JOHNSBURG – C.J. Fiedorowicz stood in the front of a junior high band room with his right arm fully extended and left his hand an open target.
One by one, middle schoolers leaped into the air, slapping Fiedorowicz's palm. Some required a running start. Others barely jumped. With each passing high-five, the smile on Fiedorowicz's face remained intact.
A week before his professional football career would begin, Fiedorowicz was a center-stage attraction in his hometown.
For more than 30 minutes, the Johnsburg native and former Iowa tight end answered questions from wide-eyed junior high students. When did he know he wanted to play in the NFL? What would he do differently in school if he could? What team does he hope chooses him?"
Fiedorowicz always planned to spend the days leading up to the NFL Draft, which starts at 7 p.m. on Thursday, in Johnsburg. The rural community where he spent most of his life before he left to play Big Ten football would always be home. No matter how big of a star Fiedorowicz becomes.
"He's always going to be a hometown Johnsburg kid," Fiedorowicz's high school teammate Austin Vanderstappen said. "He's not going to be this kid who goes to the NFL, makes it big, does his thing and forgets about his roots."
Fiedorowicz will watch the draft's second and third rounds at Raymond's Bowl on Friday night. On Saturday, he will spend three hours signing autographs for kids anxious to meet their football hero. He will be surrounded by family and friends at both events, celebrating with those he has spent his entire life with – all within living within the small-town boundaries that 6,300 people call home.
Even before his big night, Fiedorowicz has pondered the possibilities of where he could land, having researched which teams are in need of a dependable tight end. But he also knows the draft comes with uncertainty, leaving him to visualize what the moment will be like when his phone rings with the news he is about to be drafted.
"I get a smile on my face just thinking about it," Fiedorowicz said. "When all my friends are around and I hear my name, it's going to be – I don't know – I can't even explain it, really. I've dreamed about it ever since I was in sixth grade. Most kids probably don't have those dreams, but I always knew I would be playing professional something."
Until only a few weeks ago, Fiedorowicz hadn't seen Johnsburg since November. Between his Iowa career ending, earning top receiver honors at the Senior Bowl, participating in the NFL Scouting Combine, training in San Diego and making visits to six NFL teams in less than two weeks, Fiedorowicz lived in non-stop mode.
At times, maintaining such a busy schedule became a grind. The out-of-town flights grew old. As much as Fiedorowicz understood it was all part of the process, he also looked forward to spending the final stretch before the draft at home.
He slept in his own bed. He worked out at a local gym. He enjoyed his mom's cooking. But Fiedorowicz also made sure that he made visits to the schools he had grown up in.
"It's always a good feeling seeing everyone I know and being around everyone who loves me and cares about me," Fiedorowicz said. "I'm going to be friends with these people the rest of my life – that's never going to change."
During his school visits, Fiedorowicz reconnected with students he had coached in Johnsburg's Lil' Dribblers basketball program. He posed for photos with former teachers, signed autographs and flipped through a yearbook that his sixth grade teacher had discovered.
As he reached the page with his photo, a wide smile crossed Fiedorowicz's face.
"There I am," he said, looking at a picture that is now a decade old before scribbling his signature on the page with a black Sharpie.
Despite playing at Iowa and becoming a serious NFL prospect, there is part of Fiedorowicz that blushes at the fact that kids in his hometown consider him a hero. He made the junior high appearance after students wrote him letters, extending an invitation he didn't want to pass up.
Those who grew up with Fiedorowicz, though, said humility has always been part of who he is.
"Everyone just likes to be around him," Fiedorowicz's best friend, Mike Dixon, said. "He's an individual who always puts a smile on your face – he's just a really funny guy."
Despite the change in lifestyle that will come once Fiedorowicz learns his NFL destination, Fiedorowicz vows he will stay the same. To Fiedorowicz and those back in his hometown, life will go on just as it has in the past.
His friends who grew up around Fiedorowicz, who spent four years playing varsity football but never made a big deal about it, would expect nothing less. Like he always has, Fiedorowicz will maintain his hometown mindset.
"He'll always be the kid who remembers where he's from and what brought him up to what he is today," Vanderstappen said. "That's what you want to see from any player in any sport. You want to see them be grateful where they're from and not this cocky kid who makes it big and forgets everything."