Sunday night, after perhaps the most challenging, yet exhilarating weekend he’s experienced as a collegiate athlete, Dusty Jonas arrived home in La Vernia, Texas (population: 931) for spring break.
Now a seven-time All-America high jumper at Nebraska, Jonas had just achieved his first major championship, winning the NCAA indoor with a world-class leap of 7-7 in Fayetteville, Ark., on Saturday.
Jonas felt good about what he’d just accomplished, but for a senior who previously had not even won a Big 12 title, he admitted it still hadn’t quite sunk in.
Late Sunday evening, Dusty and his dad, Mike, headed to the back yard to sit in the gazebo they built with the help of neighbors. Instead of turning on the hot tub, they turned on the TV to watch one of their favorite movies, Glory Road, the incredible story of the 1966 Texas Western men’s basketball team, the first with an all-black starting lineup to win an NCAA national championship.
About 11 o’clock, when a brisk breeze made it seem cooler than the 72 degrees outside, father and son decided to watch the last half hour of the movie inside the family room. In a matter of minutes, Mike Jonas changed his mind and opted to call it a night with Donna, Dusty’s mom.
Having seen the movie at least 10 times, Dusty thought about following suit. But he chose to sit there, in the privacy of his living room, by himself, to see Glory Road one more time. He watched Josh Lucas play Don Haskins, the legendary coach for Texas Western (now called UTEP). Before winding down and turning in, he just had to see Lucas (Haskins) outfox Jon Voight, who played the even more legendary Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp.
When the movie ended, Jonas had an epiphany of sorts. "It finally hit me," he said. "Texas Western just won a national title, and it seemed to change everything about college basketball. I just won a national title, and even though it doesn’t have any broad historical meaning, it changed everything for me. It made me really appreciate how special something like this is and how special it was for Sarah when she and her teammates won a national championship."
"Sarah" is Nebraska volleyball All-American Sarah Pavan, Jonas’ girlfriend. She was in the Detroit airport when Jonas called Saturday to tell her he’d won the NCAA title. Shortly thereafter, she was en route to Italy, where she’s meeting future coaches, teammates and fans of a professional volleyball team she will play for beginning this summer.
"Sarah has been there for me every step of the way – just like I’ve been there for her," Jonas said. "She’s always told me that I jump better when she’s not there, and that’s what she e-mailed me from Italy as I finished watching the movie."
The personal support from Pavan triggered uncharacteristic emotion for Jonas.
"I can’t say enough about how much Sarah and Coach (Gary) Pepin helped me," he said. "Coach Pepin was the sole reason I came to Nebraska (and turned down scholarship offers from Texas, Arkansas and Texas-San Antonio, which is close to his home). He has helped me improve so much in so many different ways. I appreciate the bond we’ve formed. I not only consider him a good coach, but also a good role model and a good friend. There were a lot of people I wanted to make proud at the NCAA meet, but Coach Pepin was at the top of the list.
"He’s helped me become a better athlete and, more importantly, a better person. He’s shown me how to approach life and what it’s all about. He’s in a league of his own as a coach – in the Big 12, for sure, even nationally. I didn’t come here because of the huge football stadium and the awesome weight room. I came here because of Coach Pepin, and I will always hold him in the highest regard. I’m sure there were times when he wanted to throw his arms up in the air, but he’s never gotten down. He’s always encouraged me and told me what was possible."
Last Saturday, possibility became reality. Jonas cleared the first six bars on his first attempt. He cleared 7-7 on his second attempt, leaving long-time friend and rival, Scott Sellers of Kansas State, in the dust at 7-4 1/2.
Nursing a sore Achilles on his right foot, Jonas’ workout schedule was dramatically cut back. Even though he jogged and stretched every day, he only jumped once and practiced his approach twice in the two weeks leading up to the national indoor meet. "Getting rest was good for me, physically and mentally," he said, admitting that it helped him handle unexpected pressures two days before competing at nationals.
"I couldn’t leave on Wednesday because I had test on Thursday, and then my flight was delayed on Thursday, so I didn’t get out of Lincoln until 5:30 Friday morning," he said. "On my connecting flight from Minneapolis to Fayetteville, a flight attendant accidentally spilled hot coffee on me. From 1 o’clock Friday afternoon to 2:30 Saturday afternoon, I didn’t even leave the hotel. I just ate in my room and tried to get in the right frame of mind mentally."
Jonas says he never prays to win. Before this meet, he prayed to stay focused, composed and calm. He wanted to do what he was capable of doing and to offer up praise for all of those who have supported him throughout his career at Nebraska – Pepin, Pavan, his parents, his grandma, his aunt and a longtime family friend. "My grandma, aunt and a friend I’ve known since I was a baby told me I looked a lot different before this meet – more focused, yet more relaxed," he said. "I was all business. I’ve finished second in the NCAA Indoor twice. I told Coach Pepin I wasn’t going to settle for second this time."
When Pavan took Jonas to the airport the day before she left for Europe, she told him he was about to become the national high jump champion – the same thing she’d been saying the week before. Nic Petersen, Nebraska’s volunteer coach, also told Jonas he was going to win. "Coach Pepin almost always told me, ‘You could win this.’ But at Arkansas, he told me: ‘You’re going to win this.’ I was so motivated. I didn’t want to let anybody down. I didn’t want to let myself down. The adrenaline was really, really flowing. I thought about all the people who told me I couldn’t do it. Then I thought about all of those who told me I could."
When he cleared 7-4 1/2, it was "the best jump of my life" – even better than his 7-7 (2.31 meters), a jump that was the highest in the history of Nebraska track and field, indoors or outdoors, and tied for the eighth-highest jump in the world this year.
Although film is inconclusive, coaches and athletes alike speculated that Jonas would have cleared 7-7 1/2, maybe even 7-8, on his 7-4 1/2 jump. "After that jump, I looked over at Coach Petersen, and even though he’s always smiling, he was grinning from ear-to-ear," Jonas said. "When I looked at Coach Pepin, he had the biggest grin I’d ever seen. I knew then I could go higher."
Danny Gonzales and Richard Hinojosa are two more believers in Dusty Jonas. They coached him at tiny La Vernia High School. "Coach Gonzales (the head track coach) called me during dinner Saturday night," Jonas said. "I couldn’t see him, but I could tell his grin was just big as the others. He was so excited."
For Jonas, it has been a long, glorious road to an NCAA title. Maybe his accomplishment doesn’t have any broad, historical meaning for track and field. But for the person who did it, it’s changed everything. "I’m a national champion . . . finally!" he said, sounding every bit as relieved as he is satisfied. "I couldn’t have done it without the encouragement and support of so many people."
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