A Wetumpka high senior track and field as well as football athlete locked in his chance to further his academic and athletic career Wednesday.
Jalen Johnson, who holds Wetumpka’s school record for triple jump, signed his letter of intent to attend Lane College, accepting a scholarship from the Dragons to continue his track and field career.
“It feels good, like hard work pays off,” Johnson said. “The hard work you put in always comes out for the better.”
Johnson holds the triple jump school record for both indoor and outdoor, recording jumps of 44 feet, 8 inches and 43 feet, 8.5 inches respectively. He also competes in middle-distance races and hurdles for the Indians.
After last year’s outdoor state competitions were canceled due to COVID-19, Johnson will have a chance to compete at a championship level in 2021 this April and May. He earned state runner up at the Class 6A Alabama High School Indoor Championships this season after landing at No. 7 in 2020.
“JJ’s been working really hard,” track and field head coach Warren Brown said. “This is his senior year. We didn’t get a chance to compete nationally at all. I think he went really hard going into the indoor season, and a lot of coaches saw where he was at so early in the track and field season, and we’re just proud of him.”
On the football field, Johnson patrolled the Indians’ defensive backfield from his safety position, piling up tackles when opposing ball carriers leaked through the front line. He collected 12 in Wetumpka’s first game against Prattville last season.
Another place where Johnson’s hard work shines is in the classroom.
Earning a scholarship in today’s packed world of high school sports takes more than just athletic talent, football head coach Tim Perry said while introducing Johnson Wednesday morning. If a prospect’s grades aren’t up to snuff, colleges are likely to look past him or her.
Johnson said he takes a focused approach to balancing school and athletics.
“I’ve just gotta keep my mind straight and block out all the distractions,” Johnson said.
Something else that makes Johnson’s particular scholarship stand out is his primary event, triple jump.
The event isn’t as popular as other leaping showcases such as the long jump, high jump or hurdles, even if it’s worth the same number of points at a track meet.
“It’s one of the events that you have the fewest entries [in for meets],” Brown said. “Me being a coach, that’s one of the events that I like to have two or three kids in, because when you want to compete at a track meet and earn points, to be competitive, you’ve got to learn how to, as we say, ‘steal points.’ And the triple jump is one of those events where you can steal points.”
Johnson didn’t set out to do triple jump when his track and field career began. The opportunity came about almost by chance.
“One day, one track meet, my coach put me in triple jump. And I was good,” Johnson said. “It was natural.”
From then on, Johnson took the work ethic that Brown and Perry spoke to and jumped feet first into his new discipline, learning quickly what it takes to be a scholarship-caliber triple jumper.
Johnson said it requires a combination of weightlifting, bounding, speed and muscle memory to develop the skill.
“He took ownership of his events,” Brown said. “When I first got here, he didn’t have a mark. He’d never triple jumped before. I don’t think he did hurdles. So his attitude changed. He studied the game, he studied his event. He practiced it when we were not in practice, and he just excelled.”
After finishing his high school career with another potential high finish at the 2021 outdoor state championships, Johnson’s collegiate career will be underway.
He chose Lane College for the academics, campus and the fact that it’s an HBCU, he said, and is looking forward to the next chapter of his journey both in the classroom and on the track.
“I need to get my academics right first, and then athletics come after that,” Johnson said.