TARPON SPRINGS — Matt June knew the comparisons were inevitable the longer he continued to wrestle and play football. Those were the sports championed by his father, Mike June, the former Palm Harbor University High School coach who died of leukemia in 2006.
Eight years have passed since Mike June's lengthy battle with the disease ended — eight years of grief, anger, acceptance and recovery for the family.
Still, Matt never thought about putting the past away for good, particularly when it came to sports. He stuck with wrestling and football, not only because he enjoyed them, but because he saw it as a way to honor his father's legacy.
Now Matt, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound rising junior at Tarpon Springs High School, is playing his first year of varsity football as an offensive lineman and is expected to start when the Spongers play in a jamboree against Gibbs and Northeast on May 30.
"I've always loved the sports; that's never wavered," Matt said. "But I don't think I realized until I reached high school how important that would be to my dad to know that I was still playing and carrying on the tradition."
Mike June was a burly, animated coach whose big heart and smile left lasting impressions. In 2000, he became Palm Harbor University's second head football coach, replacing Rob Jenkins.
Diagnosed with leukemia in November 2002, Mike went through chemotherapy treatments and was coaching again the next season. But in November 2003, he found out the cancer was no longer in remission. He had more chemotherapy and returned to the sidelines.
Then came another relapse. Told by doctors he risked death if he continued to coach football and teach driver's education, Mike resigned in February 2005. He was buoyed by the support of friends and co-workers. Fundraisers, including a football game known as the Mike June Bowl, were held to pay for medical expenses and family vacations. Coaches agreed to let him coach the North squad in the Pinellas County All-Star Game.
He continued with treatment and thought he was cancer free. But on June 26, 2006, doctors told him he had about three months to live. He died two weeks later.
"When my dad got sick, it was hard on everybody," Matt said. "It was tough to have him taken away so soon, but it also made me stronger."
Matt was on the sidelines as a water boy during his father's games and played flag football before graduating to youth leagues. His older brothers, Mike and Max, played, too, but eventually gave up sports. Mike is now a student at St. Petersburg College. Max, who is graduating from Tarpon Springs in June, was in the band.
Matt still is trying to convince his younger brother, Mitch, to play football. Mia, the younger sister, is involved with dance.
"Mike's kids were all involved in sports, but you could tell Matt was completely in love with it," said St. Petersburg Catholic football coach Dave Cleppe, who was Mike June's college roommate and best friend. "I had a feeling Matt would keep playing."
Matt is polite and articulate and speaks softly, his voice barely carrying over the clanging of barbells in the weight room.
But rumbling beneath the quiet demeanor is a football player with a steely edge.
"Athletically, Matt is as good as it gets," Tarpon Springs coach Ron Hawn said. "He's got all the traits you're looking for — size, good speed. He can be an all-county lineman. We just have to whip him into shape."
For the past two seasons, Matt wore No. 77. He is hoping to wear 70 this fall, the same number his father wore when he played.
"I want to keep going and hopefully play in college," Matt said. "That's what I'm working toward. I know my dad would be proud."
Bob Putnam can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.