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One big fan missing in the crowd for Brandon wrestler Alex Popke

Brandon senior Alex Popke has a 71-4 record this season and is among the favorites to win the Class 2A state title at 182 pounds. Popke, who has become a leader among the Eagles, is dedicating his season to his father, Kevin Popke, who died last September after crashing his motorcycle.
Brandon senior Alex Popke has a 71-4 record this season and is among the favorites to win the Class 2A state title at 182 pounds. Popke, who has become a leader among the Eagles, is dedicating his season to his father, Kevin Popke, who died last September after crashing his motorcycle.
Published Mar. 1, 2017

BRANDON — His dad was always there for him, pushing him, encouraging him, celebrating his victories and picking him up when he fell in defeat.

Then, suddenly, his dad was gone.

It happened on a Sunday afternoon last September, a day that felt like any other to 17-year-old senior Alex Popke, until he got the phone call.

The voice on the other end said that Popke's father, Kevin Popke, had been in a motorcycle accident and was in an ambulance racing to the hospital where he would undergo emergency surgery.

It wasn't long before Alex and his mother, Michelle, were told Kevin had died.

"It didn't seem real at first," Alex said. "It took a while before the reality set in."

Through it all, from the shock to the grieving to the realization, Popke said he had something great to help him, something that he and his father had bonded over, and that was, simply, wrestling.

His dad wasn't a wrestler, but he had been in the military and had always played sports. He also had always admired the Brandon wrestling program.

"Dad knew that I could get a lot out of wrestling for Brandon High School because he saw how great the program was," said Alex, who actually had never wrestled before he tried out of the junior varsity team as a freshman. "I had played football before, but I thought I would give wrestling a try."

At first, it was beyond rough.

"I was intimidated because I had no idea how to wrestle," Alex said. "I was getting thrown around. My whole freshman and sophomore years I got beat up. For a moment after my freshman year I thought maybe I should try another sport, but my dad encouraged me to stay with it."

Alex did stay with it, and he got stronger, and quicker and smarter.

He started winning. He made it to varsity his sophomore year and missed by one match reaching the state tournament at 182 pounds.

As a junior last year at 182, he lost in triple overtime to miss another trip to state, and he got mad.

"After that I totally devoted myself in every way to get better," Alex said. "After coming so close and never making it to state, it just made me so determined."

In the ensuing offseason, his dad set up extra wrestling sessions with former Brandon four-time state champion Anthony Grajales, who, Alex said, "Beat me up every day."

In the process, Alex, who also ran and lifted more than ever, got even stronger and better and better.

With this year's wrestling season on the horizon, Alex said he and his father could barely wait for it to begin, when suddenly …

His dad was gone.

"I have to say that in some way I still feel like he is still here with me, watching me, encouraging me," Alex said. "I really feel it, and that has helped. I have found strength in it."

Alex said the whole Brandon wrestling team, who were all close to his dad, has bonded more strongly.

Now Alex, who is 71-4 this season, has two more days of high school wrestling ahead of him at the Class 2A state wrestling tournament Friday and Saturday in Kissimmee, and he has two huge goals in mind: Win a state title for himself and help Brandon win its 17th consecutive and 28th overall team championship.

"I do feel pressure because I know my family (including mom Michelle and sisters Brynn, Katie and Emily) really want this," he said. "I also know my dad also wants it and I know he'll be watching.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make him proud."

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