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Two sports, one RedHawk: the journey that still guides Alexx Zielinski

"Min familj aer min styrka."

Alexx Zielinski decided to ink "My family is my strength," on his forearm shortly after committing to play for his second college athletic team.

His family, of Swedish descent, helped him through what he considered to be the greatest challenge he's faced in his 22 years.

A three-sport athlete in high school, Zielinski had double the opportunities as any other high school athlete to play at the Division I level. At 6'5" and 230 pounds, the offers came to Zielinski in football and baseball, but not basketball, which he stopped playing after his sophomore year.

"[Football and baseball] were the two sports I absolutely loved growing up," Zielinski said. "I thought I could see myself going to the next level in either of those. I didn't want to specialize or focus on one, so I felt the need to do both."

Sticking with both sports helped etch what would be an incredible journey through two Division I college sports programs at Miami University.

The foundation on two playing fields

Zielinski grew up 20 miles north of Ann Arbor, Mich., in Brighton, where he attended Brighton High School.

His father, Steve, works as a sales manager for his own company, while his mother, Laurie, is a teacher at a local school. It was Steve who instilled the love for sports in Alexx at a young age.

He wasn't the first Division I athlete in the family, though. Steve played football at Columbia University, his uncle played tight end at Harvard University and his grandfather played basketball at Boston College.

"[My dad] never really pressured me into anything specific," Zielinski said. "But ever since I started walking, he would throw a small, stuffed baseball or football in my crib."

Baseball was Zielinski's primary passion, as college coaches lined up for the chance to see a large, left-handed pitcher. Zielinski was the picture-perfect frame for a top level pitcher, especially one that could throw an 87 mile-per-hour fastball as a sophomore.

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The offers came rolling in for Zielinski, who held a .78 earned run average his senior year, giving up only six earned runs in 54 innings pitched, while walking six and striking out 61.

Eastern Michigan University, Furman University, The United States Air Force Academy, University of Toledo, Western Michigan University and Danny Hayden at Miami University all offered Zielinski spots on their teams.

It wasn't until his sophomore year of high school that Zielinski truly started the process of joining a college program. He started lifting and grew into his then-lanky body.

"I was really skinny, about 6'5" and 190 pounds," Zielinski said. "After my sophomore year was when I really started lifting."

But, the recruitment process for baseball begins in the first two years of high school, while football doesn't pick up until a player's junior and senior years.

To make things difficult - a good difficult, Zielinski says - he had a breakout junior year in football, gaining some attention from Mid-American Conference schools.

"At that time, I was just going to go with whatever was working at that point," Zielinski said. "So, I went to football camps while also playing baseball, since those offers were still on the table."

Zielinski joined a 7 versus 7 football league, in which some of the top players in Michigan compete in, the summer before his senior year. With no pads, players are able to show off their athletic abilities in front of college coaches and recruiters. The experience allowed schools to get Zielinski on their radar, and he would then receive invitations to college football camps.

"For me and football, it was, 'Whatever happens, happens,'" Zielinski said. "My first scholarship offer for football was that June from Central Michigan University for football. That's when it switched, and I knew I wanted to put all my eggs into the football basket."

From throwing heat to catching bullet passes

The odds worked in Zielinski's favor. College football teams offer 85 full athletic scholarships, while baseball offers only 11.7 to be divided amongst the entire 35-man roster.

Zielinski's offer from Central Michigan was a full athletic scholarship, and with the school located just an hour and a half away from his family, the decision became a no-brainer. He verbally committed in mid-August.

He continued to excel in his senior year as a tight end, and it was smooth sailing to Mount Pleasant until the tides changed on Jan. 22, 2015.

Dan Enos, the former head coach at Central Michigan, left to take an offensive coordinator job at the University of Arkansas, altering Zielinski's plans.

The same week, he received more offers: one from the University at Buffalo, Ohio University, Eastern Michigan and another from Chuck Martin at Miami University.

With uncertainty looming from Central Michigan, Zielinski became frustrated, tweeting two days before the Feb., 4 signing day deadline, "Very disappointed that there's no news or head coach at this point ... signing day is Wednesday!!"

Then, on signing day, he decommitted from CMU and decided to don the Red and White of the RedHawks.

"Alexx was interesting," Martin said. "We stayed with him and came in there late and scooped him up. Those kids that can combine and be good in multiple sports is a huge appeal."

Before coming to campus in the fall of 2015, Zielinski had been to Oxford multiple times for baseball camps and an official visit.

"We missed out on him," Miami head baseball coach Danny Hayden said. "But one thing we thought about was that at least he didn't go and be good for somebody else in the MAC. Plus, he wasn't even playing the same sport, so that was the other silver lining to it."

