However, there are examples of athletes overcoming true adversity in their lives, displaying courage and resolve in the face of uncommon hardship.
Such is the case with Adairsville senior student-athlete Brett Gutkowski, who has overcome the death of both of his parents within a two-year span and has gone on to excel in three sports as well as in the classroom.
Gutkowski lost his mother when he was 10 years old. After his mom’s death, Brett continued to live with his father and brother in the metro Phoenix area of Arizona for the next two years before his father became sick, too.
Ironically, it was on a family vacation when Brett’s family began to crumble.
“My mom felt a little lump beneath her arm, so we thought we would get it checked out when we got back. Well, it turned out to be cancer, melanoma,” Gutkowski said. “Shortly after that, about six months later, she passed away. I was then living with my dad and my brother — and my dad had been an extreme alcoholic most of his life, so his liver began to fail. He was in the hospital for, probably, about a few months and he passed away as well. So me and my brother moved in with my aunt and uncle here in Adairsville.”
Gutkowski’s aunt and uncle, Chrissy and Craig Robertson, became the guardians of Brett and his brother, in addition to their own three children.
“I was just unsure about the whole thing, really,” Gutkowski said. “Just from going to living with my parents to the complete opposite end of the country, just everything was changing: a new family, new rules and everything. I wasn’t sure when I moved here if I was going to fit in and get along with people, or how I was going to be treated because I wasn’t from around here.”
Along with the Robertson family, Adairsville provided a stable environment for Brett to grow up in, something he had not had during his previous years in Arizona.
“People here were actually very accepting and welcoming,” Gutkowski said.
One commonality between Brett’s life in Arizona and Georgia was the presence of sports in his life. Upon arriving in Adairsville, Brett used athletics to make new friends and provide a sense of normalcy that had been lacking. Brett became a three-sport athlete, excelling at football in the fall, wrestling during the winter season and tennis in the spring.
“I just made friends through sports really. Athletics got me acclimated to the new area. Sports helped me get along more,” he said. “Previous to moving here, I had played baseball. I stopped playing baseball after my mom passed away and I didn’t play sports for a while. When I moved here, I decided to pick up sports again.”
Brett played baseball when he was young in Arizona. However, he left the sport behind when he moved to Adairsville, along with a few calloused memories.
“I had never played football, wrestled or played tennis before. A lot of it had to do with my dad because he was one of my coaches, and after my mom passed away, he had started drinking even more heavily,” Gutkowski said. “It just made baseball tough for me because, when my dad stopped taking me to tryouts and that sort of thing and my brother had also stopped playing, I just fell away from baseball. It was just kind of a reminder of everything. I just didn’t want to play it anymore. When I moved here, I wanted to try something different, so I went to tennis.”
Now a senior, Gutkowski has become a standout in all three sports for the Tigers. In the fall, Gutkowski led the Adairsville football team in receptions while helping his team to a 7-3 regular season record and the team’s third consecutive state playoff appearance. This past weekend, Gutkowski accomplished another one of his athletic goals by reaching the state traditional championship meet as a wrestler in the 152-pound weight class.
For Brett, discovering stability after experiencing a period of such uncertainty is an achievement in its own right. Overcoming that uncertainty to achieve success is all the more impressive.
“When you think about all he’s overcome and what he’s done, it’s remarkable,” Adairsville assistant football and wrestling coach Patrick Konen said. “I’ve got experience with him in three different arenas from the classroom, football and wrestling. I couldn’t be more proud of another individual.”
Athletics have aided Gutkowski in overcoming hardships in his personal life. However, even on the field, Gutkowski has had to overcome several challenges.
Despite earning a spot in Adairsville’s 14-man lineup since his sophomore season, he had been unable to qualify for the state championship meet.
As a sophomore, he suffered from a case of pneumonia and bronchitis in the period leading up to the area tournament and sectionals, which prevented him from qualifying. During his junior season, Gutkowski sprained his medial collateral ligament in his knee, once again preventing him from high school wrestling’s highest stage.
Still, for Gutkowski, those setbacks paled in comparison to the hardships he had already persevered through. Finally, Gutkowski was able to attain his goal of qualifying for the state meet and qualified fourth at sectionals to earn a trip to the Gwinnett Center Friday for the state championship meet.
Regardless of how he performs this weekend, Gutkowski has already meant a great deal to the wrestling program and to head coach Joey Harris.
