"When it's all said and done, your body won't always work the way it always has. You can't always run. So there has to be life after running. Going to JUCO made me realize that school was important." -- Leander Forbes
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By Cory Mull - MileSplit National Writer
Leander Forbes' eyes darted across long stretches of asphalt over that first drive west to Mississippi.
Naturally, you can think about a lot of things over six hours.
And two years ago, when Forbes was making his way to his new JUCO home at Meridian Community College, he certainly did. In many ways, the Tallahassee Leon (FL) graduate was left in his thoughts, because for the next two years this was his road to Division I.
But at the time, it marked a turning point in his life. The super-talented track and field athlete, who had finished his senior season with the sixth-best 400 meter time in the country, had all the potential in the world--he ran 45.95 seconds in his senior year--though physical gifts never quite made up for his struggles in the classroom.
While numerous Division I programs recruited him, Forbes realized over his senior year that a low GPA and poor ACT scores prevented him from attending a Division I school. An opportunity at Florida A & M University eventually fell through.
So here he was, on the road, heading toward junior college. Toward a new start.
It would have been easy to think about regrets, because some athletes do just that. But it's not what he did. Ultimately, that stretch over large swaths of I-10 highway became something else.
Meridian Community College represented the next phase in his life.
"The biggest thing for me was making my parents proud," Forbes said. "I wanted them to see their son do big things. I felt like I was disappointing them with my school work, because I know my parents wanted to see me go to a big university. So I wanted to make that happen."
Every year, thousands of young athletes head off to college. A small percentage reach the heights of Division I athletics and the very best earn scholarships. Some eventually win conference and national championships over four year careers.
And then there's junior college.
While it isn't glamorized or coveted like a traditional four-year university--and it's not the path athletes envision to begin the next chapter in their athletic careers--it's a viable transition point for hundreds of athletes each year.
There are countless success stories within the system that have ultimately led to remarkable achievements--like qualifying for Olympic teams.
Forbes still has that goal. He looks to examples like Fred Kerley, a former no-name prospect from Taylor, Texas who landed at South Plains CC on the request of a coach. Two years later, he dominated at Texas A & M University.
Those examples often told the stories of talented--or unknown athletes--looking for new opportunities. That's often been the JUCO story.
"You look at the Olympic Games, athletes on United States National teams," said University of Alabama sprints coach Blaine Wiley, who was an 11-time junior college National Assistant Coach of the Year. "There are JUCO kids everywhere. It presents tremendous possibilities."
Now, just two years later, Forbes is closer to his dream than ever. During the National Letter of Intent period, he signed with the University of Alabama. This indoor season, he won his second straight National Junior College Athletic Association title at 600 meters.
He's as fast as he's ever been, hitting times of 46.64 in the 400m, 1:02.18 in the 500m, 1:16.86 in the 600m and 1:51.71 in the 800m.
So was there a lightbulb moment? You might think everyone on a secondary path may have one. But Forbes can't really point to anything. No single point has defined his tenure at Meridian Community College. It's all been part of the process.
But his time in Mississippi has reinforced a life lesson.
"When it's all said and done, your body won't always work the way it always has," Forbes said. "You can't always run. So there has to be life after running. Going to JUCO made me realize that school was important. If you don't take it seriously, you go to JUCO."
Forbes visited many junior colleges along the Heartland. He went to campuses in Iowa and Kansas, considered their promises and potential futures. But in some ways, those towns felt empty, "in the middle of nowhere and cold," Forbes said.
He chose Meridian because it didn't feel like a JUCO. The school had built new facilities around campus and was working on surfacing a new track. There were plenty of things to do around town, and Forbes also enjoyed that it was in a Southern climate.
But he also knew his primary responsibility wasn't to fool around. Forbes says he's spent the majority of his time at Meridian in his dorm room studying, or bonding with teammates. He's found what works for him.
"Not going Division I out of high school was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "It gave me a reality check. My mom told me, 'You're getting a second chance. It's kind of like Last Chance University.' Everybody is really grinding.
"The people who know me know I'm a smart guy," he added. "But when it comes down to it, I didn't apply myself in high school. I took school for granted. Going to JUCO made me realize I had to prioritize better."
Forbes remains hungry to succeed on the track, too.
Wiley says athletes who compete in JUCO have an edge that lasts long after they transition to Division I programs. You can call it a "chip," an "edge," or any sort of verb. It just exists.
"JUCO is a path," Wiley said. "It's a means to an end. Kids get a chance there that they wouldn't have had otherwise, so I think it's a special situation. There's a bond and unique thing that comes out of JUCO with them. They're tougher. You have to be a tougher. You have to be a survivor."
Consider Forbes' high school track record.
He was primarily a quarter-miler, with a best of 45.95 seconds at the distance, plus five more times under 48 seconds. He split under 22 seconds in the 200m just twice.
But at Meridian, he's blossomed into a possible 800 meter runner. He produced a 1:49 hand-time during an anchor leg on a Sprint Medley Relay, then followed it up with a 1:51.71 just a few weeks later. He's lowered his 200 meter best down to 21.3.
"I didn't think I would run that fast," Forbes said of his time in the 800m in the SMR.
Forbes will complete his Associate's Degree in a few weeks. He has to take one more three-work course before finishing up. He says he wants to pursue a career in the technology field, though he hasn't wrapped his "head in it" just yet.
Alabama offered him a package he couldn't turn down, he said, roughly around 92-percent of tuition. Grant money will make up the rest of the difference.
So all that's left is for Forbes to concentrate on his final season in JUCO. Maybe he can grab one more national title before he makes his long-awaited entrance into Division I athletics.
"Winning something in college was big for me," he said. "In high school I never won a championship. But for me to win two, to repeat this year, it was big."
"JUCO is a great pathway for kids who need another opportunity," Wiley said. "Whatever it may be, you can get a fresh start."
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Contact MileSplit National Writer Cory Mull at email@example.com or Tweet at him @bycorymull