CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – It was perhaps the Puk family’s mini version of “The Decision” without the weeks-long buildup, TV cameras and a national ESPN audience. It didn’t involve Cedar Rapids Washington High School junior A.J. Puk switching teams or taking his talents to South Beach.
But it was a decision with local impact all the same, and one that sent ripples through the well-established, football crazy Puk family that has called this Eastern Iowa city home for generations.
Young A.J. Puk, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound left-handed pitcher and first baseman, announced in August he was leaving the Washington football team to pursue a dream that he hopes will someday blossom into a professional baseball career. It was a bit of a shocker because Puk was the Warriors’ starting varsity quarterback as a sophomore and was an effective leader while helping them reach the state playoffs.
But there is a lot more football history in the Puk family than just that.
A.J.’s father, Dr. David Puk, was a four-year football letterman and Academic All-American at the University of Minnesota from 1982-85 and A.J.’s uncle Steven Puk lettered at Minnesota in 1984. Another uncle, J.J. Puk, was an all-Big Ten linebacker at the University of Iowa from 1986-87 and yet another of those Puk brothers, Kevin, lettered at Stanford from 1989-91. All four played football at Cedar Rapids Washington High School, the same school A.J. attends.
This is, without any stretch, a football family.
“When he gave up football, I’ve got to admit Friday nights died for me,” David Puk said Sunday (Feb. 12) after A.J. had completed his pitching session at the Perfect Game Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase held at PG’s indoor facility here.
“It’s hard to put into words, but there’s always been a Puk playing (football),” David continued. “All my brothers would call me and ask me what he was going to do and I told them, ‘Well, he’s giving up football.’ And we all kind of went, ‘Well, OK, it’s not the end of the world.’ But it felt like it every Friday night (this past fall) and I do miss those Friday nights.”
“It was difficult because my whole family has played football,” A.J. said of his decision to concentrate on baseball. “But it really worked out and it was something that had to be done.”
It most definitely has worked out as A.J. quickly emerged this past summer as one of the nation’s top two-way prospects in the high school graduating class of 2013. He entered the PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor ranked the nation’s No. 24 top prospect; a year ago, in February 2011, he was ranked no higher than a top-1,000 prospect.
He went into the 2011 Spring Top Prospect Showcase at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids in April listed at 6-foot-3, 185-pounds. At that time, he was more highly regarded for his hitting prowess than his pitching skills, with a fastball that sat at 81-83 mph.
Nonetheless, a PG scout noted in his report from that event that Puk “will keep improving in all areas” and added “follow closely,” and Puk earned an 8.5 grade on PG’s 1-10 grading scale. He was also playing in the 2011 PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League at the time and continued to work on his pitching skills.
That work began to pay dividends. He was invited to the PG Junior National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., last June, and while still listed at 6-3, 185, the velocity on his fastball increased exponentially.
“When I was at the Junior National in Florida the catchers asked me how hard I threw and I was only throwing in the low-80s then,” Puk recalled. “I kind of lied, I guess, and told them mid-80s and then I actually started throwing in the mid-80s. It was kind of funny because I hadn’t ever thrown that hard.”
Puk’s fastball was gunned sitting between 84-86 mph in the heavy Florida heat, and college coaches and pro scouts took notice.
His summer was off and running. A.J. was invited to join Canes Baseball, a prestigious travel ball organization based in Virginia, and played on Canes teams at the PG WWBA 2013 Grads or 16u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., and at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers.
“They were so wonderful to him over the summer, and they took him without any hesitation,” David said of the people at Canes Baseball. “We tried to be seen as much as we could.”
Puk attended the PG National Games-Class of 2013 Showcase in San Diego the second week of August and returned to Cedar Rapids for the Midwest Top Prospect Showcase at the end of August; his fastball reached 87 mph at both events.
He was playing in the 2011 Iowa Fall Wood Bat League for the Iowa Select Navy squad when that team decided to travel to Peoria, Ariz., to take part in the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) tournament. It was at that event that Puk’s fastball touched 89 for the first time.
