Justin Strnad’s lunging attempt to bring down Florida State running back Cam Akers went awry. The Wake Forest linebacker ricocheted off Akers, twirling nearly 360 degrees through the air before landing face-first on the turf.
After a few minutes of writhing in pain, Strnad headed to the locker room to hear the diagnosis of his right arm.
The news was not good: a ruptured bicep tendon.
In that moment on October 19, 2019, the former East Lake standout went from the peak of his career to the abyss.
Strnad could not have asked for a better start to his senior season. He was a tackling machine who led the Demon Deacons to a solid record, putting them in contention for a major bowl invitation. The defensive stalwart also was looking forward to impressing scouts at combines and college all-star games to boost his stock in the upcoming NFL draft.
Now all of it was in jeopardy.
Instead, he faced surgery and months of rehabilitation.
Once the injury was confirmed, Strand buried his head in his hands, sobbing.
“I was devastated,” he said.
The game Strnad loved more than anything was about to be temporarily taken away. He talked about holding on to hope, about why bad things happen to good people.
It also allowed Strand to put things in perspective. He knew coming back from a torn bicep paled in comparison to what he had already endured.
In April of 2012, Strand’s uncle, Bubba, killed himself.
The two were close. They played wiffle ball and tossed a football at nearby parks. They spent hours playing video games or watching movies.
“We saw Step Brothers over and over again,” Strnad said. “That was our favorite. I even put a DVD of the movie in his casket before he was buried.”
To cope with that loss, Strand became more involved with suicide awareness. He took part in walks that brought attention to the cause. He talked about the importance of helplines. He wore wristbands to honor his beloved uncle.
“I just wanted to do whatever I could to spread the word,” Strnad said.
More heartbreak followed. Strand’s mother has been arrested numerous times on charges ranging from battery to grand theft. It became too much to bear. About three years ago, Strnad severed the relationship.
“I can’t even remember the last time I talked to my mom it’s been that long,” Strnad said. “I’ve been through so many different situations it made me grow up fast. It helped me overcome adversity.
“Sure, I was down in the dumps after my injury, but I’ve been through worse. It’s not as bad as losing an uncle or not having a relationship with your mother. Life isn’t always filled with smooth roads. There’s going to be bumps.”
The bond with his father, his siblings and grandparents grew stronger. Sports also became Strnad’s sanctuary. He started playing football at a youth league in Oldsmar along with his older brother, Nick.
Hardship continued, even on the gridiron. Nick suffered an injury that could have caused permanent spinal damage if he continued playing.
“My brother became a really good baseball player but football was his first love,” Strnad said. “I felt like I had to play for him because he couldn’t anymore. I know it brings him so much joy to watch me and see me succeed.”
Still, Strnad was not a natural at football. In fact, he decided baseball would be his best path to a college scholarship. That quest was derailed by an arm injury that took away the velocity on his fastball once he arrived at East Lake.
Eagles football coach Bob Hudson knew Strnad was a good athlete. So he enlisted the help of his son, Jake, to convince Strnad to join the team. Strnad became a defensive force, helping East Lake reach the state semifinals his final two seasons (2013-14).
At Wake Forest, Strnad steadily improved as a linebacker, recording at least 50 tackles in each of his last three seasons. That got the attention of NFL scouts who saw him as a potential pick.
Then came the injury. Strnad did most of the rehabilitation work at the EXOS Athletes Performance Institute in Pensacola. He decided to go to the NFL Combine despite not at full strength.
Unable to perform some tests, such as the bench press, Strnad hoped to show more of what he could do during a pro day. He never got the opportunity. The coronavirus pandemic prevented scouts from traveling across the country to evaluate prospects.
Workouts facilities, including the one run by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Yo Murphy, were eventually shut down. Nevertheless, Strnad endured. His father went online to purchase workout equipment, turning the garage in his Palm Harbor home into a makeshift gym.
To work on speed and agility, Strnad headed to a local soccer field. The sessions were recorded and sent to NFL teams.
“I’m not sure there is a person more focused on his goals than Justin,” said his father, Shawn Mazzoni. “I’m not just saying this because I’m his dad but if you ask anyone that was lucky enough to spend a period of time with him they will all say that he is a special kid.”
Strnad’s draft status never really plummeted. He has gone through video chats with at least 20 different teams. They go over his medical reports. They test his football knowledge. They ask about his character.
This year’s NFL draft is one of the most unpredictable, especially with teams formulating plans through a virtual setting. Strnad is projected to go anywhere from rounds 4-7. If he is taken, he will become the third player from East Lake picked in the draft in the last five years.
Social distancing also has forced Strnad’s family to scrap party plans this weekend. His father had reserved the entire third level of the Hooter’s on Clearwater Beach to accommodate friends and family from out of town. Instead, there will be just a handful of people at the house.
“For Justin to have this opportunity to be drafted means everything,” said his older brother, Nick Mazzoni, now an assistant football coach at Palm Harbor University. “He’s worked so hard and has been through so much in his life. I just can’t wait to see his face when that call comes in.”