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Story and photos by Ryan Isley

WILLOUGHBY HILLS, Ohio — Cornerstone Christian Academy basketball coach Babe Kwasniak is having the time of his life coaching this season.

But it wasn’t that long ago when Kwasniak didn’t think he would be here.

Not just at CCA, but here. At all.

From the outside looking in, one would think Kwasniak is living the best life.

He was the youngest person ever appointed as a civilian aide to the secretary of the United States Army. He is in the Ohio Department of Veterans Services Hall of Fame with the likes of Ulysses S. Grant, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Woody Hayes, and he led Villa Angela-St. Joseph to three state championships and five straight appearances in the state title game as a head basketball coach.

But even while having that success, he wasn’t happy. Something was missing. It was the thing he now cherishes the most.

“I got to a point in my life where I had just won my second of three state championships and I was suffering from depression so bad that I tried to take my own life,” Kwasniak said. “I just have a new perspective, and that perspective is rooted in Jesus.”

This came amid what most would think was the pinnacle of Kwasniak’s coaching career. But people on the outside didn’t detect the coach's state of depression.

At a time one would think Kwasniak would be basking in all of the glory of what he had helped build at VASJ, he felt nothing.

“We were fifth in the country, we had six Division I (college) guys, and I remember turning to my dad and he was like ‘what, you’re not happy?’ And no, I wasn’t,” Kwasniak said. “A lot of people don’t understand that true depression is not sadness, it’s a state of being. I didn’t feel anything.”

After feeling shame and guilt for trying to take his own life, Kwasniak now serves with the Northeast Ohio Foundation for Patriotism (NEOPAT), which helps veterans locally with resources for financial, physical health or mental health needs.

A former captain in the U.S. Army, Kwasniak helps NEOPAT in the realm of veterans’ suicide. Working with others has also helped him realize that his own story could be a tool to help others.

“I deal with veterans' suicide every single day, and it’s exhausting. It’s hard,” Kwasniak said. “A year ago, I lost my best friend to suicide, my very best friend. Now I realize if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t be able to help people. I tried to drive off a cliff, and the week after, I was going to do it with a gun. If I had a weapon, it wouldn’t be an attempted suicide. I just wouldn’t be here.”

Now as he reflects on his past, Kwasniak understands that he is not here because of himself. He is here because of something more powerful than Babe Kwasniak.

“That’s literally the definition of God’s grace is something you don’t deserve,” Kwasniak said. “I don’t deserve to be alive, so I am going to live every day and pour out my heart. I love Jesus and I love my country, and I’m not going to apologize for that. If you don't like it, that’s your issue. Where in the past, that stuff would bother me.”

That "stuff" he references? It always bothered Kwasniak when he was at VASJ. No matter how much he won or how many Division I college players he coached, it never seemed to be enough. For him or for his detractors.

And that often led to Kwasniak responding to the keyboard warriors on social media.

“Before I would have let that bother me and retaliated, now it’s like no,” Kwasniak said. “I was drinking the poison and expecting something to happen to them. And when you drink that poison, something just happens to you. I have to give all the glory to God because he saved my life.”

It all came to a head at VASJ during the 2019-20 season, and it ended with Kwasniak being shown the door. Literally. The administration had Kwasniak escorted out of the building by the police, which led to a lot of emotion from the coach.

“I did nothing to deserve to have the cops escort me out of VASJ, Kwasniak said. “I was treated like a criminal. My kids didn’t deserve to see that. That’s where the emotion came from with how it was handled because it was totally unnecessary.”

Despite the conflict at VASJ costing him his job, Kwasniak doesn’t think he would do anything differently in the situation. He felt like he was in the right, and he was hung out to dry for doing something he believed should be done. But the way it was handled took him over the edge.

“Did I deserve that? Probably not,” Kwasniak said. “Do I deserve to be alive? Probably not. Do I deserve what I have right now? Probably not. And Jesus didn’t deserve to be nailed to a cross and die for our sins. It just took me a long time to get to that point.”

