The Ohio State women's soccer volunteer assistant spent more than eight years of his life on a quest to graduate from Ohio State – a task he completed after much time and effort in 2011.
Now, he's taking on a challenge that he never hoped to have to conquer – honoring the memory of his lifelong friend and cousin, Capt. Nicholas Rozanski, who was killed in action April 4 in Afghanistan.
To do so, Bownas is training to run the 2012 Columbus Marathon in October. Along the way, he hopes to raise $10,000 for the Nick Rozanski Memorial Foundation, a scholarship fund set up in memory of Rozanski by his friends and family who hope to keep his name alive for generations to come.
In addition to being a soccer player and coach and an Ohio State graduate who lived for Buckeye football, the ever-positive Rozanski ran in three marathons during his life. Bownas has always wanted to do one, but he never had the right motivation until his cousin's passing.
"It was always a bucket list thing, but I wasn't planning on doing it this year," Bownas said. "But to honor him for the three he ran, it was kind of like a now or never."
Bownas has spent the summer and early fall training for the event, which will be held Oct. 21. Given the determination with which he pursued his degree, it's fair to believe he'll accomplish his fundraising and training goals.
For those who know him, Bownas' gung-ho approach to honoring his cousin is no surprise.
"I think his ability to give back and make a pretty sad and negative situation into something really positive is wonderful," Ohio State women's soccer head coach Lori Walker said. "That's exactly who he is."
A Soldier's Life
Bownas and Rozanski were born just weeks apart and seemed destined to become close. Bownas grew up in the Columbus suburb of Worthington while Rozanski was raised in nearby Dublin, and the two had a natural bond from nearly the beginning.
"I was the youngest in my family but he was the oldest in his family, so things would pass down from my older siblings to me," Bownas said. "I'd pass it to him and he'd pass it down his chain. We were always kind of right in the middle and always getting into everything."
The two played soccer together growing up, cheered on Ohio State and became pillars in a tight-knit group of friends and family. Along the way, the two developed similar fun-loving personalities.
"I think the best way I've come to describe him, he was the kid who got in trouble every day, but he was still the teacher's favorite," Bownas said. "He just had a quality about him that you couldn't stay mad at him and you couldn't help but laugh."
Both arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 1994 to start their college careers, but Bownas didn't last long. An invited walk-on on the men's soccer team after an all-state prep career at Columbus Bishop Watterson, he said he had trouble with the student part of student-athlete. He was ruled ineligible after one quarter and wound up being dismissed after a year.
Rozanski stuck it out, though, graduating from Ohio State in 1999 with a degree in communications. Known as "Captain Buckeye" for his propensity to wear an Ohio State flag as a cape, Rozanski bled scarlet and gray, making people call him "Eddie George" during his college years and traveling across the Midwest to see the football team play.
He held down a number of jobs after graduation, Bownas said, but never found the right fit before turning his attention toward the Ohio National Guard. The Rozanski family has a history of service. Nick's grandfather, Frank, served at Pearl Harbor, working as a guard for the facility that held the nuclear bombs eventually dropped on Japan, and Nick's brother Alex served in Iraq. Nick decided it was his turn.
Though some family members were surprised by the timing, Bownas said that looking back, it was a natural fit.
"The things that choke me up the most are the times he had my back even when he knew I was wrong," Bownas said. "That's what made you realize he'd be a great soldier and a great captain and a great officer.
"His mission was to give the kids there a better life, the life his daughters have here. He believed in it. He didn't feel like he was there for nothing, which is important to a lot of us."
Rozanski first went to Kosovo in 2004 and then served a term in Kuwait and Iraq in 2007. By then, he had decided to be "military for life," as Bownas said, and put in for a third tour of duty despite marrying his wife, Jennifer, and having a pair of daughters, Anna and Emma.
After the first two tours, the family felt somewhat at ease when Rozanski left the most recent time. As a captain with the Guard's 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, he was supposed to be working in a relatively peaceful part of northern Afghanistan.
"You get a little complacent," Bownas said. "You don't worry about him every day because this day and age, you can Skype, you can FaceTime, you can email. We were getting a lot of funny stuff from him. It was kind of like he was still here."
