nice to receive. I tried to work hard and lead by example. I always wished for the team to do well, whatever that took. That's why it's such an honor. I wasn't expecting it. It just kind of hit me by surprise. But it's a great feeling to be remembered, especially now as I'm approaching 40 years old. It seems like ancient history since I was a part of organized sports. So, it's a huge honor."
Given the honor that it was, Grusky had a long list of folks he wanted to thank for helping him along the way.
"I'd like to thank the great leadership — parents, teachers, coaches, professors and teammates," he said. "I'd like to thank them all for helping me along the way. I may not have amounted to anything, and they deserve a lot of the credit. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you can't do it alone in sports."
After his time at CMU, Grusky returned to Punxsy, where he is also well-known for his 10 years as an assistant coach for the boys' varsity track and field team and five years as an assistant coach for Punxsy's football team.
Grusky said that with his background, teaching and coaching just came as a natural next step.
"I kind of always had enjoyed it, and that's what led me into teaching," he said. "I always thought if you're good at something, it's kind of your obligation to pass it on to someone else. I figured I did pretty well with it, so maybe I could help pass that on to some of these kids."
With that said, Grusky has recently decided to step down from the coaching end to work on coaching some other youth, as his three children with wife Holly — Matthew (7), Mary (5) and Luke (2) — are reaching the age where they're beginning to pursue athletics.
"I really enjoyed my 10 years of coaching track and five with football, but now, I'm switching gears and going to do some things with my kids through the Soccer Association and tee-ball with the Community Center," he said.
Grusky's athletics career may have ended back at CMU, but after his career, he spent time working for another cause, as he hiked the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail to raise over $8,000 for the National Kidney Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.
In addition to his work with and for the community, he now spends much of his time promoting Punxsy's greatest pastime and tradition in Groundhog Day, and it looks as if his contributions to the community will continue to pile upon each other.