NORMAL — Steven Podkulski’s biographical information on the Illinois State football website is painfully short on details of his personal life.
We are informed only that Podkulski was born Dec. 29, 1997 in Joliet and he is an honor student. The customary listing of parents and any of their noteworthy accomplishments is nowhere to be found.
Sometimes the truth isn’t particularly pleasant. Sometimes reality is more of a kick in the butt than a pat on the back.
Podkulski’s biological father is an incarcerated, hardened criminal and his birth mother is, or at least was, a drug addict.
It’s not something you wear on your sleeve, it's not a nugget of conversation offered up over pizza with the guys. Yet it’s the hand Podkulski has been dealt, the life he is forced to live.
“I’ve been in the foster care system ever since I can remember really,” Podkulski said. “I don’t remember any stableness.”
Drug addiction led Podkulski’s mother, Misty, to lose custody of all seven of her children. The youngest, said Steven, was handed over to an aunt immediately after birth.
“She was into hard core drugs back in the day, probably still is,” said Podkulski. “I think she’s not doing so good right now. That’s what my sister said.”
An internet search of the name Steven Podkulski produces news of his athletic exploits, but also the extensive and troubling criminal history of his father of the same name.
“He’s a big criminal. My family tries to get me to talk to him, but I decided to cut off contact,” said the Redbird reserve defensive lineman. “During fifth grade, I think, he would have visitations with me and my brother. It was at McDonald’s with a case worker right by our side. That was the last time I saw him.
“It’s been tough to deal with mentally and socially. People always ask me about it. It’s worse having his first and last name.”
Podkulski initially moved in with an aunt on his mother’s side. “There were 12 kids in one house in Streator,” he recalled.
The strain proved too much for his aunt, and Podkulski was forced to leave. His first foster home was with a single father who provided few if any of the basic essentials. Podkulski admits to misbehaving to hasten a departure.
“That’s when I started bouncing around. I went to like 15 different houses in two years,” he said. “A lot of them were two-week placements. Through middle school, it was really bad. No one really wanted to adopt a 13-year-old boy.
"Every time I made friends, I moved and had to make new friends. I was thinking about running away at one point sixth-grade year, but where would I go?”
Although Podkulski knows there are many caring foster parents, “some of them really take you for granted. They don’t treat you the same as the whole family. Their kids get stuff you don’t get for Christmas. That’s probably the hardest thing as a foster kid. And you get more punishment than they do.”
Officially a “ward of the state,” Podkulski vividly recalls perhaps his lowest point came after being kicked out of a foster home when he was 12.
“I was sitting in the DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) office in Joliet thinking about my life,” he said. “All I had was a half bag of clothes. Case workers were seeing where they were going to send me next. That was the worst, not knowing where I was going.”
Podkulski later moved in with the Braidwood family of Brent Headrick, a Reed-Custer High School friend and current ISU baseball player.
“Now when I look back at it, they were really a great family for me. I should have stayed with them,” said Podkulski. “Then I got bounced around from New Lenox (Lincoln-Way Central) to Naperville Central. High school wasn’t that bad. I don’t consider four moves in high school that bad.”
Football was an escape. “I played since I was in first or second grade,” he said. “It was therapy for me all my life.”
A dream was realized after Podkulski attended a summer camp at ISU and was offered a walk-on opportunity. With financial help from the state, Podkulski became the first in his family to attend college.
“Coming from nothing to get an opportunity to play here, it’s a huge deal for me,” he said. “I wanted to go to college really bad. To play football on top of that is an even better experience.”
Still, making friends among the Redbirds did not come quickly or easily.
“I have a different sense of humor. I’m not always that social,” said Podkulski. “Sometimes I’m considered awkward. I would move around a lot, and I would never really talk. That stuck with me. It was hard to have good social skills.”
Helping to bring Podkulski out of his shell was Meekah Ben-Israel, a fellow redshirt freshman defensive lineman. The two met during a freshman orientation before football practice began.
“At first, you would think he’s a mysterious guy. But he’s really a loving, caring guy,” Ben-Israel said. “People won’t think that he’s funny, but he’s funny. Everything he’s been through has thickened his skin a lot. So he’s a pretty tough dude.”
ISU coach Brock Spack has noticed Podkulski’s slow but steady acclimation to fitting in as a Redbird.
“It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking,” Spack said of Podkulski’s tumultuous childhood. “We hardly ever saw him smile last year. Now that he’s been in the program a little longer we’re starting to see him smile more.
"Football, you hope that this is his family. Sometimes we get after him, but you’re always hard on the ones you love.”
After sitting out last season as a redshirt, the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Podkulski has made the ISU travel roster. He provides depth on the defensive line and plays on the punt team.
Redbird defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky envisions Podkulski taking a similar path to playing time as former walk-on and current starting defensive tackle Matt McCown.
“This is very enjoyable for him. There is nothing he has experienced in his personal life that can put him in a bad mood doing this,” said Nowinsky. “He’s big, strong and powerful. Because of how athletic he is, he could be outstanding. You have to be a tough son of a gun to play that spot. He shows that.”
Fortunes are indeed trending upward for Podkulski, who was put on a partial scholarship last winter. He now has “really good friends all over the football team. It took a while, but it’s definitely worth it. It really does mean a lot to me to be on this team. The whole football team is a big family.”
He spends his summers with his current foster mother, Chris, in Naperville. Aunts in Arizona and Massachusetts who were previously unable to help because of financial constraints now fly him in to spend time with them on holiday breaks.
“My aunt (Bridget) in Arizona is a doctor now. She’s always been there for me,” Podkulski said. “She would always call to talk with me at night. That was a big deal for me. I felt like somebody actually cared when I was alone at a regular foster home.”
An ongoing source of motivation are his two youngest brothers. Jacob, who is in sixth grade, and fourth grader Michael live in Streator with the aunt that initially took in all the Podkulski children.
“I want to make my little brothers proud and set an example for them,” said Steven, a health management major who would like to work in a hospital as an ultrasound technician. “I always keep in touch with them and try to make their football games.”
Would Podkulski like to someday be a parent himself?
“I would definitely want to after college,” he said. “I also want to adopt. It would be cool to take some in.”