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TJ Simtoco for The GAME Halftime, July 2023

TJ Simtoco: Life On And Off The Pitch

Filipino footballer TJ Simtoco spent six years off the pitch, but somehow, found his way back. He tells The GAME how it all went down.

Like many young football players, TJ Simtoco grew up idolizing the greats in the sport: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi (he insists that he does not have a side in the debate), and Azkals legend Stephan Schröck.

“I really wanted to become a professional football player,” he told The GAME. “I fell in love with the sport.”

With the growth that Philippine football has seen over the last decade, the opportunities to play professionally are now much more abundant than they once were — the dreams of aspiring talents can now, perhaps more than ever before, mirror reality closely.

Thus, that was the plan. He started playing at the young age of five for the Xavier boys’ team before transitioning to a club outside of his school, Union FC at around seven years old. Later on, he competed for the Pilipinas Dragons and Socerroo, his first amateur club. Although adapting to different playing styles with every new club is always a challenge, TJ says that playing just felt natural for him, and his experiences with each club were new opportunities to learn and improve.

But, the once clear path to his dream had suddenly been blocked off by an unexpected hurdle.


“Unfortunately, I got injured,” TJ shared, uttering the one word many athletes fear. “It was a game against JP Voltes or Kaya, and I took a blow kick to the back of my knee and tore my meniscus.”

A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries among footballers, and not all tears require surgery. In this regard, TJ felt lucky. After consulting with five different doctors about his injury, it was the fifth and final doctor who told him that because he was still young, he could build his strength up again over time. “It was a blessing in disguise,” he recalled.

However, there was a catch — he could no longer play football.

TJ Simtoco for The GAME Halftime, July 2023
TJ Simtoco looks back at his journey as a football player.

During that doctor’s consultation, he discovered that football was out of the question given his condition. But, sports wasn’t out of the equation completely. The doctor instead recommended a switch in sports, from football to basketball.

“That was when my basketball career started.”

As an athlete through and through, TJ Simtoco found himself on a new path, but it did not come easy at first. “It really hit me hard when I got injured because, at that point in my life, I thought I wouldn’t have another chance.”

Although the path didn’t lead to football like he originally thought it would, he still considered himself lucky. He already had the athleticism that came with years of nonstop football, he had the height, and he had a family who supported him through this shift. And so, he stuck with it. “It was basketball the whole time,” he emphasized. “I really thought my career was going to go toward basketball.”

While football came naturally to TJ, basketball did not have that same click. And although he swapped out fields for courts, he still frequently found himself diverting back to old habits, like juggling balls with his feet while warming up. After all, there are some things you just don’t lose, even after six years.

“I believe that basketball loves me, but I don’t love basketball. It just didn’t feel right when I’d play basketball.”

This could have easily just been the young footballer in TJ still talking to him, even after years of playing basketball. However, his gut feeling may have been right, though he only would have known it when a familiar path suddenly reemerged.

TJ Simtoco for The GAME Halftime, July 2023
Though he dreamed of becoming a pro footballer, TJ’s plans got sidetracked due to a major injury.
TJ Simtoco for The GAME Halftime, July 2023
Despite his injury, TJ managed to gain a second chance at football.
Back on the pitch

In December 2022, TJ Simtoco found himself back on a football pitch — familiar and unfamiliar territory at the same time, after years of playing on hardwood courts. He started going back to open play (a term used by the football community to refer to weekly pickup football matches open to all) with his brother and despite the six years, he recalled that a lot of it was just like riding a bike. Though he may have lost some skills, he found that many others still came back to him naturally — his touch, juggling, and game sense. After all, football always clicked for him, even from the beginning.

“It’s a good feeling, I really missed it,” he expressed.

TJ was just playing casually at first, feeling good about simply being back in his element after so long. But in those small pickup games, he started meeting more people in the football community, such as former and current players of the Azkals Development Team (now known as Club de Futbol Manila).

“It really hit me hard when I got injured because, at that point in my life, I thought I wouldn’t have another chance.”

TJ reflects on his second chance at football.

“They introduced me to ADT, then they actually called me up for it. Gino, who is currently the manager, and Schröck noticed me and said to me, ‘Come train with us at ADT.'”

