Denham Springs High powerlifting coach Joe Ryan admits he’s more than nervous this week, but there’s a good reason for that.
He and his team are preparing to host the fourth Joey Chustz Invitational powerlifting meet.
“We’ve hosted regionals,” Ryan said. “We’ve done all that, but this is the big one.”
The meet is named in honor of Chustz, a former DSHS player and coach who played football at Louisiana Tech and played in the NFL for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The DSHS Hall of Famer died unexpectedly in May of 2017.
Ryan, a Denham Springs High alum, coached with Chustz for a few months after coming back to the school to coach in January of 2017. At that time, Ryan was teaching at DSHS while coaching the powerlifting team at Ascension Catholic, which won a state title that season.
Ryan, who played football collegiately at Arkansas Monticello, started the DSHS powerlifting program for the 2018 season and said Chustz was a mentor.
“When I would come home from college during the summertime and he was around, we would talk about ball,” Ryan said. “As a kid growing up in Denham, you knew who Joey Chustz was. The first player to ever play in the NFL from Denham Springs is something you aspire to be. I remember walking by the trophy case and just would see his jersey in there every day.”
He also said Chustz had a hand in him becoming a coach, even though it may have been indirectly.
“Coming home (from college) it’s like not the reality of ‘I’m not good enough’ but the reality of here’s this 6-(foot)-7, 330-pound giant in my eyes. He made it to the NFL. Maybe I need to have a backup plan,” Ryan chuckled. “I’m five eight and I was a 220 pound fullback in a spread offense. I played special teams. The reality of seeing this guy from my hometown, who played on the same field I played on in high school, who wore the same colors I wore, it was kind of just like … maybe I need to find a backup plan, but in that same breath, you see the stuff he was doing being a coach, giving back to his hometown. He was a volunteer guy. He wasn’t getting a teacher’s salary. He wasn’t making the big bucks as educators do, but he was putting his time and effort because he truly just loved Denham Springs, loved the school, loved the kids, loved being around ball.
“More than anything, as an athlete at that time, not really knowing what I was going to do with my life, that’s what helped inspire me to want to coach,” Ryan continued.
When he started the powerlifting program at DSHS, Ryan made it a goal to have a meet named after Chustz.
“If I can kind of leave a legacy for the powerlifting team for Joey for all that, what better way to do it than name something that I know both immediately and in the future could have his name on it,” Ryan said. “It was a no brainer, absolute no brainer to do this.”
The first meet featured four teams and was held at Live Oak with less than 100 lifters. This year, 200 lifters will compete. Ryan said he had to turn away ‘six or seven teams’ and meet has been filled since July.
Teams from Holden, French Settlement, St. Amant, Zachary, H.L. Bourgeois, Lutcher, Dutchtown, Ascension Catholic, E.D. White, Central, Woodlawn, Holy Cross and Port Allen will take part in Saturday’s meet, which begins at 9 a.m. and will be livestreamed on the DSHS powerlifting team’s Facebook page.
“You’re talking the magnitude of a regional meet because of the interest in garners,” Ryan said, noting the region DSHS competes in has about 230 lifters. “Easily, this meet could be bigger than that every year if I wanted it to be.”
Ryan said there are a number of factors that have helped the meet’s growth.
“Louisiana Tech has one of the best powerlifting teams in the nation, and a lot of these coaches lifted at Louisiana Tech at the same time Joey was in school, so they knew the name Joey Chustz,” Ryan said while noting that his being the vice president of the Louisiana High School Powerlifting Association has also helped. “A guy who’s the vice president probably going to put on a decent meet. That, just the way that our kids work, the way that the parents support it, everything like that, it entices people to want to come back.”
Denham Springs High won’t compete in Saturday’s meet, with members of the school’s powerlifting team helping run the meet instead.
“We try and put on the best show,” Ryan said. “All hands on deck is what my kids hear from me … Everybody’s working. We’re spotting. We’re loading. We’re working the tables. We’re working the concessions. We’re straightening up the training room.”
Ryan said he strives for perfection with every meet he hosts, noting after setting up for the Chustz Invitational two years ago, he and those working tore things down and redid them because he didn’t like the way the set up looked.
“Putting on a meet in general, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” Ryan said, noting the parents of DSHS powerlifters bring dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the meet’s hospitality room. “Putting on a meet in his name, it’s even more. If you could talk to my wife right now, I lose nights of sleep over this stuff. Any meet really, but his meet specifically, because it is that important to me.”
“I love every second of it though,” Ryan said. “I would not trade this for the world.”
The other layer to the meet is Chustz’s parents, Roy and Sue Chustz, support and attend the meet that is named for their son. Ryan said Sue Chustz dropped off framed photos of Chustz at Louisiana Tech as well as a framed, autographed photo of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ draft class, featuring Joey Chustz.
Additionally, meet Tshirts will be sold this year featuring Joey Chustz’s signature taken from his original NFL contract.
“His family’s biggest thing is … they don’t want people to forget his name, which I don’t think will ever happen,” Ryan said. “But if we can do our part, just a little part in hosting this meet, the Joey Chustz Invitational, we’re going to make it happen.”
Ryan said that goal has taken on more significance this year.
“This is the first year that no kids on this campus were coached by Joey, so this is your true blue legacy meet,” Ryan said. “This is the legacy meet, the start of it, because he didn’t touch any of these kids’ lives directly, so all this is is the kids truly just remembering his name and his legacy left behind.”
It's also Ryan’s goal to make sure the Joey Chustz Invitational continues.
“I look forward to it every year because it is so special,” Ryan said. “It is a meet that is named after a special guy. As long as I’m here, this meet will be hosted. I don’t see it happening any time soon, but if I end up ever leaving Denham Springs, I hope that I can still have a say so in hosting this meet and that his name lives on.”