Carter Bykowski in action during the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl. (Photo courtesy Iowa State Athletics Communications)
Weight plates clinked and crashed.
Players strained and shouted, powering through each set to the point of exhaustion.
It’s summer and it’s hot and it’s hard work — and back in 2008, former Iowa State standout Carter Bykowski was just a 17-year-old freshman tight end trying to find his place in the Cardinal and Gold-tinted world.
“One of the strength coaches there my freshman summer, he was like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be a tackle before you leave here,’” Bykowski recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy.’”
Bykowski then paused while remembering this story.
“Just wait,” he added.
The best-laid plans of mice, men — and eventually hulking NFL-bound offensive lineman — often take twists and turns.
So it was for Bykowski, who arrived at Iowa State in Gene Chizik’s final ignominious season all of 6-7 and 245 pounds and left in 2012 at 6-8 and 304.
He actually played tight end as a true freshman, mostly blocking, but also catching three balls for 21 yards.
Then Chizik abruptly departed for Auburn, where he’d win a national championship* with Cam Newton at quarterback. Paul Rhoads took over the Cyclones’ program and draped a redshirt over Bykowski’s broad, but less-than-fully-developed frame. The former Eden Prairie, Minn. prep standout would indeed be making the move to tackle — even though the main reason he chose ISU instead of another school stemmed from his desire to stay at tight end.
“That’s really what drew me to Ames,” said Bykowski, who was picked by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft. “They said, ‘Hey, we can take you and be a pro-style offense and be a big tight end;’ used in similar ways I was in high school: blocking predominantly but catching some passes here and there. I liked that idea.”
Until it didn’t make sense. Once Rhoads and his staff suggested the move, Bykowski was all-in. He’d grown to love Iowa State. He loved his teammates. He trusted the coaches — and, hey, doing the dirty work in the trenches could be rewarding.
“Obviously the pay in the NFL, if you’re a really good left tackle, is a lot of money, so I’m like — not that I ever projected myself as an NFL guy, I just want to get through college and play,” said Bykowski, a three-time academic All-Big 12 honoree. “It just happened to work out that way. … So I was like, ‘Why not give it a shot?’ There I was for four or so years (in the NFL), putting off the inevitable career — of doing something else.”
Bykowski now works in sales for a cybersecurity company. He lives about 15 minutes south of his hometown in Chaska, Minn., with his wife, Adrianna — a former ISU soccer player he met in Ames — and their 18-month-old son, Brody.
“Sales is kind of like athletics: Competitive people trying to win all the time,” said Bykowski, whose NFL career was cut short by a severe pectoral muscle injury. “If you’re putting in the time you can be pretty successful at it.”
Bykowski’s father played basketball at South Dakota. His oldest brother, Matt, played quarterback at Minnesota State (Mankato).
“The pretty boy,” Carter joked.
The family — unlike most Twin Cities denizens — had a cabin up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in Spearfish Canyon, not in the Brainerd Lakes area or further points Up North. They’d visit in summer and in winter.
The three Bykowski brothers also became highly competitive with one another. Of course. And Carter was the youngest of the three, which obviously carried a special burden — until it became apparent he’d outgrow his older siblings.
“There was always a fierce competition for the last hot dog, to playing football in the backyard or basketball in the back yard,” Bykowski said. “Had a little concrete slab and a hoop up there. It was definitely ingrained in us to be competitive. You just want to beat your older brother. No matter what it was. He was always much bigger and then I grew and grew and ended up being bigger than my middle brother quite early; just the way genetics worked. I ended up catching him when I was in high school and he was done playing. The tide had changed pretty dramatically. He would never admit it, but he was always someone to look up at and (emulate) growing up, so it was fun to have him around. Both of them. Both really competitive and good at sports growing up, so it was pretty easy for me to do the same.”
By the time Carter hit high school, he was 6-7 and one of the state’s top prospects. He played for head coach Mike Grant — the son of legendary Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant — and finished his Eden Prairie High School career with back-to-back state championships.
Since taking over the program in 1992, Grant has led the Eagles to 11 large-school state titles. So success was engrained in Bykowski by him and the aura around the program.
“You wanted to do the right thing,” Bykowski said of playing for Grant. “You didn’t want to disappoint him. He was never a guy to berate you or make you feel like an idiot. His thing was don’t have excuses. Try not to make the same mistake twice — or at least not in quick succession, because that means you’re learning your lesson or getting better, right?”
Those lessons translated well for Bykowski in Ames, even as the Gene Chizik coin flipped into the Paul Rhoads era. Perhaps, even more so because of that transition and the hard-nosed, outwork everyone approach Rhoads and his staff stressed to the Cyclones.
“Sure there were a couple highly-recruited guys out of high school, but most of the guys that made up that team were two and three-star guys,” Bykowski said. “Just blue-collar. Went to work every day with a hard hat — kind of that mentality that Coach Rhoads instilled in us. We were playing for each other and just to show we’re not little Iowa State. We’re going to make you work for every yard you get, that type of thing.”
