LARGO — Twenty-two years ago, Michael Kowalke played wide receiver and cornerback for Largo High's football team.
On Thursday, he got to play again.
A Largo sanitation worker for the past eight years, Kowalke, 41, had just turned the corner of a small residential street off Belcher Road in a garbage truck when he heard screams.
"Help!" shouted a girl standing outside a house in the 1000 block of Lexington Court.
Kowalke stopped. So did his manager, Michael Gordon, who was driving behind him while Kowalke tried out a new truck.
The 14-year-old told Kowalke that moments before, a stranger wearing socks on his hands knocked on the front door. Home alone, she didn't answer and he slipped into the back yard and tried to break in, Largo police said.
She called her mother, who told her to get out.
Kowalke and the girl headed toward the back of the home, where she pointed out a window toward the man, whom police later identified as Matthew Olver, standing outside. He ran and jumped over a 6-foot stockade fence. Kowalke sprinted out the front door, ran Olver down and tackled him in the front yard of a neighbor's home.
"It happened so fast," said Gordon, who was standing outside. "He came running toward us and Mike took him down."
Kowalke gripped Olver in a headlock and wrapped his legs around him. Gordon pinned him to the ground with his knees.
"He was a pretty big boy," Kowalke said. "He was trying to get away, so it was just a big old scuffle."
Then Gordon saw the 5-inch knife in Olver's hand.
"The guy is trying to stab both of us," he said.
But Gordon swiftly twisted Olver's hand until he let go. Gordon tossed the knife away and Michael Fitzgerald, who owns the garbage truck, picked it up before Olver could snatch it from the grass.
Olver, 20, struggled with the men.
"I had him and then he was trying to get out and he tried to bite my arm," Kowalke said. "I grabbed his nose and twisted it and pushed it toward his eyes, and he didn't bite anymore."
They restrained Olver until Largo officers arrived.
Olver, who was under the influence of drugs, declined to speak to police, according to an arrest affidavit.
The girl's parents, who could not be reached for comment Friday, arrived and thanked Gordon, Kowalke and Fitzgerald.
"I just think I did the right thing," Kowalke said. "I don't consider myself a hero."
Olver, of 5978 114th Ter. N, Pinellas Park, faces charges of armed burglary and two counts of aggravated assault.
He remained at the Pinellas County Jail on Friday in lieu of $170,000 bail.
Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.