For Will Svitek, one-way hike led to the pros

Family’s exodus from Prague in 1984 paved the way for success with Falcons

The search for a beginning to such a sprawling tale led to a veteran’s suggestion: “Make sure he shows you the photo, the one with him in the backpack,” tackle Tyson Clabo said.

As good an opening scene as any, that photo: Will Svitek, the Falcons tackle opposite Clabo, in the Yugoslavia of 1984, a 2-year-old riding his eldest brother’s back. Svitek obviously was a great load even then, as the family gathered on a rocky plateau.

This was no family picnic in the mountains, as the scene suggested. The two oldest Svitek boys, Tomas and Ivan, knew that. All Andrew, four years older than Will, knew was the fib his parents told him, that they were all just playing a game, pretending to go on military maneuvers.

Facing the family were saw-toothed Alpine crags. The symbolism was stark and to scale — one more mountain to climb to freedom.

Here was a treasured captured moment, just before the family went seeking a soft spot in the Iron Curtain, the very day it left behind everything familiar for the sake of a dream.

Svitek’s presence at left tackle today as the Falcons take on New Orleans is proof that his father, Milan, and mother, Eva, made it. They led the family from its native Communist Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), through Yugoslavia (in an area that is now Slovenia) and into Austria. And the entire brood — not just the professional football player in the family — seems to live as if to honor the parents’ decision to make the difficult journey that ended in America.

Today will be Svitek’s third start in place of Sam Baker, part of a recent effort to keep Matt Ryan out of traction. There has been some improvement on that front. In the Falcons’ first three games, Ryan was sacked 13 times. The sack total is less than half that (six) over the past five games.

Holding is discouraged in Svitek’s profession, unless it is to cling stubbornly to a roster spot. A sixth-round pick by Kansas City in 2005 out of Stanford, Svitek started four games for the Chiefs before being released following the 2007 season. The Falcons signed him in ’09, and he has been mostly a big guy in the background until now.

His NFL numbers are the least exceptional component of his personal history.

There’d be no football numbers at all had Milan and Eva Svitek opted not to take a one-way hike in the summer of 1984.

As to where he might be now had they remained in Prague, Svitek said, “I think about it all the time. Who knows what I would have gotten into? I definitely wouldn’t be playing football. Maybe I’d be a hockey player, who knows? Probably not. Don’t think I’d be too good on ice.

“My parents gave me everything. I could never be grateful enough. Whatever I do, I try to make them proud.”

Window for escape

Milan Svitek was not a good little Communist. He was a dissident who chaffed at the Soviet rule of his land. There was a thick secret police file with his name on it, Milan said, one he was later able to read and disregard as the flotsam of a failed system after the fall of communism at the end of 1989.

He still had value to the state. He was an urban planner and a former weight thrower on the national track team who was married to a math teacher. The deprivation they felt was largely intellectual.

As oldest son Tomas crossed over into his 20s, the need to escape became clear.

“Tomas was very gifted in space science,” said Milan, who with Eva lives in Southern California. “But he would not be allowed to study where he wanted. They would take him into the army, and, maybe, he’d work on Russian satellites. We were hostages of a political system.”

The exit strategy was complicated. Because of his politics, Milan could not obtain passports for him and his family. When, in 1984 he was granted permission to travel on vacation to another Soviet Bloc nation, Yugoslavia, a window for escape appeared.

The Yugoslavian border was less heavily guarded. Milan, the urban planner, was skilled with maps. This was their chance.

Driving where they could, taking an all-day hike for the final leg over the mountains and across the border, the Sviteks turned themselves in as refugees seeking political asylum to Austrian authorities. They spent nine months in Austria until their application to come to America was approved.

The Sviteks arrived in California in early 1985 with five suitcases, $1,000 and a $1,600 loan from the U.S. that Milan would pay back $20 at a time.

“We were more poor than people realize,” Milan said. “McDonald’s was a place we couldn’t visit for our first three years here. But we always were able to feed the family.”

Breeding success

A quick audit on the family now shows a huge return for the parents’ risk.

Milan, 70, is retired after 20 years as an urban planner for Los Angeles County. His wife, 68, is an artist who broke five hours in this year’s L.A. marathon.

With his advanced degree from the California Institute of Technology, Tomas is building solar-sail-powered spacecraft in California.

Ivan, the gangly teenager in the photo who fled communism, is now the ultimate capitalist in Moscow, the CEO of Home Credit and Finance Bank in Russia.

Andrew got his law degree from California-Davis and works as an urban planner in Southern California.

As for the 29-year-old Will, with his political science degree from Stanford and his forays into business classes at Harvard and Wharton: “I always joke around about me being the dumb jock in the family,” he said.

Svitek came to football late. First, there was track (he was a national youth decathlon champ); then there was basketball; then, after much objection from his family, he began playing football in high school.

The motivations to play were simple enough.

“I started playing football just because all my friends were, and I thought it would be kind of a cool thing to do, maybe the girls would like it,” Svitek said.

The game was so foreign to his parents that Will bought them a “Football for Dummies” book at Christmas. The Americanization of the Sviteks would not be complete until the elders learned the non-military use for such terms as “bomb,” “the trenches,” “blitz” and “shotgun.”

Svitek’s parents are visiting Atlanta through November, for a three-game homestand that begins today against the Saints. Tomas will be along to witness his first pro game and learn up-close that the NFL, indeed, is not rocket science.

The Sviteks earned U.S. citizenship in 1989, just as the Soviet Bloc was disintegrating. Milan had the opportunity to return to his old home in the early ’90s, but was far too rooted in his new home to seriously consider it.

American Dream

Svitek is not the man to go to in search of confirmation that the ideal of the American Dream is growing up threadbare.

He is his father’s son, shot through with an instinctual suspicion of big government and a true believer in the power of self-reliance and hard work. He sings the immigrant’s song in full voice.

“Our country is in tough times being in recession, deficit, risk of inflation,” he said. “I think the American Dream is possible. I believe in it 100 percent because I’m a living example. Obviously, there are people who have advantages and disadvantages. But I think, at the end of the day, you control your own destiny. You don’t have to look to others.”

(His father also has influenced Svitek’s charitable efforts. Milan is a prostate cancer survivor, and Will is currently taking part in a prostate cancer awareness program called Movember, growing a moustache as a visible sign of support while raising donations on his own Movember website).

Svitek may not be known as the most artful of offensive linemen, or the most skilled. But in his first two starts with the Falcons this year, he faced Detroit’s Kyle Vanden Bosch and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney without yielding a sack to either. On a line that is trying to rediscover the aggressive edge with which it played a season ago, his goal is to pretty much “try to fit in with the rest of the guys.”

“I was always a defensive guy in college [defensive end], so I try to play with a defensive mentality, try to play with an attitude and an edge,” he said.

At the very least, growing up as he did, playing hard is never optional.

“My parents sacrificed everything they could so I could come here and have these opportunities,” Svitek said. “I never want to take anything for granted. I have to maximize my potential.”

Svitek was carried into a new life, a meaty toddler toted upon his brother’s back. The load has long since shifted. It is his turn to carry, his responsibility to take his parents’ hard-earned hopes as far as possible.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.