Zielinski didn't play in his first year at Miami, as both he and the coaching staff agreed it would be better to take a redshirt year. He was toward the bottom of the depth chart, with guys like Nate Becker and Ryan Smith ahead of him in the pecking order. Smith went on to play in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers for one year, while Becker signed a free agent deal with the Detroit Lions on Apr. 27.

Zielinski saw little action in his football career, appearing in 13 games in three years. He only recorded two catches (both during his sophomore year) for 18 yards. One of the catches was a 12-yard gain against Iowa, while the other was for six yards in the St. Petersburg Bowl against Mississippi State. Those would be the only statistics Zielinski accrued in his time on the gridiron.

The offseason came around, and Zielinski's view of football changed.

"I was worried about my health," Zielinski said. "I've had plenty of concussions in my day, and me and my position coach weren't getting along too well. Those were probably the two biggest reasons."

But, there was another thought lingering. The one thought that hangs over any decision: the "what if?"

Zielinski met with Chuck Martin at the end of the season to discuss his future with the team.

"I told him how I felt," Zielinski said. "No bad blood, no negative vibes. I told him that I thought my time here was done and wanted to find myself and focus on myself to figure out what I wanted to do."

Martin didn't fight Zielinski's decision

"I think in the back of his head he thought, 'I'm in the middle of the pack as a football player, I'm not in the front, I'm not in the back,'" Martin said. "We always liked Alexx and are supportive of all our athletes. If you want to play, then play. If not, we support that too."

To the diamond and beyond

Zielinski hadn't picked up a baseball in three and a half years when he walked into head coach Danny Hayden's office in April 2018.

The former tight end wanted to make the return to the diamond.

The road wouldn't be that easy, however, as Zielinski had to work his way onto Hayden's roster. First, he had to get back into baseball shape, which requires a different kind of lifting and stretching than football.

"We liked him in high school, but thought it would be challenging for him when you're away from a sport for that long," Hayden said. "There were some definite questions on if he'd be able to handle it, if he'd have enough flexibility to throw like he used to, but definitely some excitement. He's a 6-foot-5-inch left-handed pitcher who comes into your office and unexpectedly says he wants to give it a go."

Hayden also wouldn't help him out immediately, saying Zielinski had to work out and throw by himself before having a midsummer tryout in front of Hayden and the pitching coach at the time, Matt Davis. From there, Hayden would evaluate and see if Zielinski could make the 35-man team.

"When I first saw him throw," Hayden said, "I thought it would be a longshot for him to be able to make the team. I thought it looked he hadn't picked up a baseball in a long time, and it was very rusty."

But, it wasn't just Zielinski's on-field play that Hayden was worried about.

"The first thing I did when he left that meeting was call Coach Martin and see what kind of kid he was for the football program," Hayden said. "We didn't get that far in the recruiting process, so I didn't know much about him. I wanted to make sure what kind of character the kid had, and I couldn't have gotten more green lights from Chuck [Martin] on his character and what he was about."

Davis' replacement, pitching coach Matt Passauer, inherited Zielinski and didn't know too much about him before the season started this past February. That changed quickly.

"He's just always smiling," Passauer said. "I don't think I've ever seen Alexx Zielinski when he's not in a good mood. He's just a good personality to be around."

Zielinski passed both of Hayden's tests, and joined the team in August 2018. He knew some of his teammates from classes and from being a student-athlete at Miami.

"I didn't know how they would perceive me, so it was nerve-racking," Zielinski said. "I never knew if they were saying, 'Oh, what is this kid doing here? Is he just doing this for fun, or does he mean it?' I had to prove myself from day one that I belonged with them."

While he has only made two appearances out of the bullpen his only season in a baseball uniform and final season in any RedHawks uniform, he has still put up good numbers. In two innings of work, Zielinski has faced nine batters and has a 0.00 ERA, giving up one hit with one strikeout and one walk.

Change is a part of life

Not only did Zielinski's life change throughout this process, his family was there to consult and support him the entire way.

"They never wanted to pressure me," Zielinski said. "They said that they would support me no matter what and want what's best for me."

They helped guide him through each decision, but they ultimately knew it was his choice to make.

"As long as I set my mind to something, I really want to see it through. It sounds cliche, but it's true," Zielinski said. "One of the things I'm thinking about is, if I'm in the future and I'm 40 years old, would I rather have gone all out for baseball, or just be content with where I was? But, I knew four-year-old me would tell me to go for it."

wisebm@miamioh.edu

@bennettmwise

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