The streak was on the line, and a most unlikely source kept it alive.
In the first 31 years Joe McLaughlin coached track and field at Notre Dame High School, the Irish sent at least one representative to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions. Year 32 was looking grim, but the standard of excellence was kept alive by an oft-injured athlete who did not even start the sport until last year.
But senior Jerry Wilson came through, hoisting the javelin a personal-best 161-feet, 8-inches to take third place in the Non-Public A Championship. Only the top three in each event advanced to the MOC as opposed to the top six, which was the rule up until last season.
“We thought this year would be the year it didn’t happen with the new rule,” McLaughlin said. “And he kept our string going. I owe him an ice cream.”
Better make it a double banana split with all the toppings after all that Wilson has been through.
The son of a former Notre Dame football/track standout by the same name, Wilson arrived at Notre Dame focused on football and basketball. But the Lawrence resident ran into bad-luck binge starting in his sophomore year when he broke his ankle playing pick-up basketball.
Then came two straight football seasons in which he suffered UCL injuries in both arms. The UCL is a crucial muscle that holds things together at the elbow.
“It was two freak accidents,” Wilson said. “On my left side a helmet hit me right there, and on the right side I was going to hit the quarterback and I started to fall and put my arm down to catch myself and wound up tearing the UCL.”
Wilson was able to return in time to play 12 basketball games during his junior season, but his entire senior year in hoops was wiped out due to the injury.
Needless to say, there were some moments he felt like giving up.
“Yeah, I did,” he said. “Junior year I was like ‘Man, should I even play football my senior year?’ I wound up playing and getting re-injured.”
That didn’t make his mental outlook much better.
“It was a struggle at first, it was really hard,” Wilson said. “My parents helped me out through it a lot and my grandma always gave me words of encouragement”
Fortunately, he had discovered track as a junior and was able to salvage this school year with one final athletic season.
“Football was my first love as a sport,” said Wilson, who played linebacker, tight end and defensive end. “I hoped to play college football but I was struck with the injury bug. When I was younger I used to play baseball. I always had a strong arm, my dad used to coach track so finally, junior year he talked me into coming out for the team.”
Big Jerry wasn’t the only one bugging his son.
“He was always working out for those other sports,” McLaughlin said. “I was hounding him to come out, and he finally did.”
Wilson had some decent success in javelin last year (he also throws discus), taking fourth in the Mercer Coaches Classic and the Mercer County Championships. He had an off-day at the Non-Public South sectionals, however, throwing a 135-8 and finishing ninth after hitting a 149-4 in the county meet.
Still, it was a solid year for a guy just learning how to throw a long skinny pole and a flat piece of hard rubber.
“It was really weird trying to get the technique down,” Wilson said. “Mostly the steps. That was the hardest thing to get down for both. Once I started to really pick it up, I started to work extra time after school and after practice; and I was just having fun with it.”
He expanded his javelin approach this year to actually running before throwing, and finally got comfortable by mid-season.
“Last year I was throwing off a three-step,” he said. “This year I learned the run-up so I was working on my run-up the entire year and I really started getting it down pat near the middle of the year. Coach said I’d probably add another 10, 12 feet to my throws if I started the run-up.”
Coming into the season, however, Wilson was uncertain how to approach things.
“I really didn’t know what to think,” he said. “Part of me was like ‘You can go out and have a big season,’ and the other part was ‘Man, you’re injured right now so take it easy.’”
It helped that he followed doctor’s orders while recovering from the injury.
“As long as I did what the doctor was saying and truly believed in myself, and as long as I just worked out and worked hard, took the Advil I was supposed to take, I knew I could get myself back to where I wanted to be,” Wilson said.
He ended up having a pretty strong season, taking fourth in the Mercer Coaches Classic and county meet, finishing third in the sectionals with a then-PR 159-2, and setting a new PR of 161-8 the following week at states.
“That says a lot for him after what he’d been through,” McLaughlin said. “I felt horrible for the kid. He basically missed his entire senior season for football and basketball, so I was so happy for him to make the Meet of Champions.”
And so was Wilson
“It was very exciting and very unexpected, especially after the injury,” he said. “It was a pretty pleasant surprise. It was really fun to see the best in the state.”
The moment proved a bit overwhelming, however, as Wilson finished 29th out of 30 competitors with a throw of 152-6. McLaughlin noted that was the distance he averaged most of the year, and he just happened to uncork a huge throw at states. Wilson wasn’t buying it.
“I would say it was just a bad day,” he said. “I would say I was supposed to go up past 161. I was pretty nervous, there were a lot of people out there and a lot of excitement going on.”
In the end, however, Wilson gained enough confidence to try and walk on to Rowan University’s team next year.
“I haven’t even talked to (the coach) yet,” he said. “But everyone thinks I have a good shot, especially because of how the season ended. I ended on a pretty high note so I’m just gonna take that and run with it. I’m very proud of myself right now, especially playing through adversity with the injury; and having all the stuff to do with graduation and senior year and still being able to participate at a high level at track & field.”
And let’s not forget keeping the streak alive.