Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> Henderson at brink of Olympic glory

Leader sports editor

The precipice of greatness is an exciting place to be, and central Arkansas sports fans have a rare opportunity to follow and support one of their own as he stands at that precipice. Jeff Henderson, a 2007 graduate of Sylvan Hills, is one of the world’s best long jumpers, and his famous Olympic-gold-medal-winning coach, Al Joyner, believes track and field’s greatest glories, a world record and Olympic gold, are only a matter of time.

Few could imagine a less likely path to world-class status in track and field than the one followed by Henderson, who hails from McAlmont. Unheralded out of high school, but supported by a hard-working father and a committed mother who now lies in bed at home with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, Henderson never lost belief in himself, even when no one else seemed to notice his talent.

That belief led him to this precipice. The next step, according to his coach, is into hallowed territory – the track and field world record books.


Last week in Eugene, Ore., Henderson qualified for the world championships in Beijing by finishing second at the USA championships. He had the longest legal jump, but a wind-aided jump beat his for first place. Henderson has the two longest legal jumps in the world this year at 8.50 and 8.44 meters. The 8.5 achieved at last week’s nationals. He will head to Toronto on July 17 to compete for the United States in the Pan Am Games before Beijing, with the ultimate goal of winning a gold medal in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

But Henderson was not a standout athlete in high school. He wanted badly to play football, but no offers were forthcoming until a very late offer by the University of Arkansas, and even it wasn’t a full scholarship.

He was, however, the most successful track athlete in the state that nobody knew about. He finished second in the 2007 decathlon without competing in the pole vault, and he set state high school decathlon records in the long jump and 100-meter dash.

Even with that success, track scholarships weren’t flowing in either.

Henderson ended up signing with Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Miss., where he utterly dominated JUCO competition for two years. At Hinds, Henderson won 10 JUCO national championships. He won the indoor and outdoor long jump and 100-meter dash, and ran the first leg of the two-time outdoor 4x100 relay team his freshman and sophomore years.

The relay team competed in events that included several Division I colleges. In one of those meets, the Hinds team finished third, behind only LSU and Florida.

But the major colleges still weren’t taking notice. Henderson signed with Florida Memorial University, a historically black NAIA school in Miami Gardens. That lasted just one semester. A late semester injury went untreated during the holiday break because he was not on scholarship again until the second semester began.


So Henderson came home. He kept in shape and sat out until the fall of 2012, when he landed a scholarship to Stillman College, an NCAA Division II program in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It took a while for Henderson to get back into top shape that first year, but a major event took place that vastly increased his distances. That’s when someone important finally noticed him.

Al Joyner, an East St. Louis native and Arkansas State graduate, won the gold medal in the 1984 Olympic triple jump. He was also married to and coached Florence Griffith-Joyner, who won three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics and is still the world record holder in the women’s 100- and 200-meter dashes. She died of an epileptic seizure in her sleep in 1998.

Joyner saw Henderson at a world class indoor meet in New Mexico, running back and forth from the long jump to the sprints. And while he wasn’t posting world class times or distances, Joyner liked how much he was enjoying himself, and saw a lot of potential.

“You could just see the joy in his eyes and how much fun he was having,” said Joyner. “Then after getting a chance to meet him and know him a little bit, I could see he had the X factors. He had the right stuff, and he didn’t even know how good he really was.”

But Henderson turned down Joyner’s initial offer to join the International Association of Athletic Federations, and begin working with him full time. Instead, he opted to go back to Stillman for his senior year and finish his degree. By the end of that senior year in 2013, he had won two more Division II national championships in the outdoor long jump and 100-meter dash.

“I was OK with him going back to school,” Joyner said. “In fact, that told me a lot about what kind of man he was. He was going to finish what he started.”

Soon after graduation, Henderson moved to San Diego and began working with Joyner, who instantly made him lose 24 pounds off his 202-pound frame.

“I was jumping and every time I would land, I would impact my ankles and they would hurt,” Henderson said. “I’m much lighter now. I don’t feel as strong or as powerful as I did at 200, but I’m 178 now and my distances are a lot farther.”

