T.J. Popolizio had to convince Mike Noonan, the men’s soccer coach at Brown in 2008. Noonan was skeptical that this prospect, this wrestler from Rexford, N.Y., could play Division I college soccer.
“Wrestling is the real reason I went to Brown,” Popolizio said. He competed all four seasons on the soccer and wrestling teams.
“We knew that he was a good soccer player,” Noonan said. “It came to a point in his second year where I told him, ‘Pop, you’re not in the first line wrestling, and you’re not in the first line soccer. You need to dedicate yourself one way or the other.”
Noonan said he didn’t want to take Popolizio away from the wrestling team. Popolizio asked for a chance. During a preseason game, he scored the only goal.
“I said from that point forward, we had to have him,” Noonan said. “It’s the character of the kid that means most to me about Pop. He makes everybody around him better. He’s one of my favorites.”
As a senior, Popolizio led Brown in scoring. Brown advanced to the third round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.
There was no providence in Rhode Island’s capital on Nov. 27, 2011. St. Mary’s College won 3-2 in overtime.
Popolizio’s undergraduate career ended abruptly.
“I can remember watching the ball going into the net, and when it happened, for a second, you’re praying that there’s a call, a whistle, an offsides, something,” he said.
“And then it hits you that the season’s over. There was a really special group of people that I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life. We had a great team. To see that end was sad. But I wouldn’t have given it up for anything in the world. It was four of the most incredible years.”
He finished as an all-Ivy League player.
Popolizio said he wasn’t thinking about soccer following his senior season.
“I didn’t know if I was going to use the year of eligibility,” he said. “I was getting ready to start my career. I didn’t know how a fifth year could tie in to what I was trying to do. (The coaches) were unbelievable in getting me out here and showing me what Indiana soccer’s all about. It was a perfect fit.”
IU Coach Todd Yeagley said Popolizio initially contacted him. Yeagley talked to Noonan, who told the IU coach he thought Popolizio would be a good fit.
Yeagley said he does not have an established policy concerning graduate student transfers.
“If we feel it can help, I think anytime you bring a player for a year, you want to make sure it fits your team,” Yeagley said. “He’s a wonderful young man with an unbelievable amount of maturity. I knew only that he would positively impact the group. I felt his involvement with our program would be a positive on our young players and certainly our upperclassmen.
“He’s fit in perfect.”
Senior forward Tim Wylie said Popolizio brings in a little different flair.
“He’s quicker,” Wylie said. “We’ve really liked having T.J. around with his style. It blends well with the rest of the team. We love having him here.”
Popolizio, pursuing his MBA in the Kelley School of Business, said the first thing he did was research the school’s national ranking.
“Once I saw how great the school is, the fact that they were able to get me into the MBA program, was the real driving force,” he said. “You see the banners, you walk through the halls, it’s unbelievable. I’ve known Indiana soccer was something special since I had a ball at my feet.
“You told me I would’ve been here, I would’ve said you were crazy. It was pretty cool to step on this field tonight (Aug. 31).”
He gave credit to the people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.
“The whole process has been amazing,” Popolizio said. “It’s an extra year of eligibility to play at one of the elite programs in the whole country.
“Growing up, you asked me if I could do this, I would’ve paid any money in the world, I’d have given up everything to have a shot to be at a program like this and play with kids like this in this environment. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest players in the world. I’ve been through difficult times at Brown, come a long way as a player, but, to be here to end my competitive athletic career is pretty special.
“I’m going to look back on this season, hopefully, and say it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
On Friday, Popolizio’s Hoosiers played against Clemson, the team Noonan now coaches. This was not just another game for Popolizio.
“Coach Noonan kind of instilled what it took to be a D1 college soccer player in me,” Popolizio said. “It was a long road. He’s one of the people that I’ve really tried to convince I can play at this level. He’s been huge in my development as a player.”
Popolizio said he remembered not playing as a freshman. In fact, he said his status on the team was tenuous.
“To go from a position where I wasn’t getting a lot of time for Brown, and really struggling to stay on the team, to now, getting to play with this program against him is something really special.”
He said on August 29 that playing against Noonan’s Tigers Friday night was the culmination of a process.
“It’s been an interesting ride with me and Coach,” he said. “Playing for him was something special, something I’ll never forget. It’s kind of come full circle.”
He played approximately 10 minutes in the second half. He made them count.
Popolizio entered the game in the 67th minute, giving sophomore forward Eriq Zavaleta his first rest of the match.
Three minutes later, Popolizio delivered a key pass to Femi Hollinger-Janzen, as the freshman forward/midfielder made a run down the left side. Hollinger-Janzen’s shot was saved, but redshirt freshman forward Kyle Sparks converted on the rebound. The Hoosiers doubled their lead to 2-0.
Popolizio did not officially earn an assist. He didn’t care.
“I was able to make an impact right when I got out there,” he said. “Femi made a great run. He was really cued in. I saw him early, (and) made up my mind: I was going to try to play a pretty difficult ball. I was able to put it into space, and credit to Sparks. He’s able to knock it back in.
“It’s great to come off the bench and make a real big impact, especially against Clemson, against my old coach. It meant a lot. We took care of business. It’s a great night."
Popolizio said it is “an unbelievable feeling” and “icing on the cake to be at a program like this,” where he can “work for one season to try to get the eighth (IU national championship).”
This opportunity would have never come to fruition without wrestling. Popolizio’s cousin, Pat Popolizio, is the head coach at North Carolina State. His other cousin, Frank Popolizio, runs Journeymen Wrestling, one of the biggest clubs in the Northeast.
“It’s been in my family’s blood for awhile,” he said. “They know me as a soccer player in the family. It is a tough sport. It really takes a full commitment. It’s one of the toughest things I think you can do as a college athlete. I see the Indiana wrestlers in the weight room, I think back and say, ‘Man, I don’t miss all of that.’ You’ve got to be a real special person to be able to do it. To be able to do it for four years, I’m just as proud of that as I am of all the soccer success I’ve had.
“It was tough. Doing the two sports, you have days where you’re working out three, four times a day. I wouldn’t be the soccer player I am without the wrestling aspect. I really am thankful for the whole sport.”
Yeagley said his team needed some experience.
“He brings great positive energy,” Yeagley said. “He makes plays. He’s already done that in the Cincinnati game. He’s been a spark for a lot of good results for Brown during his career. We thought he’d be a great fit for us this year.”
Popolizio has made Noonan a fan.
“Coach Yeagley’s using him very, very well,” Noonan said. “I hope he has a great year, because I love him so much.”