TALLAHASSEE — By Florida State tight end Caz Piurowski's reckoning, the football season actually started the moment the Wake Forest game ended late Saturday night.
"That's when I was telling myself I was officially back," the junior standout from Land O'Lakes High said.
A four-game suspension he faced for his involvement in an academic misconduct scandal, a penalty that began with the Music City Bowl, was over at that point. Finally.
"It's been the worst three weeks of my life," he said. "Horrible. Horrible."
He's spent that time mainly on the scout team as a defensive end, helping the inexperienced tight ends develop and then watching games from the stands.
"The first two games were bad, real bad, not being out there, but Wake Forest was really rough on me," Piurowski said of the disappointing 12-3 loss. "It's rough seeing your team out there, they're like my family, and I couldn't do anything to help them. The second half, I sat by myself. I didn't want to be around anyone."
But now he, along with five other similarly suspended teammates — linebacker Dekoda Watson, cornerback Patrick Robinson, defensive tackle Justin Mincey, defensive end Neefy Moffett and backup center/guard Brandon Davis — are back for FSU (2-1) as it prepares for Saturday's game against Colorado (3-0) in Jacksonville.
"How much will we enjoy having Piurowski back? Very much," coach Bobby Bowden said. "There's some things you can do with a 275-pound, 6-foot-7 veteran tight end. There's a lot of things that can help you."
It's been nine months and still it's difficult for Piurowski to talk about the moment he faced school officials who were investigating the academic misconduct.
"When Caz went into that interview, they asked him, 'Is there anything you want to say?' " said his father, Paul, a former FSU linebacker.
His son had wrestled with how to respond. Could FSU concretely prove he had cheated on a test for an online music class as dozens of other student-athletes had done? Could he avoid trouble by saying nothing or by lying?
"I wasn't sure what I would say," the 20-year-old said.
It didn't seem that way. He quickly and contritely admitted his guilt and didn't offer an excuse or try to shift the blame.
"I looked at him and I was in tears," his father said. "I said, 'I don't think I could have done what you just did. I don't know if I would have been man enough to do that.' I know that sounds kind of stupid; he did something wrong and you don't want to glorify it at all. But he 'fessed up to it."
"I didn't want to sit there and not deal with it," Caz said.
He has spent the last nine months doing just that. Initially, he had to face his family, his teammates and coaches, FSU fans and fellow students, feeling that he had let them down. Since then, he has had to tune out the incessant chatter about the case.
Some of it was accurate. Some wasn't. Some was hurtful.
"The toughest thing was hearing remarks from people, people you thought were your friends, who'd come up to you and say certain things," he said. "They might have been joking, but … "
Piurowski insists the experience helped fuel his determination to use his mistake as a force for positive change in his life, both on and off the football field.
"I realized you can't take anything for granted and you always have to stop and think, 'What am I putting myself into with this situation? Is it worth it?' " he said.
"Believe it or not, he's become a better person because of it," his father said. "Cazie's grown a lot."
Piurowski started twice as a freshman in 2006, then asked to move to offensive tackle, believing that might enhance his pro prospects. When the Seminoles needed help at tight end midway through last season, he slid over.
The position changing carried a cost. You could see it in his hesitation.
"I was never really sure about my assignment or my technique," Piurowski said. "When you question yourself, you can't really go out and play."
Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher and new tight ends coach James Coley saw a different attitude from him during the spring. Piurowski, whose blocking fundamentals improved under line coach Rick Trickett, showed that he understood what he and everyone else had to do on every play and why.
"This is probably the most confident and comfortable I've felt in my whole football career," said Piurowski, who also worked on his conditioning and has cut his body fat from 18 percent to an NFL-like 14 percent.
"He feels like he's money with the system, which is a credit to him approaching this game like a student," Coley said. "I tell him, 'You don't have to do anything special. You've just got to be Caz.' If he's just Caz, he's special. He just has to play and have fun."
Piurowski's wait to do that ends this weekend.
The season, for him, is on. Finally.
Brian Landman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3347.