ABSECON – Justin Figueroa’s favorite movie is “Rocky.”
That makes sense.
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Before he scored touchdowns for the Holy Spirit High School football team, the Atlantic City resident threw left hooks as an amateur boxer.
Figueroa, 17, and his teammates will meet second-seeded Mater Dei (11-0) for the state Non-Public II title at 1 p.m. Saturday at Kean University in Union Township. Figueroa is a prominent reason the fourth-seeded Spartans (9-2) are making their sixth state final appearance in the past seven years.
The 5-foot-10, 195-pound running back and cornerback has rushed 86 times for 725 yards and 10 TDs.
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“Justin has always been one of the toughest kids on the field,” Spirit coach A.J. Russo said. “He has attitude when he gets on the field that picks up other kids as well. It’s infectious. He doesn’t step back from anybody and is up to every challenge.”
Figueroa cultivated that toughness in the boxing ring. He grew up in the Venice Park section of Atlantic City. Figueroa started boxing when he was 5. His father, Ivan Cedeno, taught him the basics. Figueroa trained at Pleasantville and Atlantic City gyms.
“My father used to box a bit back in his day,” Figueroa said. “We lived in a tough neighborhood, and I needed to know how to defend myself. It was a good thing to keep me out of trouble.”
Figueroa also trained with relatives in Florida. He competed in several national competitions and proudly says his record is 21-3.
But along the way, Figueroa also decided to play football. He joined the Ventnor Pirates of the Atlantic County Junior Football League in the fifth grade. Russo was the Pirates’ coach back then.
“I knew nothing about football,” Figueroa said. “I just played off my ability.”
Figueroa pretty much gave up boxing to concentrate on football in high school. He wants to play college football but has yet to pick a school.
“I really have a passion for football,” he said.
His experience on the gridiron and in the ring lead to some interesting questions.
So which is tougher, getting tackled or getting punched in the face?
“No one likes to get hit in the face,” he said.
Is it better to land a left hook on an opponent’s jaw or score a touchdown?
“I think scoring a touchdown,” he said.
It’s not just Figueroa’s toughness that has bolstered the Spartans. He’s one of the team’s most versatile players. He has even played quarterback in some wildcat formations and returned punts and kickoffs. In addition to cornerback, he has also plays linebacker for the Spartans.
“His versatility is a huge advantage,” Russo said. “It allows you to give other kids a rest. You can keep kids fresh and give other teams different looks.”
Holy Spirit faces a Mater Dei team that has emerged as one of the state’s most interesting stories this season. The Monmouth County school nearly closed 18 months ago. Former NFL player Dino Mangiero took over the program this season. He previously built Poly Prep in Brooklyn into a power and seems intent on doing the same for Mater Dei.
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Holy Spirit hasn’t won a state championship since 2012. The Spartans lost in the 2013 and 2014 finals and were 4-6 last season. Figueroa didn’t play in the 2013 title game because he was a freshman, and he missed the 2014 championship contest with an injury.
“We’re going to stay humble,” Figueroa said, “and let our actions do the talking on Saturday.”