He did not expect the offer. But the footballer in him could not resist taking the chance to play again. After all, TJ admitted himself, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t praying for it. My friends in Church would tell me to pray over things, and God gave me this opportunity.”

His return to football came as a happy surprise, yet, he could not deny the challenge that came with having to catch up on the six years he’d missed out on. Not only had he changed over the years, but the sport had changed immensely since he last played too. Luckily, his teammates helped him through all of it.

“They were there for me,” he shared. “They helped me with the baby steps to get back into what currently is football. We’re not the best team, but our relationship as brothers — everyone is there to help each other out. No one is a star player.”

But, we can’t go without crediting the work he puts in himself. He puts in the required hours of training with the team, but on top of this, he also puts in the work outside of training, working out up to four times a day. Unlike some parents who worry about their children slacking off, TJ said that his parents, on the other hand, worry about him training too much.

TJ Simtoco
After spending six years without football, TJ has been working hard to make up for lost time.
TJ Simtoco
TJ’s dedication and hard work paid off, as he now finds himself competing in a major football tournament.

“I always challenge myself. Everyone here has been playing consistently for the last 20 years, so it’s a challenge for me, but it gives me the drive to do better in training and to work harder outside of training.”

Two months of nonstop work later, he lost weight, gained 50% of what they call ‘football fit,’ and redeveloped his skills. He credits Stephan Schröck, who leads the under-23 CF Manila team and has been mentoring him through his entire comeback journey. And in the end, the work paid off.

“Schröck told me, ‘Time to play with the big boys.'”

TJ was called up to join CF Manila in this year’s Copa Paulino Alcantara.

Back in action

When The GAME sat down with TJ Simtoco, he was fresh off of CF Manila’s first game in the Copa Paulino Alcantara — his first major tournament since coming back — which they won. He was on a high from the win, but he admitted, “It’s shaky, it’s nerve-wracking.

“I was at Church before the game, and I was crying. I was so nervous, so I got my brother and mom to pray over me. The first game jitters are back, but luckily, we won the first game.”

First-game jitters are not always the easily to handle. But after six years without them, at least in the context of football, TJ actually, on some level, missed the feeling. “It’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s a good feeling. I remember my first game in the UFL, and it’s a feeling that most athletes go through.”

While many athletes would love to be rid of these jitters, TJ has a newfound appreciation for the feeling. “There’s nothing not to love.”

“You’re never too old to start. If it’s meant for you, you’ll feel it.”

TJ on what he has learned from his athletic journey.

Lucky for TJ, he has a whole season up ahead of him. And though it comes with a lot of uncertainty, no matter what is thrown his way — wins, losses, draws — he knows one thing is for sure: he isn’t going to take any of it for granted.

“Not a lot of people get second chances,” TJ said. “[Being away from football for six years] made me cherish it more, so I’m going all in.”

Once a young athlete who dreamed of and planned for a professional career in football, at 23 years old, TJ admits that for right now, it’s all about the current season and the path he currently is on. Asked about his plans for the future, he said, “This season, I’m all for football, but let’s see.”

TJ Simtoco
TJ knows that not everyone can get a second chance, so he is cherishing every moment he gets to spend on the pitch.

Just like learning a new sport, he’s taking things one step at a time, not dwelling on the past, and not focusing too much on the future. Rather, he wants to simply be present in this rare second chance he has been given, and this is reflected in his goals as an athlete — one which is to help CF Manila advance far into the tournament, and another which is to become a better person through football.

It may be safe to say he’s already achieved one of these goals. As a footballer who’s gone through what some might call an unconventional path to reach the level he is currently on, he’s learned many things along the way and gained valuable experiences — it shows in his passion for the sport, his admirable work ethic, and his mindset.

Looking back to the day he was told he would have to give up football, he genuinely felt his career in the sport was over. But looking in the mirror now, seeing where he currently is, and taking it all in fills TJ Simtoco with joy.

As he said himself, not everyone gets a second chance. But watching this young, talented athlete on the pitch might just be able to show everyone what a second chance looks like when used right.

Photography KIERAN PUNAY
Sittings Editor JAMES CRUZ
Shoot Coordination TONI MENDOZA

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