LAND O'LAKES — Nate McCoole had plenty of recruiters knocking on his door, offering him a place to attend college and play football.
This comes as no surprise. The 6-foot-1, 315-pound McCoole, who captained the 9-3 Sunlake High Seahawks to their first playoff bid, crushed defensive lines while protecting his quarterback from harm.
The surprise is that he turned all the offers down.
"I decided not to play football," McCoole explained. "Where I like football, I love powerlifting."
So he's headed to the University of Central Florida, where he'll study political science and train with a local powerlifting club. This year, McCoole, 17, was Florida's Class 2A boys weightlifting heavyweight champion, and he also holds several state and national powerlifting records in his age group.
It's such determination and dedication that makes McCoole special to those who know him best.
"He will do anything and everything in his power to achieve his goals," said Sarah McDaniel, McCoole's girlfriend, who graduates with him and also will start UCF in the fall. "He's very different from a lot of the other high school boys. … I honestly just love how determined he is and how he wants to be successful."
Sunlake football coach Bill Browning called McCoole the best kind of leader: one who leads by example.
"He's a good role model for our younger athletes," Browning said.
McCoole earned his maturity early.
His father died when Nate McCoole was in sixth grade. The family expected it. Michael McCoole had been diagnosed with cancer four years earlier, with his chances of survival slim.
"They gave him like six months," Nate McCoole recalled. "He definitely fought the battle hard, but lost it."
The younger McCoole had to step up in his family, taking on new responsibilities to help his mom, Laura, a Hillsborough County elementary schoolteacher whom he considers his role model.
"I believe those obstacles and that adversity shaped who I am today," he said. "I realized it was kind of putting the childhood behind and becoming a man and all things that come with that. If anything, it made me push harder and have more ambition just to succeed despite it all, and make him proud."
He became football team captain and weightlifting champion while taking honors and Advanced Placement courses and completing his Eagle Scout requirements. He also spends time making pottery and singing opera when not working out.
"He does everything to his full potential," said Paul Scott, McCoole's best friend and workout partner, who heads to West Virginia Wesleyan College in the fall. "He's a great leader. If anything goes wrong, he's always the person to step in and take charge."
The Eagle Scout motto is "be prepared." McCoole subscribes to that, but adds another philosophy: "Vincit qui se vincit," or "he conquers who conquers himself." It's tattooed on his left bicep.
"It's very applicable to my life," he explains, flashing a youthful grin that belies his giant size. "You can't do anything before you conquer yourself."
Now he's confident enough to say that he knows weightlifting will be a part of his life, but it won't be his life. He hopes to enter politics some day, because of a desire to help others. And he looks to his time at Sunlake High as a great launch.
"While I'm going to miss it, it's not going to be on my mind," McCoole said. "I'm very excited to get out there. ... I'm going to do what I want to do."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.