The first thing that strikes you about Joe Szczecko is his size. He’s not all that big.
Szczecko was a 6-foot, 265-pound defensive tackle in the NFL in the 1960s, but at age 63 he’s down to a well-honed 215 pounds, and he wants to boil off another 10. If the attorney didn’t have a picture or two from the glory days in his office — an eyegrabbing one shows him smashing into Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith — you’d never guess what his former life held.
“I run four or five miles every other day and lift weights two or three days a week,” says Szczecko (pronounced Shess-ko), a family practice specialist with Simmons & Szczecko in Decatur.
Unlike the hordes of professional athletes who struggle after hanging it up, Szczecko made a smooth transition to a post-jock life. While still a player, he earned his law degree from Emory University — football by day, classes by night — and began practice. He’s been with his partner, M.T. Simmons Jr., in the same West Ponce de Leon Avenue office building, since 1969. He spends 50 to 60 percent of his time on family law cases involving high-asset clients — everything from divorces to custody battles to nuptial agreements — and the balance on general litigation. Career highlights include an $11 million judgment in a wrongful death case/estate dispute in DeKalb County and a $2 million verdict in a parental kidnapping case in Gwinnett County.
“Joe’s a very bright, very persuasive advocate and a relentless preparer,” says attorney and friend James E. Spence Jr. “If the best-prepared lawyer is the best lawyer, that’s him. Plus Joe’s a very personable guy. People like him, whether it’s a judge or a jury, and that gives him a natural advantage.”
He also has a relentlessly low-key take on a life with more than a few Zelig moments. “Everybody has a story to tell,” he says. “Mine’s just different.”
Szczecko was born in Lahr, Germany, in 1942. His parents were Polish prisoners sent there to take up the labor slack for Germans off fighting the war.
“My understanding was that my father was a member of the Polish cavalry, so he was put in charge of the animals in the village,” says Szczecko. “I don’t know what my mother did in the daytime, but at night she served meals in a brathaus. For a long time, I actually thought the lady who owned that brathaus was my mother. And I have a vivid memory of German soldiers walking the streets.”
Szczecko came to America with his mother in 1949, settling in the heavily Polish northwest side of Chicago. “A relative had sent for her, but under the immigration laws, only the two of us could come, not my father.”
His mother landed a factory job, and because she couldn’t both work and look after her son, she put him in an orphanage, where he lived for seven years, until moving back in with her as a teenager.
Football was his ticket to a better life. Szczecko was in the eighth grade when he was spotted playing basketball and, because of his size and athletic skill, offered a football scholarship to Gordon Technical High School. It was a dream come true for his mother, a devout Catholic who couldn’t afford the private school.
“I’d never played football in my life,” Szczecko says. “I was on cloud nine that day.”
He quickly discovered that he relished the contact and the sheer competitiveness of the game. “It was a manhood test for a kid that age,” says Szczecko, who spent his high school years pumping iron to get ready for the college gridiron.
Offers poured in — from such places as Michigan and Notre Dame — but a visit to nearby Northwestern, where the charismatic Ara Parseghian was turning the program around, persuaded him to go there.
Initially, Szczecko was a two-way player at Northwestern, before focusing on defense his junior and senior years. Quick, agile and savvy, he made both athletic and academic All-American teams, and played in the 1965 College All-Star Game against the Jim Brown-led Cleveland Browns, the defending NFL champions. Teammates included the likes of Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Bob Hayes and Roger Staubach. It’s considered one of the greatest college all-star teams ever assembled.
“It’s nice to say you’ve tackled Jim Brown,” he says. “But Sayers was the best running back I’ve ever seen. He had unbelievable moves. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I believe he would have been the most prolific running back in history.”
After brief flings with the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Rams, Szczecko became an Atlanta Falcon in 1966, the debut year for the franchise. The Falcons’ place-kicker whiffed the ball and pulled a hamstring on the franchise’s opening kickoff, setting the tone for a team that went 6-35-1 its first three seasons.
“The fans loved us anyway,” Szczecko says. “And I loved the city.” His law studies didn’t keep him from social tours of the town on weekends. “I was single,” he says with a laugh. “I had a decent life.”
At the end of the 1968 season, on the very day he was to take his bar exam, Szczecko learned that coach Norm Van Brocklin had traded him to the New York Giants, where he played a season before getting cut. Always adept at lateral moves, he made a quick sidestep into the full-time practice of law.
“Playing football was a big help for me early on,” he says. “People knew me when I came to the courtroom. Many judges and bailiffs were football fans, and I think I was welcomed a little bit more than the average lawyer.”
His competitive fire was another boon. “Litigation is competition, and I’m competitive, maybe more so than people would like me to be,” he says. “But I’ve mellowed a little bit over the years. In divorce cases, I don’t believe there ought to be a winner and a loser. The decision that’s reached should be a fair one, based on what happened in the marriage, the money, what the needs are. If you have two good lawyers presenting a case properly, the person with the right facts ought to win.”
Early on, Szczecko also accepted criminal cases, until a murder trial changed his way of thinking. The defendant was accused of killing his ex-wife and her new husband, and Szczecko won an acquittal after a week-long trial in Fulton County Superior Court.
“I believed my client was innocent,” says Szczecko, “and I was so nervous, thinking that maybe I’d taken a case I wasn’t competent to handle. There was a lot of pressure that week, and my heart leapt when the acquittal came down.” It was too much pressure for a man who had handled the best the NFL could throw at him. “I just didn’t want to go through that anymore, so I started concentrating on civil practice.”
A self-described workaholic, Szczecko may have the best commute in traffic-thick Atlanta. He lives in a new condominium that’s a mere football toss from his office, while wife Karen holds down their home in Hendersonville, N.C. Their two daughters, Megan and Leslie, are grown. Szczecko enjoys travel, including periodic trips to Poland — he speaks a little Polish — to visit relatives.
Szczecko is grateful to football, noting how much it did for an immigrant’s son. “Football made me concentrate on what I had to do to succeed. … I believe that kind of focus translates into any profession, whether it’s the law or medicine or whatever. In this country, if you learn to push yourself in anything, you’ll succeed.”
To this day, people occasionally recognize Szczecko and ask him for an autograph. Some folks even know how to pronounce his name. The attention never ceases to amaze him. “I haven’t played football for a long time, but it’s a great memory.”
Szczecko holds season tickets to the Falcons, and sometimes gets a chance to stand next to today’s linemen, those 6-foot-7-inch, 320-pound behemoths who block out the sun. “I think, ‘Whoa, did I used to do this?’” he laughs.