I have written a lot of stories over the past couple of years on some of the top high school athletes this area has to offer. Often times, the athletes I profiled have continued on to play in college.
I am also reminded that these athletes are the minority. Most athletes are more like Strawberry Crest senior defensive end Julien Aponte — when their last high school game is over, their organized football career is done, which is the shared fate for many a local seniors whose teams will not be partaking in the playoffs that begin this Friday.
“It’s is definitely an emotional day, your last high school game,” said Strawberry Crest head coach John Kelly. “Just for the fact that you have put in the uncountable amount of hours and time and the blood, sweat and tears for (their career).”
It’s been a roller coaster season for Strawberry Crest. The Chargers started out 6-2 and beat rival Durant for the first time.
“Beating Durant was a huge accomplishment,” said Aponte, who listed the win as his favorite moment in his football career.
After losing out in a three-way tiebreaker against East Bay and Plant City however, there was no happy ending to Aponte’s football career. No Hollywood ending of walking off the field with the first football district title in school history. No playoff appearance for the first time ever. Aponte simply had to get ready to play Armwood four days later.
Aponte went out for the football team during the spring of his freshman year, after friends on the team prodded him to do so. After three full seasons together, Aponte said that the friendship with fellow defensive lineman has grown.
“(Playing football) wasn’t easy but it was definitely worth it having that unity and having that group that you bond with,” Aponte said. “It’s a family. You build a family.”
Listed at 5-9 and 200 pounds, the reality is that Aponte is undersized to play at the next level. And he is not alone. The NCAA estimates that only 2 to 3 percent of all high school athletes go on to play in college.
Kelly has seen his fair share of top level athletes in his time as a football coach.
“He has been a joy to have on the field. He’s a hard worker. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur,” he said. “If you went and took a poll of every high school (athlete) in the county and you asked them to raise their hand if they think they are going to go on and play in college and which ones are going to play in the NFL, you are going to get a high majority of kids that raise their hand.
“He has realistic expectations. He has other dreams and goals and aspirations for his future after high school,” Kelly continued. “And there is nothing wrong with just being a high school football player. That’s the reason that I coach.”
Those dreams and aspirations of life after football have already begun. Aponte has his own side business, selling flowers. It be small right now, but Aponte has plans for it. He is a student in the IB program at Strawberry Crest and plans to go to either USF or the University of Tampa and get a masters degree in business.
“I would like to make it commercialized,” Aponte said. “I would like to do plants for weddings, landscaping, etc.”
And so while the bright lights of Friday night will never turn back on for Aponte, he is prepared for the next phase of his life – and his bigger victories yet to come.