The decision to leave football behind was made at the PG National Games.
“He was going to play football in the fall but after going out to San Diego and speaking with a couple of pitching coaches, they told him this was something he really should stay with,” David said. “That made his decision (for him) and from there he just played with his heart and soul.”
Puk played in the 2011 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the Reds Midwest Scout Team, and was named to the All-Tournament Team as a two-way player after helping that squad reach the semifinals at the blockbuster tournament. He hit just .222 (4-for-18) but drove in five runs, and allowed no earned runs and struck out 12 in six innings of work from the mound.
At the just completed PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor, Puk was named the No. 1 hitting prospect and No. 2 pitching prospect from among the more than 80 pitchers and hitters that attended the event. A PG scouting report noted that Puk was “loose and easy” on the hill as he flashed 88 mph fastballs, 75 mph curves and 77 mph changeups.
“I felt pretty good,” A.J. said after his pitching session. “I’ve been throwing for a couple of weeks now and that was about my fifth time off the mound.”
“He’s always been able to see the ball and I’ve always felt comfortable (with his hitting) but his pitching just came together this fall,” David said. “He’s got a lot of movement and he locates it well and he just has that presence of mind.”
In the whirlwind that consumed A.J.’s summer months – “It’s been crazy. It’s been really overwhelming,” he said. “Perfect Game has really helped a lot, but it’s been crazy for sure” – college scholarship offers began pouring in. A.J. is an excellent student (3.95 GPA) and this fall he gave his verbal commitment to head coach Kevin O’Sullivan at the University of Florida.
“Florida has always been my No. 1 school throughout the whole thing, and Coach Sully, I really like him a lot,” Puk said. “They have great facilities and they’re always playing in the College World Series. They’re going to be really good this year.”
Florida is ranked No. 1 in PG’s Preseason National Collegiate Rankings.
Puk took a recruiting trip to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, about a half-hour drive from his Cedar Rapids home. He also considered Arizona State and two-time defending NCAA national champion South Carolina, but ultimately decided on the Gators.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association offers only a summer baseball season and Puk said he hopes to play for his Washington High School team for at least the first couple weeks of the 2012 season. He then will leave to play on the national stage but hopes to be back to help the Warriors once postseason play begins in July.
He has been invited to the prestigious 2012 Perfect Game National Showcase June 14-18 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and expects to play with the Canes in at least one PG WWBA tournament – most likely the WWBA 2013 Grads or 17u National Championship June 6-13 at the East Cobb Complex in Marietta, Ga. – and possibly in the first-year 16u Perfect Game World Series July 30-Aug. 4, in Marietta.
He will play in the PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League and the USA Baseball Tournament of Stars will also be in the mix this summer.
“His goal is to play against the very best and that’s where he was scouted the last time,” David said. “Without Perfect Game, without their guidance, without their mentorship … they’ve kind of set the path. Every time we’re thinking ‘What do we do next?’ the next opportunity comes. Perfect Game has been the stage and without it – who’s A.J. Puk? With it, he’s going to Florida.”
Dr. David Puk, a Cedar Rapids Ophthalmologist, and his wife Chris – a gymnast at the University of Missouri during her college days – also have a 9-year- old son, Owen, and a daughter Jessica who is a Cedar Rapids 7th-grader. Owen has begun playing organized baseball and Jessica is already a solid basketball and softball player, according to their father. David said A.J., Owen and Jessica – a softball catcher – spend a lot of time in PG’s indoor batting cages during the winter.
Jessica’s and Owen’s time in the spotlight waits at a future date. Right now it’s A.J.’s time to shine, even if the whole experience to this point has been something his father calls “surreal.”
“Did I think we’d be sitting here with an offer from Florida to play and accepting that? No – you just have to pinch me sometimes,” David said. “He’s worked hard for it, no doubt, but we’ve been waiting for his body to mature and it finally did that this fall – and it’s not done yet. I think the potential is there and it’s exciting. I just like how he commands himself on the mound.”
It’s safe to say the football shoulder pads will never be used again.