“What’s up New Hampshire!?” That was how they greeted me. It made me want to pour gasoline on them in their sleep, light a match and toast marshmallows. It was a joke, but couldn’t they see I was terrified. If I got one more “New Hampshire,” I would lose my track scholarship and go home in shame. I was the city high jump champ, all-state, and an Olympic hopeful – at least in my mind.

I was a freshman at USC in Columbia, SC. The kind “Aunties” at the athletic dorm cafeteria fed me like a king. I lifted weights in a state-of-the-art facility. Five months and plus thirty pounds later I was so heavy I couldn’t clear opening height in the high jump. The coach read the track meet results to the team. For the fourth meet in a row, there was “N.H.” or NO HEIGHT after my name. 

I dreaded getting in the van with my teammates and potential arson victims. For six hours to Florida, I would have to suffer their relentless ribbing. Why didn’t I do something – besides torching them? I brought it on myself with my immature bragging. I would have to pass out, suffer nose bleeds and waste a very expensive meal plan, to make things right.

In high school, I stumbled on track after getting swiftly cut from the basketball team. I was a band nerd but somewhat athletic. I saw some guys practicing the high jump inside the carpeted commons area of the school. I asked our gruff, linebacker looking track coach if I could try it. I guess since my knees were larger than my thighs he thought I’d hurt myself. “No!”

I snuck and tried the high jump anyway. I was actually good at it – a natural. The coach caught me. “Henson!” He barked. “You’re doing the high jump!” Fast forward four years and I had multiple scholarship offers from Division 1 schools, and an ego the size of a bus.

Finally, the kid who got picked on. The band nerd, the kid with the huge glasses, funny clothes and no girlfriend prospects was good at something. Senior year the news did a 5-minute segment on me – complete with slow-motion footage of me soaring over the bar. “The Olympics, I know I’ll be ready for the Olympics, blah, blah.” I told the reporter.

I’m in the passenger seat of the van to Florida with my Walkman so loud I think my ears are bleeding. I can still hear my teammates taunting. I ran my mouth all fall about how awesome I was and here I sit, worried I’ll have to drive the university shuttle like past track team underperformers who lost their scholarships.

I’m exhausted. In the two weeks since the last track meet I’ve eaten meals fit for a 2-year-old girl. I make an appearance at the weight room but I just walk around from machine to machine without lifting anything. I’ve dropped 15 pounds and my body fat is around 4 percent – I’m getting close to the knobby knee stage.

Then, I learn the starting height from the coach and I want to throw myself out of the speeding van. “6’6” opening height.” He said in a why-did-I-waste-a-scholarship-on-you tone. High school started a foot lower and my best was 7 feet. I was in the top five in the country in high school but I’m sure the other four guys didn’t pig out AND run their mouths when they got to college like I did.

At the meet, I see Tom – LSU, and Eric – Tennessee, both from Ohio. Tom won state, Eric was second and I was third. I had beaten both Tom and Eric in high school, but after watching me no height repeatedly, they treated me like the childhood friend who picked up a drug problem and was wasting his life.

I warmed up and kept to myself. I got my steps and waited for my turn at a practice jump. Actually, I was content waving the other jumpers to go ahead of me. Tom was next up. “You take it!” He yelled. “You suck Tom,” I thought.

I started my approach. Was my nose bleeding? I think I might pee. I hate you, Tom! I jumped. I felt like God’s angels of mercy pulled me into the air. Every part of my body flowed over the bar. I hit the mat and wanted to celebrate. But what dork celebrates a practice jump at opening height?

That day I cleared opening height and the next height. I had good attempts at the height after but just couldn’t get a clean jump. N.H. – New Hampshire was dead. I was able to hang onto my scholarship – and my dignity. And no one ever called me New Hampshire again.

Tom went on to win the NCAA Division 1 Championships and qualify for the Olympic trials. Eric became a decathlete and was an alternate on the Olympic team. I never jumped any higher than I did in high school. I never won a meet or even placed in the top three.

Looking back, I would have gotten a much better education at one of the interested Division 2 schools I was too arrogant to even visit. I might have been a conference champ or gone to the Division 2 Nationals. I had the academics to possibly go Ivy League. What 18-year-old wants to keep being a nerd when you can be an athlete at a school with thirty thousand students?

In college, the athlete in me was in over his head and the nerd in me wasn’t challenged. I didn’t follow my truth because I wanted to “show the world” that I wasn’t as worthless as they said I was. I just ended up showing the world that I cared more about what they thought than what would make me happy.

Our truth is all we have. It’s ours to protect and follow. We can lose sight of it when “the world” starts offering opinions. But life’s lessons – especially the hard ones, always bring us back. I don’t often see New Hampshire license plates or meet many natives of the state, but when I do I always say the state motto to myself and remember the lesson, “Live Free or Die.”