Small School Titan: Bloomsburg Linebacker Justin Shirk makes big tackles and has big dreams
College football wasn’t always the plan for Bloomsburg University’s senior linebacker and defensive team captain Justin Shirk. After starring a two-sport athlete at Central Dauphin High School, the former high school quarterback and javelin-throwing track star rode his golden arm to the University of Oklahoma’s track team after graduating in 2009. After falling short in tryouts, Shirk truly realized how much he missed football during that year. He returned home to Pennsylvania and joined the Bloomsburg Huskies (BR: 39), his original college of choice before a breakout track season led him to the AAA State Championship in the javelin throw and his eventual journey to Oklahoma.
So, who is Justin Shirk? Entering his fourth and final season with the Huskies, Justin and I had an email exchange this week to discuss both his journey and his big goals for this season and beyond. I’d like to give a big thanks to Justin and the BU athletic department for their help this week!
Defensive Team Captain
Position: Inside Linebacker (ILB)
Year: Senior (RS)
Weight: 235 lbs.
The Determination: “I knew I was going to have to follow my passion and dream the hard way.”
What kind of player and person is Justin Shirk? When I asked him why former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was one of the players he looked up to, Shirk answered: “for his passion and intensity in which he played the game.”
Passion and intensity have been two of Shirk’s trademarks since he began playing football when he was seven-years old. For example, Shirk played offense (quarterback) and defense (linebacker” at Central Dauphin, so why did he choose to play linebacker in at BU? “I wasn’t the prototypical quarterback,” Shirk explained, “so reality set in and I realized that linebacker was my calling. I love the physicality of the game and inflicting pain on the less fortunate.” Anyone want to play pickup football with that guy? Me neither.
Shirk also spent the past three seasons as a two-sport athlete, before solely focusing on football this season. “Life as a two sport athlete was awesome. I love to compete! Track & field gave me another outlet to compete while not in season for football,” Justin said, “(But) football always had my full attention. Everything I did was geared towards football.” Every spring was a busy time of year, as Justin balanced school, work, football, track, and training.
As you can imagine, being a successful two-sport athlete came with sacrifices. For Shirk, that meant not having much of a social life: “you really have to weigh out your priorities. Sports are my life. I was willing to make that sacrifice of being so busy and doing what I love.” That is the kind of captain that any team wants to have on their side.
The Results: “I finished that game with 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery, and a pass breakup.”
Shirk is a tackling machine who doesn’t have a problem filling up the stat sheet, as he has piled up 272 tackles in 33 career games. When I asked Justin which game still stood out to him throughout his career, he went back to his first game at Bloomsberg:
“My first game of my college career is one I always come back to and reflect on. It was my first game in two years. There were a lot of ups and downs in those two years but I was finally back on the field, doing what I love. It was a nationally televised game on CBS Sports Network against Indiana University of PA. I was getting the start after the weak side linebacker got injured the week before and couldn’t go. I just loved getting back out on the field under the lights. I finished the game with the second most tackles on the team with 13. I also added 1.5 sacks, a fumble recovery, and a pass breakup.
It was the first of many great games for Shirk, and his teammates took notice. They selected him as a team captain for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, which Shirk described as a humbling experience. Justin is the type of person who naturally leads by example by putting in extra time in the weight room and on the field, but he is also actively working to become a more vocal presence. Justin is always looking to improve and that work ethic pays dividends on the field.
The Future: “To live out my dream of making a NFL roster and play in The League.”
Shirk started the 2014 season in explosive fashion, finishing his first game as the PSAC East Co-Defensive Athlete of the Week (9/7) after recording nine tackles, two forced fumbles, and a sack as BU rolled Stonehill for a 24-7 win.
One of Shirk’s goals for the season is for the Huskies to win the PSAC East and the PSAC Championship game before making a run in the playoffs. Personally, he wants to break the BU record of 157 tackles in a season, get his first career interception, and to “be the difference maker my team needs to capture victories.”
Next year, Justin hopes to live out his dream of making a NFL roster. And he has plans to get there: “First and foremost, I have to have an injury free season to give me the opportunity to play to the best of my abilities. Secondly, I have to improve on the little things like technique and analyzing game film. Finally, I have to stand out and prove that I can play with the big boys. I have to jump out on paper and put up numbers at the combine and pro days.”
Justin is on a mission this season as he battles to fulfill his dreams. In a final email, he left me with this: “What you put in is what you get out. It is all or nothing for me. This dream isn’t just mine. My family has and will always be there by my side and I want to do this for them as well.”
Justin Shirk is a relentless worker and is the kind of player that football fans should cheer for. I’m excited to see what he does this season and at the next level. He has a new fan today and hopefully several more in the coming years. In 2015, let’s hope that he is going to work on NFL Sundays.