More Than A Game: J.J. Heddleston balances academics, athletics amidst busy schedule

Steel Valley sophomore J.J. Heddleston leans against a locker for a portrait

Most teenagers struggle with perspective. It’s a challenge to see the bigger picture when the present seems to matter so much. 

Sophomore J.J. Heddleston isn’t a typical teenager. Two years into high school, Heddleston is determined to embrace every opportunity to experience something new. This year, he’s pushed himself academically, branched out and joined new clubs, and he finally joined the football team after years of being around the program. 

“I figure I’m only a teenager once. When I get older, I’m not going to be able to play football,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to work around my community like this. I’m going to have to work a 9-to-5. I figured I might as well make the most of it.”

That ambition leads to some long days and late nights. During the football season, Heddleston routinely would arrive home from practice around six, grab a bite to eat and decompress for an hour. Then it was time to tackle homework until 11 p.m. That’s life when you’re enrolled in honors pre-calculus, honors trigonometry, honors English and Advanced Placement History II.

“I’m more math-oriented,” Heddleston said of his workload. “I figured I’d be good engineer with my math skills. I’m just looking around to see what I’m interested in.”

Even with the rigorous academic slate, Heddleston has maintained one of the highest GPAs in the sophomore class. Somehow, he’s also found time to participate in the French Club, student council and SADD. It’s all part of his mindset to be part of the Steel Valley community in any way possible, a process that began with his decision to join the football team for this past season.

Heddleston wasn’t a stranger to the program; he served as a waterboy for the team in elementary school and middle school. He shelved any thought of joining the team as a freshman because of the spread of COVID-19. Then, while he was playing basketball with Nijhay Burt, the senior running back encouraged Heddleston to join the football team. 

“When COVID started to die down, I said I wanted to give it a try and I ended up loving it,” Heddleston said.

Heddleston had modest expectations to start, both as an individual player and for the team. He worked his way into the rotation on the offensive and defensive lines and played a role on special teams. The Ironmen rolled through the regular season undefeated, won a conference title and reached the WPIAL semifinals.

“I didn’t know if we were going to be great or even good – I just wanted to play,” he said. “And then we started winning a lot of games, and it was like, ‘Wait, wow!’ There’s definitely a swagger to the locker room. We’re not cocky, but we know we’ve just got to go out there and play.”

With the football season over, Heddleston will swap his cleats for sneakers as a member of the basketball team. His schedule means missing an occasional club meeting – he catches up on what he missed afterward – but it’s worth losing some sleep in exchange for new experiences. The value of being so busy was reinforced during the Funder Under the Bridge fundraiser in early October. 

“That was just a fun experience. Just seeing the community, being around with them, seeing little kids and talking to them about what they get to do when they’re older,” he said. “Just being there and seeing that makes me want to be involved.”

Steel Valley sophomore J.J. Heddleston leans against a locker for a portrait

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