SIU two-time All-American hurdler Jeff Young has went from goat at Seton Hall to the stud at SIU

By Gus Bode

From hopeless to Olympic dreaming

SIU two-time All-American hurdler Jeff Young has went from goat at Seton Hall to the stud at SIU

Jeff Young had his two bags packed and was waiting for his Greyhound bus to depart.

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Desperate, Young went the nearest bus station and left Seton Hall and his home state of New Jersey at 11 a.m. on July 26, 2001.

A former hurdle phenom that every college wanted out of high school, he had much time to ponder the rashness of his decision and the fact there were no more open avenues if SIU did not work out during the 26-hour ride to Carbondale.

All he knew about his destination was that it was in Illinois. But he could have never fathomed the journey he was about to embark on during the next year and a half.

“I kept thinking how this is my last move; I can’t go anywhere else,” said Young, whose specialty is the 60-meter hurdles. “I was hoping I was going to be near Chicago. I had no idea where I was going. I just had two big-ass suitcases and a ticket.”

When the Greyhound bus rolled into Carbondale the following day at 4 p.m., it did not take Young long to realize southern Illinois was not the big-city atmosphere he was expecting.

“I had to do something,” Young said. “I was tired of losing. I just lost every meet. Last. Last. Last. It was embarrassing. I was getting my ass kicked. I was garbage at Seton Hall.”

But after a huge decision such as transferring to a different college in an alien environment, he still had his doubts.

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“I was like, “I don’t know if I can make it out here,” Young said of his first impression. “Beside the Strip, I never saw any other part of the town. I thought this town had nothing. It was a major culture shock. I thought I was going to be near Chicago.

“My first stop on the bus was Effingham. I didn’t see any black people. I wondered where the hell am I? Why are there cornfields here? I thought I was supposed to be near Chicago.”

But running was the main fixture in his life, and he was disgruntled and sickened by continually losing without showing any sign improvement in his first two years at Seton Hall. To him, anything was better than losing.

“The coach at Seton Hall recruited talent. He didn’t make it. I needed to be made,” Young said of his stay in South Orange, NJ. “I went from good to bad and not many schools were willing to take me.”

One of the women’s track coaches at Seton Hall knew the hurdles coach at SIU, Enrique German, and said, “Here’s your school.”

When he arrived in Carbondale, he moved into University Hall and met up with German later that day.

They immediately started working on hurdles the following day.

He showed more improvement in five months than he did in two years at Seton Hall.

“I came July 27 and my first meet was Dec. 7 and I thought to myself, ‘This can’t be,” Young said of his astonishment after winning the 60-meter hurdles in his first ever meet as a Saluki. “From then on out the times kept improving.”

This despite his ex-coaches at Seton Hall preaching to him “the grass is never greener at a different program.” Young said they even told him that just one person has left Seton Hall and done better somewhere else, and that person had an eating disorder, which straight-jacketed her talents while she ran for the Pirates.

Make that three now, including Young and his fianc Korto Dunbar who left Seton Hall with him and like Young, holds the SIU school record in 60-meter hurdles.

German said he knew he had something he could mold when he asked Young on the phone while he was at Seton Hall what his strength was. Young replied “my start.”

Now, Young holds the fastest time ever by a Saluki in the 60-meter hurdles at 7:79, which is a fourth of a second faster than his time at his first meet.

“Running under eight seconds I thought was going to be impossible for me,” Young said. “When I first came here, I was like ‘I can never do that.’ People I knew who were faster than me couldn’t do.”

He said he owes much of his success to German. Young said when he was at Seton Hall he was reading books on the physics of hurdles.

But once he started running for the Salukis, German saved a lot of his time by having the same knowledge those books contained stored in his head.

“Coach German is a great coach, but no one really knows that,” Young said of his mentor. “He could be at a lot of other places with his ability, but he’s here, helping us develop something great. I owe everything to him.”

German, though, said his poor performances at Seton Hall had nothing to do with a lack of talent.

“With Jeff, we just had to adjust his technique,” German said. “He loves to work out. I never had a problem with him wanting to work. It was just a matter of mechanics.”

After German’s tutelage and Young diligent training, what would have been unfathomable on that bus ride to SIU occurred – Young became an All-American after finishing sixth at the NCAA Indoor National Championships on March 8, 2002.

“Getting All-American is amazing,” Young said of the honor. “I knew I wanted to go back. [NCAA indoor national championships] are addictive.

“Seton Hall didn’t take anyone the NCs my junior year. I got sixth and I got three points. Seton Hall had zero. That was the best feeling ever.”

Then a hurricane hit his parade and his time at the top almost came to an abrupt halt after he was released from the team on Nov. 20, 2002 for undisclosed reasons.

After many pleas from his coaches and teammates, he was reinstated to the squad on Jan. 20. But losing two months of practice was nearly as crushing to his senior campaign.

“My teammates and coaches protested for me and that made me feel great inside,” Young said. “I was gone. I didn’t think there was going to be any second chances. It was ‘You are off the damn team.'”

But in order to gain ground physically and catch up to his competition, Young overexerted himself and injured his quadricep. Much to his surprise and despite having an injured quad, he opened the 2002-03 indoor season Feb. 15 at the Salukis Track and Field Fast Start Open with his personal-best time in the 55-meter hurdles.

But after what he considered a poor performance a week later at the Friday Night Special hosted by Eastern Illinois, he begged to be redshirted so his dream of attending his second straight NCAA indoor championships would still be possible.

“That same meet that I thought I ran well on February 15, somebody ran the same damn time in conference,” Young said. “I was really scared then, because I hate losing. I will pull my own leg down the track if I have to. I don’t lose. I hate losing.”

German alleviated his worries by promising him everything would work out, and he was right.

Young qualified for the NCAA championships for the second year in a row, but that was just half the battle. He wanted to prove this time that the year before was not a flash in the pan.

“Everyone knew I only ran three meets this year and they were like ‘Jeff you just popped on the list out of nowhere'”, Young said. “That was a great feeling, because I really didn’t want to run earlier. I took two months off.

“Coming from a school like this, if you make All-American it is a big deal. I was going up against guys from Alabama, South Carolina. And there I am from the MVC [Missouri Valley Conference]. No one there even knew what acronyms to ‘SIU’ stood for. I didn’t want people thinking I was a damn fluke.”

Young showed for the second time in a row that he was for real by earning All-American status with his 10th place finish in the 60-meter hurdles in a time of 7.79. Jabari Greer of Tennessee won the event with a time of 7.63.

Being a fluke was out of question now.

But with his strong showing also comes regret of what could have been.

“I thought I could have won it,” Young said. “We knew I could have won and that is not just one of those ‘You gotta be confident’ statements either. I really feel I could have won the meet.

“I would have never said that when I was at Seton.”

He has also fallen in love with the atmosphere that caused him panic two summers ago.

“Seton Hall was a one-block campus that was blocked off,” Young said. “It was a private-Catholic college and the only black population there were the track team and basketball team. Here it is a whole new atmosphere and it is much more laid back.

“I see someone new here everyday. At Seton I knew everybody and if you did something, everyone knows.”

His indoor career is now over at SIU. Soon his outdoor career will be the same.

But his dreams as a hurdler still burn white-hot inside him.

“I am going to keep running and why not with the Olympics coming up?” Young said about his future plans, adding that he will also serve as a volunteer coach next year at SIU. “I am feeling pretty good about my chances to make the team, especially with another year under Coach German’s teaching.”

Reporter Zack Creglow can be reached at [email protected]

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