Hernando Olympian rebuilding tarnished legacy

His accomplishments stack up among the greatest athletes produced by Hernando County. Yet the memories of John Capel seem more about missteps than medals.

He’s no longer one of the fastest men walking the Earth. Those days are well behind him.
Hernando graduate and former Florida Gator John Capel instructs players in his youth football league, Tru Elite Athletes and Mentors Inc., during a practice Tuesday at Fox Chapel Middle School. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

He can still run. Just not from his past. Not from the marijuana use that curtailed his NFL career before it began, or the failed drug tests that derailed his Olympic dreams.

Over the past two years, the county’s only Olympian has stayed busy operating and coaching in Tru Elite Athletes and Mentors Inc., a youth league thus far specializing in the sports for which Capel was once renowned: football and track and field.

“I’m glad about all the things I went through, because now I can impart that on my sons and my daughter, and the kids in my league,” said Capel, now a 35-year-old father of four. “These are the things that God let me go through in order to help the people under me.”

Capel will be among eight former coaches and athletes honored Friday as new inductees into the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame during the Leopards’ home football game against South Sumter.

He’ll return to Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium, where he starred on both the field and the surrounding track prior to his graduation in 1998.

“It’s an honor,” Capel said. “Anytime somebody says ‘Thank you’ for athletic achievements and gives you some type of recognition, it’s always an honor.”

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Aside from fellow Leopard alums Jerome Brown, a two-time NFL All-Pro selection, and Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Bronson Arroyo, Capel’s credentials are tough to top around these parts.

He’s one of only three county male athletes to ever win multiple track state championships in the same season, as he did in 1997 in Class 4A in the 100 meters (in a time of 10.49) and 200 meters (21.01). That same year he won both races at the National Scholastic Championship.

Meanwhile, he became one of the nation’s top prep wide receivers and a Parade All-American.

As a senior, also spending time at running back, he averaged 9.1 yards per carry while accumulating 1,229 yards and 12 touchdowns. That went along with 28 catches for 434 yards and three more scores.

That earned him a scholarship from the University of Florida and a spot in Steve Spurrier’s “Fun ’n’ Gun” offense.

He only played two seasons with the Gators, seeing action in every game though only totaling a combined 11 catches for 88 yards and 20 rushes for 143 yards and a touchdown, while returning 19 kickoffs for a 21.8-yard average and 10 punts averaging 7.4-yards.

The 2000 Olympics cut short his collegiate career on the gridiron, and for good reason. He was already the NCAA Outdoor champion in the 200 from the previous year with a 19.87.

Then he captured the 200 at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials in 19.85, and followed up with an eighth-place 20.49 at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Forgoing his senior year at UF, Capel entered the NFL Draft in 2001 and was taken in the seventh round (208th overall) by the Chicago Bears, despite testing positive for marijuana at the NFL Combine. He was soon arrested and charged with possession of the drug.

The Bears released him in training camp, as did the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002.

On the track, he won the 200 at the 2003 World Championships in 20.30, and was in line to compete on the 4×100-meter relay team at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Hours before the race, he was pulled from the lineup after it was learned he tested positive for marijuana at a meet earlier that month. The team, a favorite to win the race, settled for silver.

In 2006 he again failed a drug test, this time getting hit with a two-year suspension. Two years later, he made a comeback attempt but fell short of making the 2008 Olympic squad.

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Capel doesn’t hold back when dealing with the young people he now coaches. Sure, he can bring a level of expertise to the table few can match, but that’s not all he passes along.

“I tell them all about my troubles, too,” Capel said. “I tell them all of that. I tell them don’t be a knucklehead like I was. I had everything, but I decided I wanted to do it my own way.

“My job is to make sure they don’t walk down the same path. I was the fastest human on the planet at the time and I still didn’t make as much out of my life as I could have.”

That’s where his newest endeavor comes into play. Growing weary of the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality he feels has overtaken youth sports, and frustrated with a lack of elite athletes produced by this county, he set out to make a difference.

With an age range of 4-18, Capel estimates his football league has 140 kids combined between players and cheerleaders, practicing out of Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill and Kennedy Park in Brooksville. The track team is capped at 22.

Capel hopes to add more sports, such as baseball and basketball, if he’s able to bring in proper coaching.

“Long-term for the league, I want to end up with 40-50 teams and make it a real exceptional league, where everybody knows who we are and what we’re doing,” Capel said. “With all the talent we have in Hernando County, we don’t have any (football) state championships. That doesn’t seem right.

“I think if we can teach kids the right way, teach them the right things, I think we can grab a couple of championships before it’s all said and done.”

But the program does not stop on the field. Capel went out of his way to thank his wife, Sandy, his high school sweetheart who stood by him throughout the years, for her love and support.

His wife works as a teacher at Brooksville Elementary, and helps out on the educational side of her husband’s program. Players are not only expected to maintain a certain academic level, Capel noted, but must meet behavioral standards.

“We are a family. Everyone who is a part of our league understands that,” Capel said. “It doesn’t help me to teach you how to play football and make you a bad citizen. It’s not just about me coaching. It’s also about making you a better person and a better student.”

Capel, who has also spent nearly seven years working as a monitor technician at Oak Hill Hospital, doesn’t sound like a man with deep regrets. He spoke highly of his athletic career, having enjoyed the chance to travel, thanking God for the opportunity.

But he doesn’t simply want his legacy to be about what has already occurred, the good and the bad. Instead, he’d like to be remembered as someone who left a mark on future generations, and proved it’s not about the mistakes along the way but the lessons gleaned from them.

“It’s not only about rebuilding a legacy to leave behind, but also take all the tarnish off my name, brush it off just a little bit,” Capel said. “So when I do leave this Earth, I’ll leave behind more than a couple of gold medals and watches.

“Everybody makes mistakes. It’s not how many mistakes; it’s how many times you get back up.”


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