Figueroa initially signed with Division II Shepherd (W.Va.) but now hopes to attend Fork Union Military Academy and land a big-time college offer from Virginia Tech, Virginia or Miami or some other suitor previously scared off by his grades.
Figueroa exits high school a newly christened A-B student, one who takes responsibility for his previously poor performance, referring to himself as having been “lazy” and “immature” when it came to academics. He wants other unfocused but capable students, particularly athletes, to heed the advice that he tuned out for years.
“My basic message is: Don’t settle for what you are [just] because everyone loves you because of football,” Figueroa said during a 90-minute conversation in his family’s living room in Stafford County one night this spring. “It’s called ‘school,’ not ‘football.’ You’re there for an education. You’ve got to swallow your pride and ask for help sometimes.”
Figueroa’s parents (Angelique and Luis, both former Marines), coaches and teachers had tried to motivate him for years. His mom said she never threatened to take football away from her son because she believed that was the main reason he went to school.
It was not until a sitdown meeting — a 75-minute intervention, really — in December with Coach Jeff Berry that the linebacker stirred from his scholastic slumber. That huddle occurred in Berry’s office, where so many recruiters had those “we love your talent, but your grades . . . ” conversations with Figueroa, the visits when he lapped up the college coaches’ praise and dreaded their inevitable comments about his transcript.
There was no screaming during the intervention. Just stinging straight talk from his parents and Berry, the exasperated yet supportive adults in his life. You want to be a clown? Fine. Just stop wasting our time. We’ve done all we can do. It’s up to you.
“That meeting?” said Angelique Figueroa, a substance abuse counselor. “Oh, I saw his face. There was nothing he could say. He’s sitting there and taking it. I saw the eyes. I saw him breathing. All the nonverbal kind of stuff that he was connecting.”
The image that most disturbed the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Figueroa was that of ending up as one of those high school football standouts who never reached his potential, sentenced to a dead-end job in his home town.
He and his friends have a name for such ex-jocks: “Stafford all-stars.”
“I just don’t want to be someone that’s stuck here living in regret and telling people I could have been this or I could have been that,” said Figueroa, who turns 18 in July. “No one wants to be that person. That was the most painful thing for me to hear.”
So Figueroa started going into school early for tutoring. He studied for tests days in advance instead of the period before. He buckled down in oceanography, a class that truly interested and challenged him. He sorted out the X’s and Y’s and pulled his algebra 3 grade up a letter or two.
For perhaps the first time in high school, Figueroa experienced what he calls “the satisfaction of being able to feel like an actual student and not just like a bum sitting in class waiting for the bell to ring.”
During a dinner with Shepherd football coaches at a Japanese steakhouse, one of them asked Figueroa if he had any questions. He did. He inquired about the observatory at the small liberal arts school.
“I’m sitting there and it blew me away,” Angelique Figueroa said. “They were expecting him to ask a question about football, and he was asking about an academic program. And that’s when I knew, right there.”
Berry has seen it, too. “You could detect a seriousness, the remorse, him being an adult,” the coach said. “He’s become a young man instead of a little boy in a man’s body running around the hallways of Brooke Point.”
Figueroa will depart Brooke Point having learned many lessons, one in particular that he wants to pass down to underclassmen. He hopes they will be more receptive to such advice than he was.
“Just because you’re gifted,” he said, “doesn’t mean you can’t fail.”
Varsity Letter is a column about high school sports in the Washington area.