Francis Ehigbai of Hamilton Southeastern cleared 6-11 Friday night to win the state high jump title. This story was published earlier this week.
He showed up for his first track practice in three years with a rebuilt ACL and modest ambitions: At the outset, Francis Ehigbai just wanted to make varsity. His first leap unfolded like a lawn chair — rigid, awkward, sloppy. Nothing hinted at what was to come. Then again, nothing could have.
It was a single text message that started all this. “Why don’t you try high jump this year?” a friend asked him last winter. To that point, Ehigbai, a Hamilton Southeastern senior, believed his athletic career had come to a close. A torn ACL in his left knee had cost him his junior basketball season. He rehabbed for 12 months only to get cut as a senior.
Go out for track and field? What did he have to lose?
Not much. So Ehigbai showed up one day for practice, a 6-foot, 6-inch stringbean of a blank canvas, raw yet remarkably talented. He hadn’t high jumped in five years.
No problem. A month into the season, he had college coaches drooling. By May, he’d earned a Division I scholarship.
Consider all that text message has led to for Francis Ehigbai: a school record. A county title. A conference title. A sectional title. A regional title. A full ride to Illinois State.
And that’s all before Friday’s state finals.
Not bad for a kid who showed up and just wanted to make varsity.
“After I was cut from the basketball team, I really thought I might be done with sports,” said the soft-spoken Ehigbai. “I didn’t expect all this. I just thought I’d jump and have fun and be on the track team again.”
He’s had fun. He’s also only lost once all season. Ehigbai won’t just compete in Friday’s state track and field finals at Indiana University; he’ll compete as one of the favorites. He’s seeded third. He’s got a good shot to win the whole thing.
From the couch to the medal stand, all in 3 1/2 months?
“This is rare; this is a rarity,” stressed HSE’s coach, Chris Swisher. “To have a kid just show up who has that ability? It just doesn’t happen.”
It doesn’t unless your name is Francis Ehigbai. He starts by giving his good friend, Devin Lloyd, due credit: Lloyd’s the one who fired off the text that started all this. After one practice with the team in February, Lloyd saw the Royals were thin at high jump. He thought of Ehigbai’s lanky frame. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.
He texted him that night: “You should really give this a try.”
“Just look at him,” said Lloyd, a state finals qualifier himself. “He didn’t know the technique quite yet, but after the first practice, I said, ‘He’s going to make it to state.’ “
It wasn’t a sentiment shared by HSE’s jumps coach, Dan Loomis. When he looked at Ehigbai, he saw a project.
“I watched him the first day … and it wasn’t good,” Loomis remembered. “The form wasn’t there. It looked like he was sitting in a recliner.”
The object of the high jump is to marry flair with form. Ehigbai, who ran sprints on the team as a freshman, has always been loaded in raw leaping ability. Loomis’ job: teach him technique.
He was up for it. He’d sought out the task for three years to no avail. Loomis would pass Ehigbai in the hallways during school, asking each time, “You going to high jump for me this year?” Ehigbai would smile. Then he’d shake his head.
Then, all of a sudden, there he was, at the team’s second practice of the season curious to give the high jump a chance for the first time since junior high. (His previous best: a measly five feet.)
So the two worked at it. Slowly, Loomis morphed Ehigbai from an athlete into a high jumper. A three-step approach became a five-step approach, which became a full run-through. Little by little, Ehigbai showed hints of progress.
Then it came time for the season to start.
“Before the first indoor meet, I’m thinking he might clear 5-8,” Loomis recalled.
Ehigbai went 6-2. A week later he went 6-6 and tied a school record that had stood for a decade.
Then came 6-8 in his second outdoor meet. Then came 6-9½ at the Hamilton County meet, Ehigbai’s personal best to date. All told he’s lost just once this season — to Lloyd. And for a bulk of the spring, he owned the state’s best mark in the high jump. He came out of nowhere, jumped higher than everybody, and may just be getting started.
“The crazy part is I don’t know what his ceiling is,” Loomis said. “I’m very confident it’s above seven feet.”
Forget varsity — Ehigbai’s blossoming talent was so evident during the indoor season that Loomis started hearing from Division I track and field programs. Who is this kid? Where’d he come from? Illinois State was one of the first. Last month, Ehigbai signed his letter of intent to jump for the Redbirds.
From being cut from the basketball team to earning a college scholarship in a different sport — in six months.
“A college scholarship? We gave up on that dream after he had surgery,” said Ehigbai’s father, Lou Akinyemi. “So, yes, this has been a very pleasant surprise.”
Ehigbai told his dad he plans on winning Friday. And why not?
He’s already pulled off plenty of improbable tasks this spring. Surely Francis Ehigbai has one more surprise up his sleeve.
Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.
BOYS STATE TRACK MEET
Where: Robert C. Haugh Track & Field Complex, Indiana University, Bloomington.
3:00 p.m.: Pole Vault, Long Jump and Discus
3:30 p.m.: High Jump; Shot Put
4:15 p.m.: 3200 M Relay Finals
5:00 p.m.: 100 M Dash Trials
5:15 p.m.: 110 M High Hurdle Trials
5:40 p.m.: 200 M Dash Trials
6:10 p.m.: Opening Ceremonies
6:15 p.m.: 110 M High Hurdles
6:25 p.m.: 100 M Dash
6:35 p.m.: 1600 M Run
6:45 p.m.: 400 M Relay
7:05 p.m.: 400 M Dash
7:20 p.m.: 300 M Int. Hurdles
7:45 p.m.: 800 M Run
8:05 p.m.: 200 M Dash
8:15 p.m.: 3200 M Run
8:30 p.m.: 1600 M Relay