When Reggie Nelson showed up unannounced in Jeff Jacobs’ office a few years ago, the Coastal Carolina University track and field coach had no way of knowing what that moment would later mean for his program.
After all, prospective athletes pop in often at the beginning of semesters, expressing interest in going out for the team. Some are never seen again after being given all the preliminary paperwork to complete, while others may hang on for a few months before realizing just how much work is required.
“You never know what their background is or if they’re going to pan out, and he was one of those type of guys,” Jacobs said of Nelson. “[He told us], ‘I went to Dillon High School, I jumped 6-4.’ I said, ‘All right, well you can walk on.’
“The first year he was on the team he got up to 6-8. It was, ‘OK, well at least this is a competitive guy within our conference.’ If it had ended right there, I would have said this is pretty good improvement. but every year he’s gotten better.”
And better and better and better.
On Friday, Nelson will compete with the top collegiate track and field athletes in the country at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, as Coastal Carolina’s lone representative at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. He’ll compete as one of 24 athletes who advanced to the men’s high jump finals, hoping to land a top-eight finish that would earn him first-team All-American recognition.
Regardless, though, it's already been quite a success story for the walk-on turned national competitor.
“For a guy that we [didn’t] recruit to be in the top 24 athletes in the country, Division I, yeah, it’s pretty rare,” Jacobs said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever had that before, that somebody’s gotten this far as a walk-on.”
It’s elite territory in general, for that matter. Nelson is just the seventh Coastal Carolina men’s track and field athlete all-time to reach the NCAA championships as an individual.
“I always imagined it, but to be in this moment right now, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “It’s something that all athletes work for, but to actually have this opportunity as an individual to compete at the highest level, it’s pretty unspeakable. I’m just honored.”
Looking for a shot
Nelson didn’t join the track and field team at Dillon High School until his senior year, and when he graduated, he only had one or two scholarship offers from smaller schools, as he recalls.
He chose to go to USC Aiken before soon transferring to Coastal Carolina while focusing on academics for the 2010-11 school year.
That’s when he decided it was time to pay a visit to Jacobs and see if he could talk his way onto the team.
“They took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to come out here and prove myself, and I’m really thankful for that,” Nelson said. “... I only did track my senior year of high school, [so] they [were] taking a chance on a second-year track athlete and a walk-on at that.”
Nelson has more than repaid the coaches’ confidence, though.
Jacobs and assistant coach Charone Williams rave about his work ethic, his determination, his commitment to maximize his talents.
“His consistent search for that extra [something] it will take to be the best, his search for knowledge, what he does to watch film, ask me questions, critique other jumpers ... ,” said Williams, who works closely with Nelson in practice. “All of that, I believe that search for knowledge is what drives him to be the best.”
By his second season at Coastal Carolina, Nelson had already established himself not only as a standout on the team but as one of the top performers in the Big South Conference with ever-expanding potential.
He placed second in the high jump at the 2013 conference meet, qualified for the NCAA East Preliminary Round and then nearly shocked everybody. Seeded 43rd for the NCAA preliminary meet, Nelson jumped a personal-best 7-feet, 0.25 inches to place 13th overall – just one spot away from qualifying for the finals in Eugene.
“I think he took a lot of away from that whole experience, that, ‘Hey, I can compete with the best guys in the country,’” Jacobs said. “And I think he used that as motivation all year this year. He really kind of took off where he left off.”
Said Nelson: “It was a blessing just to be there. I came in 43rd last year and I shocked a lot of people and finished 13th, so I knew it was in me. I just had to go out and really fight for it because it wasn’t going to be given to me.”
Nelson said he told Jacobs that they would be going to the national meet in Eugene this year, and if anything has become clear about the senior from Dillon by this point, it’s that he’s big on following through on his intentions.
He set out to earn first his place on the team and then later a scholarship to help pay for his education, and he has.
He set out to graduate college, to become as he says, one of the first males in his family to do so, and sure enough he recently completed his bachelor’s degree in finance.
And after coming so close last year, well, the goal this season was pretty clear.
“I said, ‘Coach, we’re going to nationals this year,’ and I couldn’t let him down. I had to keep my promise to him,” Nelson said.
First, Nelson won a conference championship in the high jump back in April and also finished third in the long jump. He was named the Big South Men’s Outstanding Field Performer of the Year.
He added a first-place high jump finish at the prestigious Penn Relays, setting a personal best with a height of 7-1.00 – the second-best mark in program history.
Then came his return to the NCAA East Preliminary Round at the end of May.
After clearing his early jumps with ease, Nelson missed on his first two tries at 2.14 meters (7 feet, 0.25 inches).
“It was a very nervous situation,” Jacobs said.
But again, the coaches had learned long ago about Nelson’s determination and follow-through.
“When his back’s against the wall, he knows what to do,” Williams said. “That’s the Reggie I know. Back against the wall, no way out, he must clear this, he will do it. That’s what Reggie’s all about – overcoming obstacles.”
Nelson would convert on his third and final try from 7-00.25 to tie for 10th and punch his ticket to the national championships.
He’s been accepted into Coastal Carolina’s MBA program, so he’ll be returning to the team next season for his final year of eligibility to further add to his resume. But right now, he’s focused on making the most of the opportunity that awaits him Friday.
“National champion,” Nelson said when asked about his goals. “I aim for the moon, and if I miss I land upon the stars and I’ll be All-American.”
Speaking by phone from Oregon, Jacobs said the high jump competition is wide open as most of the top finishers from last year graduated.
The highest a Coastal Carolina men’s track and field athlete has ever placed at the national meet is seventh – Thomas Jordan in the javelin throw in 2006 – and Jacobs thinks Nelson has a real shot at challenging that while attaining All-American status if he can jump 7-2 or 7-3.
All the while, though, Nelson has been enjoying this experience – and the realization of his efforts and determination.
“He’s just been kind of soaking it in the couple days we’ve been here,” Jacobs said Wednesday. “All the best kids in the country are here, and he knows he’s one of them.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.