Tom Archdeacon: How Central State hurdler went from ‘knucklehead’ to national champion

Humble pie to victory cake.

“Knucklehead” to national champ.

From being in his dorm room, alone and mad at the world, to being celebrated by everyone from his family, the Dunbar High School track team that just won state, the entire Central State University community, collegiate hurdlers from across the nation and even over on Gettysburg Avenue by Fatty the Barber.

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago, Juan Scott — already redshirted for the season as he worked on his academics after coming out of Dunbar with an anemic grade-point average and low ACT score — was dismissed from the Central State track team by Coach James Rollins.

Although he was not allowed to compete, Scott was expected to practice. That’s part of being a teammate and, more directly, Rollins, who had been a standout hurdler himself at Central State, wanted to help him improve his already-trumpeted talents.

Scott saw things differently and a couple of days ago spoke quite candidly about his wrongheadedness.

“Last year I wasn’t running so I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have to do all this other stuff then,’ ” he said. “I wasn’t used to practicing five and six times every week so there were days I just didn’t show up.

“Me and the coach bumped heads, but I didn’t really care.”

Rollins did, though.

“He was a bit of a knucklehead for a minute there,” the coach said with a smile he’s now able to muster.

“We have a handbook and we’d gone over the expectations that come with it. Miss three practices, you’re suspended. Six and you’re off the team.

“I had given him some leeway, but he had a bad attitude, too, and finally one day at practice that was it. It was kind of ugly. I was like, ‘You miss practice AND you have an attitude? You gotta go. Just get off my track!’ ”

Kicked off the team, Scott said he tromped to his dorm room: “I was upset. I was mad. I didn’t talk to nobody.”

Rollins said when he banished Scott he felt real disappointment: “It was like, ‘Golly that’s too bad because he’s really talented.’ I didn’t know if he would ever come back. Some guys don’t.”

Over the next few weeks Scott brooded and began to realize what was at stake.

He said he spoke to his parents back in Dayton. They have always guided him properly:

“I listened to them and I realized without track, a lot of stuff doesn’t work out for me as far as school. Track is the motivation that helps me go to class and maintain good grades. Without it, there’s a domino effect and a lot of things go wrong.”

After about a month he said he returned to Rollins’ office and asked for another chance:

“I didn’t know if he was going to believe what I was saying and trust that I had changed.”

Rollins saw a difference:

“The kid was humbled. We never discussed what prompted the change, but I think his parents got to him. Whatever it was, I could see this wasn’t the same guy.”

Unfazed by stage

Growing up in West Dayton, first near the corner of Huron and Hoover avenues and later on Gettysburg, Scott said he played football until he entered Dunbar.

“I didn’t want to play high school football, but I wanted to do some sport,” he said. “But, truthfully, I’d never heard of track or even seen it. Then I saw a flyer one day in school and went to the track tryout. I talked to the coach and he asked me what I was comfortable doing. At first I picked sprints, but after the indoor season I told him I wanted to try hurdles. They looked like fun.

“So he set the hurdles up and it was crazy. He said hurdling came naturally to me.”

Scott began to make his mark as a hurdler — and as a relay team sprinter — and by his junior year he was ranked No. 1 in the state in the 110 hurdles. Senior year he said he was ranked among the top 10 in the nation indoors in the 60-meter hurdles.

During high school, he helped lead Dunbar to three state team titles and was the Wolverines’ MVP as a senior. Interestingly though, he never won a state title in the hurdles.

Junior year he was expected to but said an attack of nerves derailed him at the state meet.

This past season, running as a redshirt freshman for the Marauders and becoming a team leader, Scott again began to excel, only to have another nerve attack at the NCAA Division II indoor nationals.

“He was fine when I left him 30 minutes before the race, but by the time he got to the track, he’d had a meltdown,” Rollins said. “It was his first big stage meet and he didn’t show up. It was kind of a growing up thing.”

Scott agreed: “I started overthinking things and it messed me up.”

As CSU moved into the outdoor season this year, Scott and Rollins worked to overcome the problem. They talked and did drills and, most importantly, the Marauders took part in several big meets against top competition.

Running against international and Division I athletes, Scott made the 110-hurdle finals at the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest meet in the nation and where a crowd of 55,000-plus jams Franklin Field each day of the meet.

Although he finished seventh in the event, which was won by Jamaican Ronald Levy, Scott was the only D-II athlete and the only freshman in the field. Most importantly, he had been unfazed by the big-time stage.

During the season he won a meet at Ohio State, beating not only the Buckeye hurdlers, but competitors from other big schools, as well. He did the same at the All-Ohio meet at the University of Cincinnati. And he won at the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) championship.

That set the stage 13 days ago for the outdoor nationals at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

And that now prompts an admission from Rollins:

“I was a little nervous that he might get nervous.”

Setting a record

Scott dispelled the doubts in his first heat, winning in 13.82 seconds and tying the CSU record.

“When the nervous stuff kicks in, I know how to overcome it and make it go away now,” he said.

In the finals the following day, the field was in a dead heat coming into the seventh hurdle, said Rollins:

“I was across the way and I couldn’t see Juan. It was just a straight line of hurdlers going down the track. But he separated himself at hurdle seven, just like we had worked on it.”

Scott won in 13.73 seconds, an IMG record.

“When I finished I kept running until I saw I’d been first,” he said. “That’s when I just dropped down and began to cry. I couldn’t believe I’d actually won. Then the other athletes came over and got me up and congratulated me.”

No one was happier than Rollins. Scott became the school’s first NCAA champion in any sport. (Previous national titles had come when the school was still an NAIA institution.)

“Juan has become a testament to what happens if you buy into the program,” Rollins said. “He was our leader this year on the track and off. He watched what he ate. Went to bed on time. Went to the study table. Did everything we asked.”

“And I never missed a workout,” Scott beamed.

After the victory, Rollins and CSU’s athletic trainer and senior women’s administrator, LaShaunta Jones, took Scott out for cake and ice cream. He had won his title on his 20th birthday.

Back home he’s been celebrated by family and friends. He spent last week helping the Dunbar athletes prep for the state championship they won over the weekend.

He said he stopped to see the barber who has cut his hair since he was 1 — “his real name is Andre, but everyone calls him Fatty” – and said everybody in the shop knew what he had done.

”I’m going to have to bring them a picture for the wall,” he grinned.

Wednesday, CSU, which is on summer break, had him back on campus to film a promotional video.

“He’s the biggest thing we got going right now,” sports information director Nick Novy said.

As he waited for his session in front of the camera, Scott sat there with his NCAA plaque next to him.

“My main goal is to one day run in the Olympics and be a pro athlete, so this is a nice start,” he said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing now. I want to stay a champion.”

No more knucklehead.

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