Thanks to his exploits on the football field and track, John Capel is one of the best athletes to ever come out of Hernando County.
Though Capel, 35, has been out of competition almost six years, he is still drawn to helping young athletes learn from his experiences — which spanned his time playing football for the University of Florida, competing in the 200 meters at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and being drafted in 2001 by the Chicago Bears.
Now, 24 young men and women look to Capel for leadership as part of True Elite Athletes and Mentors Inc., or T.E.A.M.
Capel — along with wife, Sandy, a teacher at Brooksville Elementary — first hoped to give back to the community when he returned home in 2007. But working long hours at Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville didn't allow him the time.
Fast forward to 2013 and Capel started forming the organization to support youth athletics in the area. He intended to start track and football teams, and before he knew it, a handful of kids training with him at Veteran's Park in Spring Hill turned into five times that number.
As someone who has hit his share of bumps in the road, Capel added a mentoring aspect to the program.
"Some kids might not be the best athletes in the world, but that's why we offer mentoring," he said. "If we do it the right way, we can drive the whole community."
Plans to host a youth track meet locally — the first of its kind in the county — began to form last year as well.
Using his contacts from the Amateur Athletic Union, Capel got the ball rolling, but the question of funds was up in the air. The goal motivated Capel and his wife to use their entire tax return to finance the undertaking.
The result? Eighty-one participants — from Fort Walton as well as local track clubs in Tampa, Ruskin, Bradenton and Capel's Team Lightning — combined to make up the field at last weekend's invitational held at Springstead High School.
Local standouts included Davion Smith, the lone athlete to win two events for Team Lightning, capturing the 100- and 200-meter runs for ages 11 and 12.
Capel's youngest daughter, Saniya, won the long jump for ages 4 to 6 with a leap of 5 feet, 8 inches. She also placed second in her age group in the 60 and 200 meters. His other daughter, Janya, won the squad's final gold medal, winning the high jump for ages 13 and 14. Her jump of 4 feet, 4 inches tied her with teammate Madison Janssens.
It went down just as Capel hoped it would, with his wife's fellow educators, Capel's colleagues at the hospital and Springstead football coach Mike Garofano helping make the meet a success.
"My only hope is that the people of the community will come out and support the kids," he said. "They need somebody to believe in what they do. They need to know that if these kids do something positive with their lives, people will be there to support them."
The same man who competed in three U.S. Olympic Trials and always seemed to rise to the occasion on those stages now hopes to see local athletes gain that same level of recognition. Capel hopes to open doors in Hernando County that have already been opened in urban areas such as Tampa, Orlando and Miami.
"When I see these kids get out (of school) in the summertime, they aren't reading, writing or doing anything constructive," Capel said. "I want to give them a way out. The way out for me was athletics."