Jax Peña was in Crocs the first time he played football. Now, with proper boots and training, he tells The GAME what he’s learned since then.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” 16-year-old footballer Jax Peña says as he preludes the story of how he first discovered the sport.
One afternoon, his dad was driving down the street in the Alabang area of Metro Manila, and passing by one of the oldest country clubs in the city, four-year-old Jax and his older brother noticed some kids playing on the field.
“What sport is that?” Jax’s brother asked.
Next thing he knew, they were standing on the field, Jax and his dad watching his brother playing football with the other kids. “This lady came up to me and asked me if I wanted to play too and so I just started playing,” he recalls.
“I was playing in Crocs.”
And the rest, for Jax Peña, is history.
12 years later, he’s still playing, but a lot has changed. He’s no longer kicking around in Crocs; he’s gotten taller since that day he first played; and he’s now competing for one of the best high schools for football (or as they call it, soccer) in the United States.
“Right now, it’s just football,” Jax affirms. “I don’t know any other thing.”
When football is life, it’s hard to think of much else, especially for a youngster who hopes to build a career around the sport. And as he’s pitched up his camp in the United States for now in his journey to achieve his dream, he tells The GAME what he’s learned from his time playing on a new field.
1. Good Grassroots Go Far
As he started playing football at a young age, Jax knows what it’s like to play at the grassroots level both in the Philippines and the United States.
Growing up in Metro Manila, Jax and his siblings studied in De La Salle Zobel — a school well-known for its football program — where he was developing as a player. But when the pandemic hit, as a 14-year-old still wanting to improve, he had to take a step back and think about what would best serve him as an athlete.
“During the pandemic, when everything was locked down, there wasn’t really a lot for football,” Jax explained. “So, my parents and I decided to get me out of the Philippines so I could continue playing and studying out here instead.”
Reflecting on this major life decision, Jax Peña explained that he and his family made the decision mainly for football, but he also wanted to set himself up well to prepare for college.
He now studies at Western Reserve Academy, where the school’s football team partners with Black Rock FC, a premier club for student-athletes that is part of the Elite Clubs National League 2, one of the top youth leagues in the United States.
“Western Reserve only plays during the fall season, and then after, we shift over to the Black Rock Season,” he shares. “It’s still the same players and the same school, and we get to play in other states. I’m playing football all year round.”
This is something that, Jax realizes, is incredibly important for young players — the ability to play as much as possible.
“I think one thing that really helps is having a well-thought program for the whole year and having games week in and week out. Because without games, players can’t develop. If you’re just training and training, you won’t really develop as much as you could,” he expresses.
As a young athlete, any chance to play is a chance to grow. And this is something he is feeling the benefits of. Ever since moving to the United States, Jax expresses that he feels that he has already grown immensely as a player.
Now as a 16-year-old, the youngster has more insight now as to how truly foundational a good grassroots program can be for athletes.
“The reason I got here is because of the Philippine program,” Jax credits. “Playing under local football clubs really helped me get exposure internationally which helped me develop.”
And this is another thing that Jax Peña found to be incredibly important: the value of exposure.
2. Exposure Pushes Growth
Similar to the Philippines, football is not quite as popular in comparison to other sports in the United States, such as basketball. However, in recent years, thanks to the rise of Major League Soccer, along with the United States’ impressive run at the last World Cup, the sport is starting to see more growth.
“Here, MLS is growing and growing, and eventually, I would love to try and go for an MLS Next Pro team,” Jax expresses.
With the rise of the sport in the United States, Jax also tells us that many of his teammates are not only American — he has teammates from Brazil, Liberia, Canada, Chile, and several others — and that many people from different countries flock to the United States to play because players know that they have good facilities and programs for football.
“It’s a whole different culture,” he explains. “They all play at different levels, but overall, among the best of the best, there’s not much of a difference.”
With this, he recognizes the value of exposure, especially for the game he loves. And if anyone knows what it’s like to have exposure, it’s Jax Peña.
In case you didn’t know, Jax is something of an online superstar. He has over half a million followers and gets up to 16 million views on TikTok. His videos blew up and he even has his own set of loyal fans (many have even created fan accounts for him on Instagram and TikTok).
“Sometimes I’m still shocked,” Jax admits. “Sometimes I forget I have a platform. Because I haven’t really done anything about it. Countless times, my friends or my mom say you should do something with it, but right now, I’m just doing it for fun.”
But even if he’s simply doing it for fun, one thing that’s on his mind is the thought of using it to help build exposure for football.
“That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about, trying to help Philippine football grow. Of course, there are many ways to do this, and I think this is one of them. People will get to see the inside of things and appreciate the sport more.”
In fact, this is actually something that he has already started in some small way.
“My brother and I actually have an account that we use for training and stuff,” he shares. Although they don’t get to post as often as they’d like, this is one of the ways that they try to give back to the sport.
3. Players Need a League to Look Up To
As a young football player, Jax’s dream is to one day make it to the pros to play in one of the major leagues in the world, and he’s committed to the goal.
“For the next few years, I think I’ll definitely be playing here in the States,” Jax shares. “But I will definitely still have commitments to the national team in the Philippines, and I’ll keep playing with them because it helps grow the exposure and will help me get better as a player internationally.”
Currently, Jax sees himself playing football in college to help bolster his opportunities to one day play professionally.
For Jax, it’s football or nothing.
As a young footballer, competing in a professional league is his goal. That’s why he trains every day, why he competes twice a week, and why he’s studying in another country, far from his family. The sacrifices are worth the dream in mind.
And to develop football in the Philippines, Jax recognizes that the league needs to develop too. “The league is so important,” he expresses. “If the league gets more exposure, the sport would definitely rise too.”
This is a sentiment that has been echoed by many players and coaches time and time again. By uplifting the professional league in the country, including more clubs, and adding more competition, the sport will be able to develop more passionate athletes such as Jax.
“I love football so much,” he asserts. It is evident in how he talks about his hopes and dreams for football in the country. And, even as just a teen, his dreams go further than turning pro one day.
“One day, I could see myself becoming a coach or even starting my own club in the Philippines. I’d love to help Philippine football grow and develop,” he shares.
But for right now, Jax is taking the dream and the journey one game at a time. And it starts with the opportunities that are right in front of him now.
“Of course, I have my parents to thank,” Jax shares. “Without them, I don’t think I would be there right now. Them getting me to the States is another big thing for my development.”
As a 16-year-old, Jax still has a long way to go.
But, with his experiences as a young player, he’s beginning to understand the intricacies of the sport. With his growing online platform, he one day hopes to bring even more exposure and appreciation to Philippine football. And with his dream and vision already locked in, he knows effort will play the deciding factor in opening the doors to endless possibilities.
Images courtesy of Jax Peña.