Bykowski worked to put on nearly 60 pounds of “good weight” throughout his ISU career. The tide had turned for the program. Rhoads guided the Cyclones to three bowl games in four seasons — and sometimes people forget how achingly close they were to making that four straight postseason appearances, but for a fake extra point that went awry in a 31-30 loss to Nebraska.
“We were that close to beating them, which would have been really cool,” Bykowski said. “Just because of the old Big Eight rivalry with Nebraska and we had beaten them the year before when I was redshirting. It would have been great to have the last two (games) go in our favor.”
Great, indeed, but not to be.
Greater things were ahead. Most notably, the 2011 upset of Oklahoma State that essentially ended the BCS and paved the way for Alabama’s inclusion and an eventual national championship.
“Obviously the Oklahoma State game was great,” Bykowski said. “I still had a bunch of buddies when I was playing in the league who played at Alabama thanking me.”
The Cyclones closed that season with a 27-13 loss to Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl, but all signs pointed to the program taking another step in 2012.
Jeremiah George, A.J. Klein and Jake Knott were back to star at linebacker. Steele Jantz was the starting quarterback, but Jared Barnett had already proved to be a very capable backup. Talent and experience rippled through the starting lineup, but not into the two and three-deeps.
So when injuries started piling up — particularly a season-ender to Knott during a win over Baylor — they were too severe and numerous to overcome.
ISU finished 6-7 and lost to Tulsa in the Liberty Bowl.
“I think we were a play or two away from being an eight or nine-win team,” said Bykowski, who took pride in finishing his career against Iowa with a weird, but satisfying 9-6 win at Kinnick Stadium. “Just a couple bad bounces here and there, but it was fun to be a part of that, especially my senior year, playing the entire time. Just having that confidence with teammates knowing we weren’t (completely) overmatched in any game and it showed, right? We had some bad bounces. Some injuries here and there that kept us out from winning the bowl game and a couple additional games during the season, but it was definitely special. There are friendships I still have to this day; guys like A.J. Klein, a bunch of O-lineman, buddies of mine that I played with. Definitely special.”
Bykowski had also turned himself into a player with pro potential. But would he be drafted? Did it even matter, since he was likely a late-rounder? Yes, it did. So when the 49ers called to tell him they’d be selecting him, Bykowski beamed.
“It’s always an honor to have your name called because no one can ever take that away from you,” Bykowski said.
Bykowski was still green at tackle once he joined the 49ers for camp. It showed, too. He’d only played the position for about two and a half years, which meant he was raw, but his ceiling was sky-high.
“I really didn’t understand football until I got there and had a really awesome old-school offensive line coach, Mike Solari,” Bykowski said. “He was a technician to a fault. Everything was so done, to the foot angle and how big your first step was. Everything was so detail-oriented to where it took my game from being an OK player, a good player in college, a fringe guy in the NFL to playing really, really well after being with them for 18 months or so.”
But growth didn’t lift Bykowski from the practice squad. Eventually, he landed with his hometown team, the Vikings, and he made the 53-man roster there until that severe pec injury started taking its toll on his budding career.
“I was still figuring it out,” Bykowski said. “I think I was still figuring it out when I got done playing. I was getting better and better each year. … I think I was right there to contend for the starting role my third year, so that’s kind of the way the league is, it’s timing and placement.”
After his stint in Minnesota, Bykowski was signed to the Atlanta Falcons’ practice squad. It ended up being his last season in the league, but at least it ended at the 2017 Super Bowl — a game Falcons fans would rather forget.
Atlanta led the New England Patriots 28-3 midway through the third quarter before Tom Brady rallied his team to a stunning comeback win. Bykowski watched along with everyone else as his hopes for attaining a Super Bowl ring plunged into yet another chapter of Brady-and-Bill Belichick lore.
But, hey, he does have an NFC Championship ring.
“It was definitely surreal,” Bykowski said of that game. “Classic storybook ending for the Patriots and it ended up going that way. Definitely the tale of two halves.”
Bykowski is able to continue his sales work from home. Minnesota has been under a stay-at-home order since late March, but he’s enjoying the added family time.
“My biggest challenge is finding a quiet spot in the house,” Bykowski said. “I was in the basement for the first month and a half, but I had to wear several layers of clothes because it was so cold down there.”
So he moved to a spare upstairs bedroom. Occasionally, Brody likes to make an appearance at a less-than-opportune time, but that’s cool.
“He loves playing, yelling and finding dad, so it’s been fun to deal with that,” Bykowski said with a laugh.
As for his alma mater, Bykowski sees more growth ahead for Matt Campbell and his staff — whenever football is ready to resume.
The 2020 Cyclones, in terms of expectations and returning experience (except, ironically enough, on the offensive line) is somewhat similar to his senior squad in 2012. Eight wins seems a good baseline expectation. Maybe even nine or more could be possible if things break the Cyclones way, unlike during Bykowski’s final campaign.
Either way, he’s excited to see what may happen. Uncertainty can energize you or paralyze you. Bykowski has always used it as an impetus toward success — especially when he made that momentous position switch over a decade ago.
“I think they made a great hire (in Campbell and his staff) and I think coach Rhoads has done great things since he’s left — being successful in what he’s done,” Bykowski said. “As far as legacies go, I think he was a huge part of turning around the culture and Campbell took it and ran with it.”