Inside the coach’s office at Holy Cross High School sits the nation’s strongest prep football player. His name is Joseph Peña and you’ve never seen anyone like him.
Peña possesses the gentle smile of a kid who’d like to bag your groceries, the ferocious strength of an athlete who can squat the equivalent of three, 310 pound NFL tackles on his shoulders.
He stands a shade under 6-foot-1, weighs 330 pounds, is a two-time All-State center and last spring, at age 17, set a state record with a 930-pound squat at the state championship powerlifting meet. If not for a pin Peña kept bumping on the rack, he may have squatted 1,000 pounds.
“I have no doubt he could have done it,” said Holy Cross powerlifting coach Brian Ortiz. “But he will lift 1,000 this year.”
For perspective, consider that former world powerlifting champion Mark Henry, whom many consider the strongest man in history, squatted 832 pounds as a high school senior. Peña crushed Henry’s mark by almost 100 pounds as a junior.
Peña’s ambition is not to break records or make another appearance on ESPN – he made it onto SportsCenter in January – or add to his YouTube legacy (videos of his lifts have logged more than 100,000 views). It’s to major in mathematics or engineering and land a job in a related field.
“He’s an incredible student,” said Holy Cross football coach Mike Harrison, who teaches Peña AP history. “He was academic All-State last year. Rice is talking to him.”
Harrison has known Peña since his star center was a toddler. Harrison hired Peña’s father, John, as an assistant coach at Southside High about 20 years ago. When Joseph was an infant, Harrison’s daughter babysat him.
The son of powerlifting parents John and Stella, Joseph was introduced to weights at the age of eight.
“I started like everybody – at the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “I started with a 15-pound bar and my dad said, ‘Keep working at it and we’ll see where it goes.’”
Lifting took Joseph to AAU meets and Junior Olympic competitions. He set records and won gold medals. At 13, he squatted 401 pounds, bench-pressed 198 and deadlifted 325. When he arrived as a freshman at Holy Cross, Joseph outlifted every member of the football team. He benched more than 300 and squatted 600.
“Some of the kids were a little intimidated,” Harrison said.
Off the field and away from the weight room, Joseph is a softie. He is quick to smile and slow to speak, a young man with a big heart and a small ego. When told his 865-pound squat made SportsCenter last winter, he shrugged. When informed a company would sponsor him to participate in a powerlifting meet overseas, Joseph balked at the condition: He’d have to get 20,000 followers on Instagram.
Joseph preferred the private setting on his Instagram account. To get him to change the setting was one thing. To get him to post a single photo was another. Almost impossible. The sponsorship idea died.
“He’s extremely humble,” said Ortiz, who also coaches Joseph on the offensive line. “The only reason he knew he was on ESPN is (because) his dad told him. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t like the attention.”
The attention Joseph embraces comes from recruiters. Rice, Sam Houston State, and West Texas A&M have shown interest. His only limitation is height. “If he were 6-3 or 6-4, he’d have every college in the country beating down his door,” Harrison said.
Joseph is big enough to carry the Holy Cross powerlifting team on his shoulders. He’s the reason the school started a team three years ago. Joseph was the only powerlifter until Ortiz twisted a few arms. The team has grown from five lifters to 12 and then to 30 last year. Led by Joseph, a two-time state champion, Holy Cross finished in the top 10 at the state meet last April.
“Our kids have come to love the weight room,” Harrison said, giving the credit to his star lifter. “Our starting middle linebacker squats 600.”
“And we have two girls,” Ortiz added, “who squatted over 450.”
They used to say Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell had the thighs of Texas. They were thick, massive, the size of tree trunks. Joseph might have larger thighs – and he’s getting bigger. No one has measured the circumference of one thigh but his father has an idea. “Thirty-five inches at least,” John said.
Joseph wants to continue lifting in college – even though powerlifting is not an NCAA sport – as long as it does not interfere with his studies or football.
“He can compete with the best powerlifters in the world with his squat,” Ortiz said.
At the state meet, Joseph out-squatted his nearest competitor by 130 pounds. No one wonders if he’ll win a third state powerlifting title. And he doesn’t question if he can squat 1,000 pounds.
“I’m going to do it this year,” he said.
He speaks softly and confidently with a disarming smile. He does not mention records or medals or personal feats of strength. But he does express hope about the Knights, 8-1, and their playoff potential. “We can go as far as we want,” he said.
Which sport does he prefer? “Whichever one I’m doing at the time,” he said.
The trajectory for his powerlifting career appears out of this world. Consider: If Joseph squats 1,000 pounds this spring, he will be 102 pounds off the world record, held by Blaine Sumner, 29, a late bloomer. Sumner weighed 145 pounds as a high school freshman. He could not bench 135 pounds until he turned 16. Today, Sumner stands 6-foot-2, weighs 375 pounds and holds multiple world records.
“Blaine Sumner is a little bit taller than me but much, much wider,” Joseph said. “He’s a big dude.”
Last summer, Joseph set a sub-junior world record with an 805-pound squat. He accomplished the lift “raw,” that is without knee wraps, a bench shirt or other supportive equipment, which he used to squat 930 pounds. The feat drew the attention of Bill Kazmaier, three-time World’s Strongest Man titleholder. “What a great thing for us to be around, to enjoy,” Kazmaier told herosports.com.
The big boy is growing up. Before long, he will compete against men, the strongest in the world. His father knows what’s possible: years from now, a squat that eclipses Sumner’s world record.
“I don’t think he’s thinking about that,” John said. “He just wants to get 1,000 at the end of March.”
What would that be like? It would be the equivalent of placing a grand piano on Joseph’s massive shoulders, watching him bend his knees to roughly a 90-degree angle – and then firing back up.
His father says his son can do it. Nobody who has seen Joseph lift has any doubt he will.