Henderson broke out last year. He was the USA long jump champion in 2014, and finished in the top three in meets around the world, including Shanghai, Glasgow, Scotland and Stockholm, Sweden. He jumped a personal best 8.50 meters at Mount San Antonio’s SAC Relays earlier this year before matching that jump in Oregon last week.


Joyner bragged about Henderson’s work ethic and competitiveness, and that’s something that began at a very early age. It was his competitiveness that sparked the work ethic.

At about 13 years old, Jeff began to compete in local open track meets, and kept getting beat by another kid from Little Rock. He lobbied his father, Laverne, for a sled to pull around the back yard. A custodian at Sylvan Hills High School, there wasn’t enough money for a sled, so Dad put his creativity to work.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Dad, this boy keeps beating me. I need a sled.’ So I told him I would come up with something.”

He laid an old car engine block on an old car hood, rigged up a harness to attach to it, and Jeff went to work.

“When he first strapped that thing on, that first step was really slow,” said Laverne Henderson. “I told him to take that thing off because he was going to hurt himself. He said, “no” and in a few weeks he was dragging that thing back and forth across the lot back there.”


Henderson comes from a strong family. He is the son of Laverne and Debra, and the youngest of six children, including four sisters and one brother. Debra is now in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She lays bedridden in a room covered with posters and memorabilia of her son’s accomplishments. She can’t speak, but her eyes widen and turn towards her husband’s cheerful voice as he talks about her impact on their son’s success.

“She’s the reason for all this,” Laverne says, waving a hand around the room. “She’s the one that pushed him. She drove him to meets all over the countryside. She drove him to Fayetteville for his private training. She did it. I was working and couldn’t get to a lot of it. She saw his potential before anybody else, and made sure he had every opportunity to reach it. She did it. She’s the reason for all this.”

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most difficult for families, and Jeff says chasing his dream in San Diego while his mother fades away back home in Arkansas is sometimes hard to deal with.

“I know there’s not really anything I can do for her, anyway, but it’s still hard,” Henderson said. “It was actually harder to deal with when we first heard the diagnosis. That was my senior year in high school. That was really hard.”

There is one thing Jeff can do for his mother, and that’s what he does. He strives to achieve the potential she first saw in him. And even though it means 2,000 miles between them, his heart is at ease because it’s where her vision can best be fulfilled.


It’s also where Joyner puts him through the ringers four days a week. Training is intense, though it almost never includes any jumping.

“I do maybe two jumps every two weeks,” Henderson said. “It’s just a lot of running and bounding and weights.”

The training doesn’t take up an exorbitant amount of time, but it does take up most of his energy. He trains about 30 hours per week, but there’s not much life outside of the training facility. When he’s down, he opens his book of situational and encouraging Bible verses, and occasionally attends New Hope Church in San Diego on Sundays. But he says nightlife is out of the question and relationships are on hold for the time being.

“There’s no one stopping you from going out at night,” Henderson said. “But if you do, you’re going to be so tired the next day in training. And you’re so tired at the end of the day anyway, all you want to do is go home and relax. So really the only people you know are the other people at the training facility.”

That’s the kind of dedication Joyner knows it takes to achieve Olympic greatness. Joyner has searched and waited a long time for another athlete that has all the necessary requirements for that kind of greatness, and he believes he’s found one in Jeff Henderson, heaping the highest praise possible from a man with Joyner’s past.

“It’s been 25 years since I’ve had the honor of coaching my wife,” Joyner said. “Jeff is that type of competitor and athlete. He’s going to be one that people don’t forget. And they aren’t going to remember him as just a long jumper. They’ll remember him as a sprinter, too.”

And about that world record, Joyner is more than confident.

“It’s going to be a great pleasure for me to help win another gold medal for the state of Arkansas,” Joyner said. “Because I don’t have any doubts about that. I don’t have any doubts he’s going to break the world record, either. The only question I have is, how many times?”


Jeff recently joined the National Athletic Institute, which advocates for able-bodied and para-athletes. Unlike athletes in other countries, United States athletes do not receive funding from government sources. Jeff relies on NAI donations for his daily living expenses in order to train full time. Donations can be made through the NAI website, www.nai-usa.com, and can be earmarked specifically for your athlete of choice.