Lower Moyamensing resident Joe Pepe won the top prize on a recent episode of “CBS’s TKO: Total Knock Out.”
For as long as he can remember, Joe Pepe has been referred to as Superman — a hero comprised of compassion, purpose and, of course, speed.
From overcoming concussions to facing physical disadvantages, the Lower Moyamensing dweller’s lightning fast feet recently led him to his greatest obstacle — and victory — winning the top prize of $50,000 on a recent episode of “CBS’s TKO: Total Knock Out” in mid-July.
Dominating a slew of athletic approaches, ranging from the Spartan Race to the Philadelphia Union’s minor league program, speed coupled with competition — the very essence of TKO — happened to be recurring themes in the 29-year-old’s life.
“If I can compete in something, then I’m going to do it,” Pepe said. “Because, I’m competitive to the core.”
Pepe, who works at HealthEase, Inc. as a manager, coach and specialist in fitness nutrition, can’t recall every one of the countless teams he joined while growing up, including Saint John and Neumann Goretti’s soccer squad, local South Philly intramural programs and a few of the Union’s minor league teams, including the Ocean City Barons.
After spending a year at Temple University, Pepe, who tied, at one point, the fastest player in the NFL — not once but three times — in the 40 yard dash with a speed of 4.28 seconds, studied exercise science with Concordia University while playing for the minor league team.
Although, due to injuries, he was only with the minor league team for about a year, Pepe says he gained valuable lessons — something that would serve as an undertone throughout his life.
“It was nice to always be around a team, because then I had that aspect of life, and I got to bring it (to HealthEase) with my members, and I got to bring it into the show, and I got to bring it into pretty much any factor of life,” he said. “It was nice to have that social skill built.”
These days, though, Pepe is flying a bit more solo, as “TKO,” a new show hosted by comedian and Philly native Kevin Hart, requires five contestants to maneuver through a series of physically challenging courses, such as leaping from island to island and balancing on a revolving beam — all while dodging flying discs, rubber balls and a few other unidentified flying objects.
Pepe says, before tackling the first hurdle, he formulated a strategy. But, once the bells rang, he blacked out.
“That first dodgeball hits the glass, and the entire plan goes out the window,” he said.
He knew he had to rely on one thing — his speed.
Pepe, who clinched the highest speed of completing the course in three minutes and 32 seconds, vanquishing the second place total by two minutes, only received one “knockout” — or penalty — which added one minute to his total.
With a studio audience screaming and Hart romping around the stage, Pepe describes the scene as a blur of chaos but everything became clear when the final results were announced.
“Suddenly, every bit of energy you thought you left on the course comes rushing right back into you,” he said. “I just wanted to run circles around the entire world. … It’s a moment that I can’t forget, but at the same time, I can’t really remember.”
In yet another twist of events, shortly after he was announced the winner, Swoop, the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, paraded on the stage. Swoop’s surprise appearance was especially personal to Pepe as, before becoming a reality TV star, he was famed around town for actually giving Swoop his name through an Eagles mascot-naming competition.
Even though Hart and Swoop fulfilled his Philly void out in L.A., Pepe says the true token from home was, while out on the course, remembering his neighbor, and also dear friend, who passed away from cancer.
“That was my South Philly with me,” he said. “It’d be nice to continue her legacy if I can go home a winner. … This was my way of kind of thanking her.”
Along with starting a savings fund for his nephew and planning a vacation, Pepe plans to put his prize in savings.
But, “TKO” is hardly the finish line for him, as he was just approved to compete for two Guiness Book of World Record titles — the most burpees completed in one minute and the fastest mile on a treadmill.
Both endeavors will raise money for charity, as the buråpee funds will go toward the Special Olympics and the mile money will benefit the “Back on my Feet” organization to support the needs of the homeless.
While he’s passionate about such causes, for Pepe lending a helping hand can simply mean encouraging young athletes who may not fit the “ideal” body type, as he recalls feeling dispirited by others who told him he was too pint-sized for competition.
“I kind of like that idea that I can be that voice for others who are in the same role that I used to be in. I take that whole mantle of Superman too seriously sometimes,” he said. “But, I take it in the sense that — if I can take that sense of hope for somebody else, then I’ve done something. I’ve made that ripple effect, and I made the earth a little bit better than when I came in.”