Born for the gridiron

Max Stepanets’ journey to the football field

By Kyle LoJacono


Max Stepanets was born in a country that loves football, but it isn’t the same game played here on Sundays in the fall.

The Academy at the Lakes sophomore was born St. Petersburg, Russia and moved to the United States five years ago. Stepanets lives with his younger brother, Tiama, and returns to his native country each summer to visit the rest of his family.

Academy at the Lakes sophomore Max Stepanets prepares for the football season during a summer workout session. (Photo by Kyle LoJacono)

The 6-foot-5, 195-pound quarterback is thousands of miles from his parents, but he said he never feels lonely thanks to football.

“To me it’s not difficult at all because I’ve got my team,” said Stepanets, who lives with guardian Eric Wilson. “They’re my family.”

Stepanets’ journey stateside happened by complete chance.

“It’s kind of a crazy story,” Stepanets said. “My brother liked toys, and he went in this toy store with my mother when he was 5 years old I think. There was this random lady in the store who asked if my mom had any older children. She said she had me. The lady was this person who gave IQ tests, and I took them all and I did really well.”

The results helped his mom decide to send Stepanets to the United States for better educational opportunities.

Stepanets only played soccer while in Russia, a sport where his aggressive nature often hurt his ability to stay on the field.

“I was always physical in soccer,” Stepanets said. “I was getting penalties all the time and cards.”

What was a hindrance on the soccer pitch has been a boost on the gridiron.

Stepanets tried out for a middle school football team while living in Miami.

“I didn’t know the rules, but I just loved hitting,” Stepanets said. “I was aggressive. I just see the guy with the ball, and I hit him. … If you love the game, you’ll learn the rules. I watch it on TV and play it. It’s easy to learn the rules when you live around it.”

Stepanets came to the academy three years ago, spending the last two seasons on the Wildcats’ kick-return and kickoff teams but is now tasked with running the offense.

“He’s growing up and he’s maturing,” said academy third-year coach John Castelamare. “He’s stronger and he can throw the ball very good. Now if we can get him to make the right decisions all the time we’ll really have something.”

Stepanets is impressing teammates with his development.

“He can really develop into a leader, and I think he has more of the intangibles as a quarterback,” said junior offensive lineman Jack Fishman. “He’s also going to surprise a lot of people when he runs at them.”

Stepanets, who also plays midfield/defense for the Wildcats’ soccer team, plans on becoming a doctor, which puts him in line with the rest of his family.

“I have a family full of scientists,” Stepanets said. “I have a sister (Maria) who’s a rocket engineer. Then my grandparents and great-grandparents were all scientists.”

Career decisions are years off. Right now Stepanets is mostly thinking about the football season, which is two weeks away.

“I can’t wait,” Stepanets said. “We’re going to do some things this year.”



  1. Max has been a part of The Renaissance Project since its inception 5 years ago. The Renaissance Project is a small not-for-profit located here in Land O Lakes that provides a bright future for poor kids from around the world, Russia is our first country. We have been thrilled with the choices Max has made and the future he is creating for himself. I believe Coach Cass and the Academy at the Lakes community have been critical parts of that. If you’d like to learn more about Max I encourage you to visit our website:

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