“At the area duals, we moved our lineup against Ringgold and we weren’t supposed to beat them. We were seeded above them but everyone expected us to lose, so we bumped our lineup and it came down to [Gutkowski in the 160-pound weight class],” Harris said. “He was losing in the third period by a point and there was 10 seconds left. Then again, he was our senior leader just kind of showing his heart. He got the kid down and got a two count. The kid escaped, but he still had the lead and scrambled for the win and we won, 34-32, because of his win.”
That same perseverance was on display earlier in his senior year on the gridiron. Despite playing limited varsity snaps in his first three years in the program, Gutkowski overcame his frustration to become an integral part of his team’s run to the playoffs.
“Brett was one of the first kids that I met with after I accepted the football job because I had heard rumors that he wasn’t going to play football. I called him in here and we talked a little bit, and he said that some of his disappointments had come from putting so much hard work in and not seeing a lot of playing time,” head football coach Eric Bishop said. “He came back the next day and said he was going to play and appreciated me talking to him. He just came out and proved every day that he needed to be on the field and could make plays for us. He didn’t score a lot of touchdowns but made a lot of catches for first downs keeping drives alive.
“The selfless part of him is just run blocking. He would get out there and stock block at the wide receiver position and probably did a lot of things to help this football team that the average person in the stands doesn’t see or doesn’t recognize. You appreciate it when you see it on field, and you can run it back and you can see him springing a run for another 10, 15 yards and sometimes for a touchdown after that.”
Gutkowski had another obstacle to overcome, one that several athletes can relate to.
“He’ll tell you that he’s probably not one of the best athletes in the world but he makes up for it with his work ethic, attitude and understanding of what we ask him to do. He contemplated not coming out for football at the beginning of the year being that he was a backup last year as a junior. He kind of thought that the writing was on the wall that there were more talented kids physically and he might not start,” Konen said. “He stuck with it, and by the time we got into the scrimmage and week one of the season, he was the starter, played the most plays at the position of wide receiver and was very integral in our success. While he thought he wasn’t going to play, he wound up being the most important receiver on our team, so it’s kind of a really cool success story.”
It is that perseverance that has become Gutkowski’s calling card to his coaches.
“He has overcome a lot of things and has really faced every challenge head on and has excelled in everything that he does be it football, wrestling or wherever he decides to go or whatever he decides to pursue,” Bishop said. “You know he’s going to be successful just based on those characteristics that he has. It definitely transcends from the field into everything that he does.”
Gutkowski’s perseverance has indeed translated into his everyday life. He holds a 3.7 grade point average despite enrollment in several honors and advanced placement classes over the course of his four years at Adairsville and has drawn rave reviews from his teachers in the process.
“I taught him AP World History in 10th grade and AP Psychology last year as a junior. He’s a good student. We recommended him for the Governor’s Honor in social studies. That’s where we recommend our students for an honor and they get through the state level and they spend their whole summer at Valdosta State,” Adairsville teacher Amy Asbridge said. “He was our representative for this whole state. He was willing to put off the sports.
“He’s just a great kid. He’s very focused. He asked me when he was filling out his college applications, ‘Should I mention that my parents are both deceased?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, that’s something that sets you apart from other kids and you’ve had to overcome.’”
What Gutkowski has overcome has given him life experience that far exceeds most high school students. As a result, his coaches and teachers recognize his maturity level and self-awareness.
“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Brett in multiple capacities as his ninth grade Honors Government and humanities teacher. I’ve also been his football coach and his wrestling coach. Brett’s a unique kid. First and foremost, he’s really bright. He’s really smart. He takes AP courses here and has very, very good grades. He’s very likable and very knowledgeable,” Konen said. “He’s intellectual and he asks some great questions. He really considers all aspects of whatever is being taught and thinks about the perspective of the winners or the losers and how they might perceive something different, so he’s really mature and really has a good grasp on things and how they can affect world problems. He’s mature, compassionate and self-aware. He reminds me of people I hung out with in college, very well spoken, very educated, but doesn’t have that sense of ego you find among teenage high school kids. You’re not going to see him get too riled up or down because he’s got great perspective and outlook on what’s going on. That makes him a leader amongst his classmates and peers.”
Like any success story, Gutkowski has had help along the way in becoming the young man that is revered by coaches, teachers and classmates. In this way, the Robertsons have provided Gutkowski with the one thing he was lacking, a stable home.
“[The Robertsons] have meant a ton to me,” Gutkowski said. “They’ve become my new mom and dad. My uncle has become the dad that I’ve never known because I never knew how a dad was supposed to act before then. So my aunt and uncle have taught me a lot. They taught me discipline, they’ve taught me responsibility, they’ve taught me how to be a better person and they’ve treated me like one of their kids.
“They’ve taken me in as one of their own and it just meant the world to me that they would do that.”