When I first arrived at MSU, I was overwhelmed. The campus seemed too big to ever get accustomed to, and fall conditioning was set to begin for Track. Within the first few days of school, my coach scheduled a meeting for all of the throwers. This was essentially my first chance to meet the people who I’d be spending most of my free time with for the next few years. Being that I’m introverted, this had the same allure as a dentist appointment, but I was obligated to go.

I arrived at the meeting and kept to myself for the most part. I knew of some people on the team from looking up their bio’s on the roster. Past that, I wasn’t close enough with any of them to hold a conversation. Jerry Hessell sat behind me with his tree trunk sized calves stuffed under a tiny desk. He had just arrived from work at the Dairy Plant, and seemed approachable. I talked to him for a short time about what he did at his job. A few days prior, I had visited the Dairy Store, and noticed that they sold chocolate cheese. I asked him if it was any good and he told me he’d bring me a sample the next time he saw me.

In my experience, when a person tells you something trivial like this, nothing usually comes of it. I figured he was just saying it as a means of being friendly. I didn’t expect Jerry to follow through, and it wouldn’t have bothered me had he forgotten. In all honesty, I didn’t even remember his offer after I left the meeting.

Sure enough, the next time I saw Jerry, he pulled a big block of chocolate cheese out of his bag and handed it to me. The way he backed up his offer came as a surprise, only because I didn’t know him well enough at the time. However, after spending a year as his teammate, I learned that his capacity for generosity and assistance was limitless. I also wouldn’t recommend buying chocolate cheese any time soon.

Jerry’s story is one that will never be told in a movie. He didn’t rise to the top of his sport and achieve national success as a Javelin thrower. In fact, Javelin was the last thing he should have ever competed in.  He took it upon himself to prove his worth, and he worked tirelessly to improve, a mantra he adopted out of necessity.

At the age of 3 Jerry still hadn’t said his first word. Doctor’s suggested that he may be autistic, so his parents placed him in special education. Jerry attended school in a classroom separate from his peers until 4th grade. He took speech and language classes from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Jerry came to MSU wanting to play a sport. His coach back in New Haven told him he’d never make the football team at MSU, so he set out to prove him wrong. While the tryout didn’t land him a position with the team, it provided an important lesson in self-discovery. He realized that the foundation of his motivation was weak. Jerry didn’t do football for himself; he tried out to disprove his coach’s statement.

The next year he tried out for the Track team, hoping to walk on. He showed promise as a hurdler in high school, qualifying for the state meet as a senior. This was soon to change however, as the coach who watched him hurdle during tryouts said “you’ll kill yourself if you keep doing it like that.” It’s not that Jerry couldn’t have excelled at the event; he just wasn’t given a chance to. Walking on is difficult when the team has a relatively crowded roster. Coaches look for talent immediately, and pass you along to other events if they don’t see it. In Jerry’s case, he didn’t belong to an event long enough to tap into any of his potential.

What kept him on the team was his work ethic. The coaches who found little use for his abilities soon valued him for something else. Each day he came to practice with the same desire and focus, regardless of how they treated him. He was doing track to prove something to himself, and he wouldn’t be denied as a member of the team.

The throwing coach at the time was very knowledgeable when it came to Javelin. When Jerry got passed on to him, it was because of his potential in the event. Javelin takes place on a runway, which is to the advantage of the faster, more nimble competitors. A big arm helps too, but without the legs to go under it, you can only throw so far. Because Jerry was fast, and could jump, he was thrown into the event.

For whatever reasons, the old throwing coach was replaced with Coach Newell. He didn’t have the same javelin background, but he had some experience with the event. Coach was looking to make cuts where need be. One day he placed a cone around 50m and told Jerry that if he didn’t hit it, he’d be cut. Jerry’s personal best throw at the time was 10 or more feet shy of that. The cone didn’t get the best of him that day, where life had placed an obstacle, Jerry found a way to overcome it. Noticing a trend?

After that day, Jerry made significant progress in the event. He recorded an all-time personal best throw of 54.94m the next year. However, he failed to make the final round of competition at Big Ten’s.

Prior to his final year of eligibility, Jerry hit another snag. He had a hernia, and would have to refrain from rigorous exercise and training for roughly 5 months. This set back forced him into a game of catch-up, as he worked against the clock to regain his form. Additionally, as the semester came to a close, he was obligated to dedicate the majority of time to his academic schedule, which often left only a few available hours of sleep each night.

He never complained, but sometimes at practice you could tell he was running on empty. For a kid who had limitless energy in year’s past, both track and school were seemingly draining any vitality he tried to hold on to. I felt bad for Jerry, not because he welcomed my pity, but because it seemed like he couldn’t catch a break. While all this was going on, he maintained a good attitude and a smile, but I knew he was burning beneath the surface.

A week before the Big Ten meet, Jerry’s grandma died. Less than a month earlier I remembered Jerry calling her on the way home, in a crowded van, to wish her a happy birthday. I could tell they were very close, and I didn’t know how he would handle it before such a big meet. He ended up having to drive down to Bloomington (site of the meet) with his mother after attending the funeral.

Jerry recorded a seasonal best effort of 54.28 on his second throw of the first round. While it was a good mark, it wasn’t far enough to guarantee a spot in the finals, which would get him 3 more throws. After waiting nervously for what seemed like forever, the final flight was announced. Jerry didn’t make it. He missed finals by 1 place, separated by 1 foot. I got choked up.

How could this happen to someone who had gone through so much? How could destiny allow that he still come up short after all the adversity he faced, as if to taunt his effort? It wasn’t fair, not by any stretch of the imagination. But fair isn’t a word I would ever use to describe Jerry’s journey to that point. He’s not used to what’s fair, but he is used doing the most with what he has to work with.

The same kid who couldn’t talk until he was 3, who was thought to be autistic at one point, who remained in a speech and language program until his final year of middle school, graduated the next week, an engineering major. He had carried a cumulative GPA of 3.54, and already secured a job at Red Gold Incorporated, a tomato processing plant in Orestes, Indiana.

He has no problems talking now either. Believe me, I’ve sat next to him on bus rides home where he talked the entire way. I don’t think he stopped to breathe once.

Jerry is a lesson in humility, a prime example of a person who never let adversity wipe the smile from his face or remove the kindness from his heart. He took all the setbacks that came his way, and overcame them to the point where you would never know he was deficient to begin with. Here’s to you Jerry,

Good luck with your career and may nothing but good come your way,

-Inside the Circle

Advertisements