Very few athletes are fortunate enough to end their careers at the pinnacle of their sport.
Count T.J. Popolizio among them.
The former two-sport standout at Shenendehowa High School stepped off the athletic fields for the final time as a national champion after helping Indiana capture its eighth NCAA men’s soccer championship Sunday.
Popolizio, a graduate student, played nine matches for the Hoosiers and recorded one shot on goal, but he helped set up the game-winning sequence in Indiana’s 3-0 victory over Cincinnati in the Billiken Classic earlier this season, and played key roles in wins over Saint Louis, Clemson, Akron, Ohio State and Butler.
Although he played a more prominent role as a two-sport competitor at Brown, in both soccer and wrestling, Popolizio said being able to wear the championship ring is something he will cherish forever.
“This is unbelievable. It’s the kind of thing you dream about, but are also conscious of the fact that it’s so very hard to achieve,” said Popolizio.
“I remember watching my uncle wrestle in the NCAAs for Oklahoma State way back when. Trying to win a national title is the reason you play, but you are always realistic that it might not ever happen. This is a surreal feeling for me, right now. It still hasn’t sunk in it. It’s been a wild 48 hours since we won the title, and it’s just starting to hit me right now.”
Popolizio, a 5-foot-7, 140-pound forward, was the first two-sport varsity athlete at Brown in the last 25 years. He played soccer for three years and led the Bears in scoring in the 2011 campaign with eight goals and three assists for 19 points. He started 15 of the team’s 20 matches and helped the Bears post a 12-5-3 record and reach the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Brown advanced to the NCAA tournament in each of his three seasons.
Popolizio also wrestled all four years at Brown.
“It’s a very rare thing to play two sports nowadays,” Popolizio said. “Some can do it in something like track and football, but the difference between soccer and wrestling is very huge. It took a toll on my body for the last 12 to 13 years. I’ve done both since I can’t remember.”
After graduating from Brown, Popolizio still had one year of soccer eligibility left, so he was left with a difficult decision of whether go to another university to play as a graduate student or give up his athletic career completely.
“I was recruited as a wrestler at Brown, but they gave me the chance to play soccer as a walk-on,” he said. “They opened the door for me, and I really wanted to go for it. Soccer was my passion, but wrestling was my key to get into Brown and to play two sports at the Division I level. Brown is such a great academic school that I couldn’t give up the chance to go there, but my dream was always to play DI soccer. At times, it was very tough for me. I walked on as a freshman, and the coaching staff almost cut me from the team. I had a long talk with all the coaches, and it ended up turning around for me. They helped me progress as a player.”
Popolizio thought he had what it took to play at the highest collegiate level in soccer, even though others doubted him.
“I thought I was special out of high school, but there were some doubters,” he said. “Brown opened the door and gave me the full commitment to play both sports. My body feels it now. My knees ache and my joints crack, but dreams really do come true.”
Popolizio said his stellar play on the soccer pitch at Brown opened some eyes around the country.
“We went to the Sweet 16, and I led Brown in scoring,” he said. “When I graduated from Brown last spring, I had a degree in business economics, but I wasn’t committed to starting my MBA right away. I still had a year of eligibility left in soccer, and the Ivy League has very strict rules about competing in the NCAA tournament after your undergraduate career was complete. I had to decide whether to hang up my cleats or start another career. But a few schools reached out to me, and I decided to go to Indiana.”
Popolizio earned four soccer letters at Shenendehowa and helped the Plainsmen win a New York state championship. He was the leading scorer in the Suburban Council as both a junior and
senior, and was named the league MVP as a senior. He also gained all-state and all-region accolades for the Plainsmen.
On the mat, he was a three-time Section II champion and three-time Class A titlist. He was sixth in the New York state wrestling tournament as a senior and posted 141 career wins.
But soccer was always his true love, and to finish his athletic career as a national champion is special.
“It’s almost comical how well everything worked out for me,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that on Sunday my athletic career was all over, and that it ended with a national championship. Now, for the rest of my life, I have new goals and an eye toward a new career. My competitive days are over, but I’m so lucky. How many people get to walk off as a champion?”
Popolizio’s good fortune will continue this summer. He has decided to put the second year of his MBA studies on hold to accept a position with Goldman Sachs. He was an intern there last summer, and will begin his career back in New York City once he finishes up his first year of studies this spring.
“I’m going to put my academic career on hold and begin my job as soon as I can,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for me. I’m sure I’ll finish up my MBA as soon as I get a chance.”
Popolozio has no regrets.
“The decision to come to Indiana for my final year of soccer eligibility is one of the best decisions I ever made, both inside and outside of athletics,” he said.
“To be able to look back some day and know that I was a national champion in the sport I love is just unbelievable. All the hard work I put in has really paid off.”