That was shattered in April when Rozanski and his team were training Afghani police in Maimanah. Rozanski wasn't the kind of guy who liked being behind a desk, and he was out with his unit delivering radios to the police when a suicide bomber struck. Rozanski was killed at the age of 36 along with Sgt. Jeffrey Rieck of Columbus and Sgt. Shawn Hannon of Grove City in an attack that stunned the central Ohio community.
"Nick grew up in Dublin," Bownas said. "He lived in Dublin, he went to school at OSU, he coached soccer, he reffed soccer, he worked at an ice cream shop in Dublin. He was as local a kid as you could ever have. Everybody had a connection to him, and it couldn't have hit home more in Dublin."
The night after getting the news, Bownas, some of Rozanski's friends and other members of the family got together. By the time the night was over, the Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund was hatched.
The goal of the foundation is to award scholarships to six Ohio State students – three each year from Dublin and three who are the children of Ohio National Guard members. Bownas said almost $70,000 has already been raised, and the goal is to give the scholarships for the first time during the 2013-14 academic year.
Already, the foundation has staged a soccer tournament in Dublin in Rozanski's honor, and it hosted a golf outing and dinner Sept. 14. Those events are in line with Rozanski's philosophy on life.
"They are the perfect type of events," said Keith Rozanski, Nick's brother. "It's more of a celebration of what Nick was about, which was having a good time, throwing one back, telling stories. That's what these types of events do."
Mileage That Matters
While those events have helped unite the central Ohio community – not to mention Rozanski's friends and family – around the fallen soldier's memory, Bownas' goal of running a marathon is a more personal quest.
"I think it's very therapeutic for Spence," Keith Rozanski said. "He and Nick were extremely close. Those two were the biggest supporters and champions of each other. I think it's absolutely wonderful that Spence is doing this. It's fantastic. I can't say enough. Spence has been the biggest cheerleader of Nick Rozanski when he was alive and then the Nick Rozanski Memorial Fund now."
Bownas knows how to dedicate himself to a cause as well. After he left Ohio State in the mid-1990s, Bownas always wrestled with whether he should put in the time to go back and earn his degree. Sitting in the stands at Sun Devil Stadium with tears streaming down his face after Ohio State beat Miami (Fla.) to win the 2002 national championship, he made a promise to himself that he would go back.
Bownas restarted school in 2004 and picked up a spot as a student assistant with the women's soccer team to go with his full-time job in real estate and a gig coaching the Ohio Premier junior team. Known as "Deuce," he has become an integral part of the OSU program and is now in his ninth season with the team.
He's used that same dedication in his preparation for the marathon.
"I've already seen the transformation," Keith Rozanski said. "He's lost weight. He looks a lot thinner. When I see him, I see the change in him. He looks great. The No. 1 way I know he's dedicated to it is when he was out here last time, instead of going to throw back beers with me, he went running instead."
It has taken some work for Bownas to get into the kind of shape needed to complete the 26.2 miles. Though he's continued to be active coaching soccer in recent years, Bownas doesn't shy away from the fact he was carrying a few extra pounds. Bownas admits the training hasn't been easy, but whenever he needs motivation, he looks down at his wrist and the black memorial bracelet with Rozanski's name on it.
"There's times when I struggle and there's times when I kind of beg him to run with me," Bownas said. "I always have my bracelet on, and I'm always saying, ‘Run with me, Cuzz, run with me.' I just try to picture him beside me, pushing me along. I'll say, ‘Get me through the next mile and I'll take the next two.' There are times when he's running beside me and pushes me through. There are times I feel like we're doing it together."
He said he plans to use the same approach when it comes to fundraising. Though Bownas admits the $10,000 goal he's set is a high one, he's confident he'll get there given his tireless work ethic on the project and his connections in the local community.
"If I fail and I don't reach it and only get half, that's $5,000 and that's awesome," Bownas said. "I'm willing to stick my neck out there. I'm hopeful we'll exceed it, but if we fall short, that's what we tell these kids here. We set a high goal. We aren't afraid to risk for it. We try for greatness and excellence, and if we fall short, we're still pretty damn good."
Those who wish to donate to Bownas' cause can do so at RozanskiMemorial.com.
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