Before getting to that point, he became very bitter and upset with the school he had loved. The school where his father Tedd had won seven state titles as a head coach and where Kwasniak had won one with him as a player in 1992. It was also the place where at the time, Kwasniak’s oldest son BK was a sophomore who had lettered in four sports in each of his first two years at the school.

“Hate is not the opposite of love — apathy is,” Kwasniak said. “I hated St. Joe’s because I loved it so much. And now I have finally got to a point where God bless them, but they aren’t a part of my life anymore.”

Kwasniak has moved on from VASJ and is now on the bench at CCA, where he is coaching BK, a senior, and his other son Quinn, a freshman.

The Patriots finished the regular season 21-1 with BK nearly averaging a triple-double with 13.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game and Quinn averaging 23.6 points per game while hitting 101 3-pointers in the season.

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“Now I am coaching my sons at a place that has accepted me for who I am, and that’s love,” Kwasniak said. “They have treated me and my family with nothing but grace.”

The journey to CCA for the Kwasniak family did not start because of Babe being the coach, however. It began with BK looking for a new place to attend high school after his father had been dismissed by VASJ. 

In the meeting with the admissions director, Babe got a sign that CCA just might be the right place for his family.

“She asked me what happened at St. Joe’s, and I was going to get into all of it, but none of that matters,” Kwasniak said. “At the time, my wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I told her that and she goes ‘may I pray with you?’ At the time I was 44 years old, I was Catholic my entire life and nobody had ever prayed with me. They said they would pray for me. I was just really touched by that and said maybe we should look into this.”

That was the beginning of the relationship between the Kwasniaks and CCA. And it became a beacon in strengthening the relationship the family had with God. It gave Babe a new outlook on what was vital in his life.

“Now that I am here at Cornerstone, I have a new perspective,” Kwasniak said. “I am literally born again in the fact that I know what is really important, and that is my relationship with God, and that’s my relationship with my family and my relationship with my team.”

It was also a feeling that Tedd Kwasniak noticed right away when he walked into CCA after the Kwasniaks decided to move there.

“It feels like home,” Tedd Kwasniak said. “When I walk through the door, I feel so welcomed. It revitalized me.”

While BK played his junior season at CCA without his father as the coach, Tedd was still on the bench as an assistant to see his grandson play. And now this season, with Quinn and Babe joining BK and Tedd, there are three generations of Kwasniaks on the sideline.

“I love my grandpa, and we had some good times last year,” BK Kwasniak said. “But it’s great to have all these guys with us.”

But Babe doesn’t become the head coach at CCA if not for a selfless act by Andy Weybrecht, who was the previous head coach. Weybrecht stepped aside this season so Babe could take over this year and get the chance to coach both of his sons.

Weybrecht then agreed to stay on as an assistant to Kwasniak.

“I thank Andy every day,” Kwasniak said. “Name another coach who would do what he did. And he is still with me because he loves this place so much. I turned to him the first game and I was crying. I said to him that if I don’t get to coach again, this was awesome.”

While Kwasniak is enjoying the opportunity to coach his sons, that doesn’t mean he is going to take it easy on them. He is just as tough on them as he is on any player he has ever coached, maybe tougher. Even if it means fabricating things to be upset with them over.

“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. I am so hard on them,” Kwasniak said. “When you’re a 4.7 (student like BK) and you always do the right thing and you lead by example, sometimes I have to make stuff up that he does wrong. Quinn is a lot like me, so he’s easier to correct.”

That’s the way Kwasniak has always coached. It isn’t something he is going to change, no matter where he roams the sideline. But while the coaching style hasn’t changed, the way he views things has.

“I’m the same coach now as I was when I was coaching Carlton Bragg and six (Division) I guys (at VASJ),” Kwasniak said. “The difference is that I see what I didn’t see before. I don’t let other people define my success now. Where I’m different at is with my faith, and that’s how I know I am in the right place.”

While he is hard on his sons as a coach, he will also be the first to heap praise upon them as a proud father and coach.

