Jack of All Trades
Photos by Georgie de Mattos
The first day Max Betkowski arrived on Cal Poly’s campus, he was nothing more than a 6-foot-2, 195-pound engineering student hoping to find his way through college’s maze of experiences.
But dreams are meant to be achieved, records are meant to be broken and ceilings are meant to be shattered. Betkowski dreamed of being more than the average college student.
Upon arriving at Cal Poly, the lanky freshman was determined to walk on to the men’s basketball team.
“I played high school basketball and I was very interested in trying to play in college,” Betkowski said. “And I had a couple of (Division II) and (Division III) offers, but I was looking for (Division I).”
Though Betkowski was far from deprived when it came to talent and athleticism, it was his unique character that stood out to men’s basketball’s head coach Joe Callero.
“Max has the passion to compete,” Callero said. “He competes in the weight room, he competes on the basketball floor, he competes on the football field and he competes in the classroom.”
Just weeks after arriving at Cal Poly, Betkowski was officially a member of the men’s basketball team.
“Out of the 20-some odd guys that tried out with me, I was the one who was picked,” Betkowski said. “And that was a great moment in my life to be chosen out of all those people, especially since most of them were upperclassmen and I was one of the only freshman that tried out.”
Despite his status as a walk-on and the fact that he was only months removed from high school in San Francisco, Betkowski was quickly determined to improve his game. His improvement began with squats, bench presses and deadlifts.
“I knew nothing about the weight room,” Betkowski said. “I wasn’t opposed to it, I just knew nothing about it. I didn’t do it in high school. My dad and I would just go on runs, do pushups and sit-ups together. That’s just what we did.”
The same determination and dedication that Callero noticed on the hardwood translated to the weight room.
“He’s a strength coach’s dream because he wants to get strong and he wants to get fast,” said head strength and conditioning coach Chris Holder. “He wants to do those things that most people are not willing to do in terms of pushing it to those dark places of discomfort and fatigue.”
Though Betkowski’s efforts didn’t translate to the stat sheet — he never scored a point in six career games — his efforts didn’t go unnoticed. “He’s had startling physique changes, but it completely revolves around the idea that he comes in and sells out every day,” Holder said.
After Betkowski and the Mustangs advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, beating Texas Southern before falling to top-seeded Wichita State, conversation began swirling about Betkowski making the switch to football.
“Talks were sort of tongue-in-cheek in the beginning, then started to get more momentum as things continued on that year,” Holder said. “I actually had an impromptu meeting with Coach Walsh and said ‘Hey, would you be interested in having a basketball player change over?’ And immediately Coach Walsh knew who Max was because Max was (in the weight room) a lot.”
Betkowski’s athletic career wasn’t the only thing in question either. He began to question whether he was pursuing the right major and whether industrial engineering was part of his future.
“Max had kind of hit a crossroads in terms of what he wanted to do in terms of his major,” Holder said. “He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in terms of his career after school’s over. And of course because he has such an affinity for this room and what we we’re doing, the idea of becoming a strength coach became more of a reality for him.”
With that, Betkowski decided to switch his major to kinesiology and began focusing on strength and conditioning coaching. After gaining more than 40 pounds of muscle, increasing his weight from 195 pounds to 235 pounds, Betkowski’s basketball career hung in the balance.
“I was initially an industrial engineering major, and I was unsure whether I wanted to be that, so I ended up switching to kinesiology,” Betkowski said. “(Coach Holder) knew that I was a hard-working kid and he thought, ‘you know the strength and conditioning program as well as I do now; you might as well just come help me out with strength and conditioning.’”
Taking advantage of a unique opportunity, Betkowski spent the 2014-15 academic year as the strength and conditioning coach for the men’s basketball team. Under Holder’s guidance, Betkowski quickly learned about workout programming and coaching. He spent early hours and late nights in the weight room, focused on his new craft.
Betkowski’s work ethic translated to the team as well: “There’s an expectation when (the men’s basketball team) comes into train that Max insists upon, which is perfect. It’s exactly what every coach should do,” Holder said.
After one year in charge of the men’s basketball team’s strength and conditioning program, Betkowski’s athletic career would once again change course. Though rumors of Betkowski’s switch to football had floated around for more than a year, they became a reality.
The only problem was that Betkowski had never played a down of contact football. The last time he had played in an organized game was when he was 10 years old, running around trying to rip Velcro flags off ball carriers’ waistbands.
True to his values, Betkowski hit the ground running. He battled his way through spring camp and the annual spring game, earning a spot on the team as a tight end.
“The learning curve was steep and spring ball is intense. It’s a lot of information to absorb in a short period of time,” Betkowski said.
Five games into the season, Betkowski experienced his first dose of collegiate football. His first play from scrimmage turned into a lifelong memory. “We ended up scoring a touchdown on (my first) play,” Betkowski said. “Kyle Lewis ended up scoring a touchdown. I don’t even think I ran the play right, but Kyle Lewis scored a touchdown and I got to celebrate in the end zone with him, and that was a great experience.”
“Most efficient player on the football team, I guess. One play, one touchdown,” Betkowski added jokingly.
After appearing in two more games over the course of the season, Betkowski had completed his first season of college football and continued to hit the weight room harder than ever.
After finally breaking the former Cal Poly clean record of 170 kilograms (about 375 pounds) held by former NFL linebacker and FCS All-American Chris Gocong, Betkowski now trails current defensive lineman Josh Letuligasenoa, who can clean 185 kilograms.
If records are meant to be broken, Betkowski will be the one to break them.
Betkowski will have one more year to catch Letuligasenoa, but in the meantime he’ll continue striving toward his goal of owning his own athletic training facility in the Bay Area upon graduation.
“I’m just trying to make the most of my own opportunities,” Betkowski said. “Every door that opens, I’m just trying to make it the best as I can possibly make it. Cal Poly’s a great place. I’m so lucky to be here and to get all the opportunities I have. I don’t think I’d have the same opportunities anywhere else. And I think people sometimes don’t realize how many doors can be opened at a place like Cal Poly with teachers and mentors.”
If goals are meant to be achieved, Betkowski is one to achieve them.
“He’s been fantastic for us,” said Holder. “I’ve had a million interns, a million volunteers. I’ve had a million assistant coaches. And he’s kind of a once or twice in a career type guy where you get the opportunity to mentor a guy who’s probably going to exceed any expectations I’ve ever had for him or he’s ever had for himself because of his drive. And I’m just excited that I got to be the one to help him point things in the right direction and get him going. He’ll be a success no matter what he does.”