David Popek was something of a modern day renaissance man — from playing sports to playing piano to being the star in the school play to protecting people on airplanes.
There were many things the former Wallington football standout did well, but his greatest gift was touching the lives of those fortunate enough to have crossed his path.
Popek passed away Monday at age 25. The death was unexpected and the cause is unknown, said his mother, Barbara Popek.
“David was loved by everyone,” Barbara said. “He had such a big heart. He was a wonderful human being. There will never be another David. Everyone’s devastated.”
Popek was a U.S. Air Marshal who traveled the world ensuring passengers’ safety, and had just come home on a flight from India before his death. He was living in an apartment in Wallington that overlooked the school’s football field, which was appropriate considering Popek was Wallington’s all-time leading rusher with 3,155 yards. He went on to win an NJAC championship at the College of New Jersey.
Sean Sullivan, Popek’s high school football teammate, remembers when Popek put it on the line for his team in a must-win game against Weehawken. Popek played so hard that during one drive, he threw up twice before scoring a touchdown and sparked the victory.
“He was everything you can ask for in a leader,” said Sullivan, who had known Popek since third-grade. “He would give you everything he had. He was the greatest guy I’ve ever known. He was my best friend.”
Popek was more than a great athlete and good student. He meant a lot to the small, close-knit Wallington community. The morning after he passed, Wallington principal Jim Albro said when he walked into school, he could sense the deflated atmosphere in the building.
“He was one of the most profound relationships I had in my life,” said Albro, who was Popek’s football coach in high school. “His nickname was ‘Superman’ because he could do everything. He was gregarious, outgoing and respectful. He was one of those people that made everyone feel special. He was a rare gem. He embodied that community, and they loved him very much.”
The school’s football team plans to pay tribute to Popek at its game Saturday at Morris Catholic. The team will wear Popek’s name and jersey number on its helmets, and will walk onto the field with his No. 15 jersey and leave it on the bench during the game.
“He was a true leader,” said Wallington football coach Barry Blauvelt, who was an assistant coach when Popek played. “He was a kid that broke every stereotype. Everything he did, he gave it everything he had. He taught me to live life to the fullest.”
Popek’s brother, Matthew Popek, and his sister, Barbara Joyce, attend Newton High School and have tributes planned for their big brother. Matthew, a senior, idolized David and plays varsity football, and his team will wear his brother’s initials on its helmets. Barbara, a sophomore, is a varsity cheerleader and will be on the sideline Friday.
“My daughter told me, ‘I’m going to cheer for both of my brothers, the one on the field and the one in heaven,’ ” Barbara Popek said.
A wake will be held Sunday at Warner-Wozniak Funeral Service in Wallington. The funeral is Monday.