Glance over Tennessee’s list of signees in the Class of 2016 and Austin Pope’s name doesn’t exactly leap off the page.
Pope is a three-star tight end prospect from Christian Academy (Knoxville, Tenn.) who committed to the Vols in June and never flirted with other schools. On the surface, Pope is about as exciting as plain toast when compared to elite recruits. That’s only if you don’t know the full story about Pope.
See, Pope could have been a much more highly regarded prospect had he followed the traditional recruiting trail, which means summer camps and fall visits during a prospect’s junior season. Pope declined most of that – and for good reason. His father was dying of brain cancer.
“He gave up a lot,” Pope’s mother, Sheryl Pope said. “That’s why he was recruited so late, to be with his dad and help me with his dad. He deserved everything that’s happened. That’s how I feel. The Lord has taken care of him.”
The Popes were always a family that valued athletics. Austin was on travel teams for basketball and baseball for as long as he can remember. He was always fond of football. His father, who played football at West Virginia and Bowling Green, had a dream for his son: to play a sport at the highest level.
“I didn’t have any offers when he passed away so that’s hard to deal with I guess, but at the same time, his dream for me was to go play anywhere big time,” the 6-foot-5, 219-pound prospect said.
Austin said he knew that his father, who passed away before his senior season, would be proud of what his son had accomplished.
“He’d love it,” Austin said. “It was his dream come true.”
Austin’s father, Tom Pope, never got to see that dream realized. He nearly passed away when he was first diagnosed with cancer when his son was just a freshman. He managed to live two more years after that. The chemotherapy seemed to work. Then, the cancer returned.
“When it came back, it was terminal cancer,” Sheryl said. “I guess Austin didn’t really realize that. I don’t think any of us did.”
Denial faded and reality slowly sunk in as Austin’s father’s condition worsened quickly.
“When he started to get sick again, it just came back with a vengeance,” Sheryl said.
Like his son, Tom Pope was a big man, about 6-4 and 260 pounds. Once his mobility began to suffer, Austin was the only person that could help care for him. He was the kid brother and the last child still living with his parents.
“I can’t imagine what it was like for a kid to have to take care of your dad, this man you looked up to your whole, entire life,” Sheryl said. “My husband was bigger than life. He just had one of those personalities.
“To see your dad diminished, I just can’t imagine being a kid and going through that. I think it really made him extremely mentally strong. I don’t know how he deals with it everyday. Those memories, they don’t go away.”
Sheryl said she probably wasn’t going to be able to afford to send her son to college. The scholarship from Tennessee was a blessing. Despite all she’s been through, she had a belief that something good would happen after all the struggles. That day happened when Austin, mostly unknown, received a scholarship offer after a strong showing at a Tennessee camp.
“It’s been awesome,” she said. “I just always felt that good things would happen after his dad’s death. Him going to UT, his dad would have been absolutely beside himself and thrilled. He just would have been so proud. That’s how he’s gotten through all this. That’s been his safe haven I guess.”
Austin Pope could had been a bigger name in recruiting circles if he had the same opportunities as other top prospects. He could have traveled the country for summer camps and junior days to garner more interest. Instead, he had more important things to tend to.
While many of the memories of his father’s final days are surely dark, Austin can also remember the good days. That’s worth far more than a few more scholarship offers.
Austin promised himself he’d live up to his dad’s dreams. Well before his father was sick, Austin wrote a letter to his future self outlining what he’d become. Then just a high school freshman, Austin had a pretty good idea what path he’d choose.
— Austin Pope (@Austin_Pope31) June 15, 2015
Fate didn’t allow Austin to follow that plan exactly, but he ended up achieving the ultimate goal. His father would be proud.
All player ranking and ratings are from the 247Sports Composite.