Not every student in Hamilton Township was happy about schools shutting down in mid-March due to the coronavirus precautions.
“I feel almost homesick about not being in school because I always love school,” Hamilton West senior Jacob Darby said. “School was just a getaway, and it was something to do. Also I miss seeing my friends and my favorite teachers every day.”
It’s probably the attitude one should expect from a student-athlete like Darby, who possesses an unweighted grade point average of 3.42 and loves to compete on the field as much as he loves learning in the classroom.
His hiatus from school was merely part of very eventful senior year.
In the fall, it was uncertain if he would play football due to a knee injury he suffered toward the end of track and field season the previous spring. Through prayers and hard work, he returned to the Hornets offensive line and helped Hamilton to its best season in years with an 8-2 record and a playoff berth.
In January, he learned that he was Hamilton’s winner of the scholarship award presented by the Delaware Valley chapter of the National Football Foundation.
“That meant a whole lot to me because it was a representation of my hard work paying off for these past four seasons,” Darby said. “But I wanted to just make my dad and my mom—rest her soul—proud. I knew that those two believing in me the most out of everyone and, with that type of structure behind me, how can you do anything less but succeed? They motivated me to be the best Jacob Darby I could be.”
He was certainly at his best during the winter track and field season, which was his finest to date. As he sat at home during the shutdown, Darby was obviously hoping he would have a chance for more success this spring. If not, the silver lining was that his final year of track and field was a memorable one throwing the shot put. (He also does discus and javelin in spring.)
“I believe this was my best track season,” Darby said. “I came into it with a goal of trying to hit 51-9 to qualify for nationals and becoming a Mercer County champ. Sadly I didn’t qualify but I am now a county champ. Am I satisfied? Never. But am I still happy and proud of myself? Of course.”
Throws coach Mike Papero, who also coached Darby in football, felt he had every right to be proud.
“Jacob’s indoor season was remarkable, but not surprising to anyone who knows him,” Papero said. “His work ethic is second to none, so when he needs to fix his technique, it’s going to get fixed because he will put the work in almost obsessively.”
Darby began the new year by finishing second at the Colonial Valley Conference Relays with a throw of 44-feet, 8¼ inches. Three weeks later, he won the Mercer County Indoor title with what was, at the time, a personal record throw of 47-9¼.
In February, Darby took third in the Princeton Invitational Series No. 2 with a mark of 44-6 and second in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III meet with a 46-10¾. He unloaded a throw of 47-2½ while taking 21st at the Eastern States Championship but left feeling unfulfilled.
Another bad day cost Darby at the Group III meet when his throw of 45-5½ placed him 10th, and he was unable to compete in the Meet of Champions.
“He was mentally prepared going in, he just had a bit of an off day,” Papero said. “The shot slipped off of his fingers once, and then you start thinking about it and next thing you know, it happens again.”
Nonetheless, it could not detract from a season that has shown Darby’s massive progress since ninth grade. When he entered Hamilton, like many early teens, a growth spurt affected his coordination. Papero kidded with him that he moved like a newborn horse with his knees knocking together.
“He didn’t really move well,” the coach said. “But with time and hard work, he’s turned into someone who pays so much attention to footwork and technique that there aren’t many who move better than him.”
Papero compares Darby to Chevy Chase’s beloved character in the National Lampoon Vacation movies.
“He has a little Clark Griswold in him, he appreciates the journey,” the coach said. “I love watching him have success because he gets so excited. He’s what high school sports are all about. He loves challenges, and I think sometimes for him, the challenge of overcoming an obstacle is more rewarding than the success he has.”
If anyone needed that quality, it was Darby. Toward the end of last spring season he stayed late at practice to work on his form. In his first time using the spin move, he threw nearly 140 feet. Unfortunately, he got so excited that when he went out to fetch the disc, he jumped for joy in the air and came down straight legged into the ground and tore his MCL.
“It was a bad experience, and it really hurt, but I knew I was in God’s hands at that moment so I wasn’t that worried about it,” Darby said. “But I also knew that I had to work extra hard to get back to a hundred percent and be with my teammates.”
Darby still attended every football workout and weight room session in the summer to remain part of the team. When he was cleared, Darby increased his workout regimen just to catch up to his teammates. It was uncertain if he would even play at the start of the football season but through sheer tenacity, he got back in time and was part of an outstanding offensive line.
“I wanted to get a scholarship or an offer to a school to play football or do track, so I was worried because I knew that it could affect my future,” Darby said. “But at the same time I was not (worried) because I knew that if I were to pray and just put my trust in God and in my trainer Ms. Jen (Bauer) and trust in everybody supporting me, that I was going to be good.”
Darby hopes to play football and do track in college, but has not made a decision yet. He plans on majoring in architecture or maybe electrical engineering due to his love of drawing and math.
He will be an asset to any college for both his academic and athletic skills. Darby is in a number of clubs at Hamilton West and is truly a leader throughout the school.
One of his clubs is the “Talented Tenth,” a group that believes if 10 percent of the school’s population holds itself to a high and respected standard, the other 90 percent will do likewise.
“We want to boost up the entire school community to a high standard,” Darby said. “The Talented Tenth has helped me form myself into a very high-standard young man and I appreciate the people who head that program—Mr. (Jon) Johnson, Miss (Erica) Rodriguez and Mr. (Glen) Fleming. By me watching them hold themselves to a standard just made me want to hold myself to an even higher standard to make me an even better young man so I thank them for that.”
Darby’s appreciation of what others do for him is also another standout quality. He offered similar thanks to Papero and Hamilton’s head track and field coach, Danielle Grady.
“Coach Papero has been such a big part in me progressing, not only in my football career but in my track career and just school-wise in general,” Darby said. “He has helped me so much and without him I don’t know what I would’ve done.
“I also really want to give thanks to Coach Grady because she has just been such an influential person in my whole high school career by helping me with anything I need help with. It could’ve been homework or test problems at home or even during track and she would just put all of her problems to the side and just focus on me, and her students and her athletes. I really love her for that.”
Much in the same way he loves school, for so many different reasons.