“BK is a better leader right now as a senior in high school than I was as a captain in the United States Army,” Kwasniak said. “I say that because he is the most selfless young man I have ever been around. I have always said you can’t be good without an ego, but he just has none of it. Where most kids think they are too good, he thinks isn’t good enough. His work ethic is like nothing I have ever seen. He doesn’t like to win as much as he hates to lose.”

In Quinn, Babe Kwasniak feels like he is looking in a mirror when it comes to his dedication to the game.

“Quinn has a chance to be special,” Kwasniak said. “He is obsessed with it. That’s how I was. He doesn’t really care about anything else.”

And even though he is enjoying watching the boys play basketball and grow as players, it is what he sees off the court that makes Babe Kwasniak even more proud of his sons.

“Watching both of them grow in their faith here has been the perfect fit for them,” Kwasniak said. “To watch those young men be where they belong, with or without me is just the best.”

It is a sentiment shared by the senior leader.

“What we are to do first and foremost is glorify God, and that’s what I have learned at CCA,” BK Kwasniak said. “And to get to do it with family, it just makes it even better.”

It’s the feeling of love and appreciation that has been poured out upon the Kwasniaks that made CCA feel like the perfect place for the father and sons to be together for one season, even if they always thought the opportunity would happen at VASJ.

“Obviously I grew up my whole life and I dreamed of playing at Joe’s,” BK Kwasniak said. “I always thought I would be a senior there and have (Quinn) as a freshman. But sometimes things don’t work out. I’m so happy that it didn’t work out because this has been the biggest blessing for us and our family, just getting to come here to Cornerstone. I’m really happy it worked out the way it did.”

One thing Kwasniak has become better at as years go by is not worrying so much about the wins and losses, but more about cherishing the relationships he has created with people while doing it.

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It is a lesson he has tried to pass on to his sons, especially BK as a senior who has a 4.7 GPA, is class president and has been out of the district rounds in four sports in high school (cross country, track, golf, basketball), and has aspirations of following his father to West Point.

“I tell him you’re not going to remember the wins and the losses, but you are going to remember the people you are doing it with,” Kwasniak said. “You have to cherish the people you are doing it with.”

Putting that thought into motion, Kwasniak still has a great affection for the relationships he built at VASJ as well, despite how it ended, and he now understands just how much they mean to him. The relationships are the real wins, not the championships he helped lead the Vikings to during his 10 years.

“Those relationships I will always cherish,” Kwasniak said. “They can never take those relationships away from me. Never. They can take the banners down. Take them. That’s what I realize now is those don’t matter to me. What matters to me is what they can’t take and those are the relationships with those young men.”

The other relationship that Kwasniak holds dear is the one he has with Jesus Christ, as he sits in the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Whereas in the past, Kwasniak always worried about the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the day, he now cares more about his walk of faith. The way Kwasniak looks at life now can be summed up in the acronym created in honor of his sister Joy — Jesus Others Yourself — who died of cancer 16 years ago.

“In the past, I was probably defined by how I won,” Kwasniak said. “Before, I said ‘winners win’ and I meant what the scoreboard says. I let those things bother me, and I let those things define me. And now the only thing that can define me is my relationship with Jesus.”

That relationship with Jesus has led the Kwasniaks to CCA, where they have felt the love returned to them from everyone involved.

“To be here, we are just walking testimonies that you have to learn to love other people,” Kwasniak said. “This place has just embraced us with open arms. All of our flaws, faults, I can’t thank the administration and the people here enough.”

That embrace for CCA has allowed Kwasniak the chance to do something he has dreamed of since walking onto the basketball floor as a coach for the first time.

“When I started coaching back in 2011 at St. Joe’s, that was my goal — to eventually coach my kids,” Kwasniak said. “So now to be doing this, I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m here because I was saved.”

The chance to coach his sons has turned out to be the happiest time of his coaching career.

“If I never coach again, I am good,” Kwasniak said. “This has been the best coaching experience of my life just to have my two boys. I mean, how blessed am I?”

And this time, things are different for Kwasniak.

“I think the biggest difference is I never gave God the glory when I was on the mountaintop, and I begged God for help when I was in the valleys,” Kwasniak said. “Now I give him all of it.”