Category: Track and Field


Jerry Hessell

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

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We drove down to Boilermaker Country this weekend to compete against a few teams from around the area. Our van left at 10:00 a.m. on Friday and made decent time. Unfortunately, we had to cram more people in the van than could fit comfortably. Needless to say, after 4.5 hours in the car, I couldn’t wait to get out.

We stayed at the Signature Inn, about 6 miles from campus. The weather was overcast and rainy for the majority of the weekend. I had been hoping for the storms to come through on Saturday so we could have a nice wind to throw into, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the rain came on Friday night and there was virtually no wind on Saturday.

It was exciting to see Brad Wentzel break the school record in hammer by .48m, with a throw of 59.69m, his only mark of the day. The previous record holder, Anthony Agrusa, took third and has been working to regain his form from last year. I’m positive Anthony will better his pr, but it will be hard to beat Brad on his best day.

Ashley Lawrence also had a good meet for what would seem to be the millionth time in a row. Her discus series saw 2 throws over 50m, and a sector foul well past 52m. She ended up recording a mark of 50.94m, good for first place and a seasonal best.

I had a rough showing in discus. My main problem was not being able to get into a rhythm from the beginning. The best mark I threw was 48.61, which happened in the first round. It felt bad and my coach gave me some things to work on for my next throws. I don’t know why I wasn’t able to put it all together, but I did have a foul go over 50m, so I had it within my ability to get a better mark that day. Anthony, who was fired up from losing his record in hammer the day before, ended up winning the competition with a mark of 51.48 on his final throw.

Fortunately, I got moved into a different van on the ride back. Coach calmed down and got back into a good mood. I had a nice talk with him about a number of things, specifically the approach he takes to training and competing. We probably talked for 2 hours or so, and it made the car ride go by much faster. This next week will be a big week of practice in preparation to throw at the Jesse Owens Track Classic next weekend.

Indiana State Quadrangular

I was excited for the Indiana State meet. Wednesday of that week was one of my most consistent practices all season, and I wanted to improve my pr. We arrived in Terre Haute late Thursday night, the discus competition would be held around 2:00 p.m. the next day.

We drove to the track around noon on Friday and parked behind the discus ring. The ring was in worse condition than the surrounding sidewalks but I had a new pair of throwing shoes, so it was all good. I actually liked the set up, maybe it was because the ring wasn’t so far behind the net and it felt more like high school. Also, there was a nice wind coming from the right on account of an approaching storm.

Warming up felt great, I was ready to throw over 50 meters for the first time in a meet. I let my first throw go and watched it approach the 50 meter line before I turned to stay in the ring. I’m almost certain that it was my furthest throw that day, but the official called a toe foul. While I didn’t believe this to be true, one of my teammates confirmed it. I was angry. I had been so jacked up to throw over 50m that I was trying too hard. My next throw came out awkwardly and landed around 45 meters. This was a good competition and I wanted 6 throws, but I wouldn’t get to the next round on a 45 meter shank.

After some…um…words of encouragement from Coach Newell, I cared less about hitting 50m and more about making finals. My last throw was 49m and change, and I improved to 49.55 in the finals. It was a good day to throw, I pr’d again, but left feeling like I let a golden opportunity slip away. Fortunately, there are a number of meets remaining on the schedule, and a lot of time left to improve.

Also, congrats to Ashley Lawrence on a great weekend. She took second in the disc, and threw shot over 50 feet for the first time with a toss of 15.29 meters.

This season, I’ve been lucky enough to travel with the team. I’m not saying I’ve been lucky to emphasize the great opportunity track provides to travel.  I’m saying it because a few different things had to happen in order for me to be able to. What began the series of fortunate events was how I opened up the season. The first practice outdoors produced my furthest throws to date. Why? I have no idea. Next, I did a very uncharacteristic thing in calling my coach to ask about lifting my redshirt, and he said he would. Lastly and most importantly, the best discus thrower in the Big Ten, Lonnie Pugh (who happens to be my teammate), decided to redshirt this outdoor season. Because of all these factors, and maybe some divine intervention I wasn’t aware of, I was allowed to go to Arizona State for our second track meet of the season, the 31st Sun Angel Classic.

It. Was. Awesome. The plane ride took around four hours from Chicago to Phoenix. We stayed in the always classy Best Western, right across the street from In-N-Out Burger. Hammer throwers competed on Friday, and all other events took place on Saturday. Since we arrived on Thursday of that week, I had a few days to enjoy and semi-relax before competing.

I was in the second flight of four, and ended up throwing 48.74 on my second throw, which was a new pr. While I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t altogether satisfied either, because I felt I had been limited by something.

My problem wasn’t the Arizona sun, or anything related to the climate. It was nerves. I hadn’t been that nervous throwing since I can remember. I’m not sure what factors played a role in making my legs feel like rubber, but it was a very humbling experience.

Later that night, as I stood by a fence near the shot put area, I saw an older guy with a bunch of bugs collecting on the back of his shirt. I went over to brush them off and we started up a conversation. Soon enough, I found out that he was Mr. L Jay Silvester, former world record holder in the discus.

He was a very interesting man, and we talked for a while as we watched Ryan Whiting throw the world leading mark in the Shot. We discussed a number of things such as old school throwers, steroids, improvements in the sport, theories on form, etc. At the end of the competition, I realized that I should probably join my team to avoid pissing off my coaches. Before I left, I asked Mr. Silvester one last question, “How did you deal with nerves when you competed?” He said it was something that took him a long time to figure out (he produced his best throws after the age of 30), and that you simply had to learn to use them to your advantage. By turning nervousness into excitement you could potentially harness all of the jitters into your throw. Enlightened, I shook his hand and rejoined my team.

I got a lot out of that meet in terms of experience. I watched some high level collegiate throwers go at it, and got to talk to one of the sports all time greats. Also, I was introduced to the “Double-Double” at In-N-Out Burger. Thank you MSU Track and Field.

Mainstream sports fans know little of track and field. It’s a sport that captivates audiences every 4 years at the Olympics, only to return to obscurity shortly thereafter. The sport has been shrouded in controversy related to performance enhancing drugs in the same way as Major league baseball. Sprint events, generally the most popular amongst fans, have lost legitimacy due to top performers testing positive for banned substances. Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin, and Marion Jones all had their medals or records stripped due to doping. Fortunately though, athletes who dope are the exception, not the rule. The most recent example is Usain Bolt, who burst onto the scene with world record performances (and quite possibly the best name for a sprinter, ever) in the Beijing Olympics, which he significantly bettered at the 2009 World Championships. This wasn’t his first impressive feat on the track, but most people didn’t know who he was until a few months before the Olympics. His obliteration of the 100m record generated interest worldwide.

Of all the events in track and field, I was lucky enough to pick up discus. I didn’t like it at first, spinning and throwing felt so foreign to me. What kept me interested was the fact that I was so bad at it. Never in my life had I felt so frustrated with my inability to learn something. It’s not that I’m a natural at everything I try, far from it, but when it came to discus I felt completely incompetent. The feeling of being terrible kept my interest and forced me to devote much of my effort into improving.

Discus is an addiction. It’s an event that demands great attention to detail, similar to a golf swing as Mac Wilkins once put it. You approach it with the same purpose as a golfer using a driver at the range. Throw it as far as you can and keep it within a reasonable boundary.

The goofy one in the fresh kicks and orange jersey