Justin "Dr. Hops" Fondren's faith has him soaring to new heights on and off the track


As a record-breaking high jumper and a dynamic dunker for Oxford High School’s track & field and basketball teams, respectively, Justin Fondren, perhaps more than anything else, relies on a fearlessness when he leaves his feet.  


So it’s with some irony to learn that “Dr. Hops” - as Fondren’s gravity-defying alter-ego has come to be known - has a conflicting Kryptonite.


“I’m scared of heights,” says the junior from Oxford, Mississippi.


The phobia is rooted in a scary fall from atop a school roof when Fondren was 11. He fell 14 feet, but with exception of a bruised ego, escaped unscathed. 


“It didn’t injure me,” Fondren says of the fall. “It just spooked me.”


As a result, Fondren says he can’t look straight down from big heights. 


Somehow, that hasn’t prevented him from becoming one of the country’s most explosive leapers. When he was 15, Fondren cleared 7-01 and set a freshman national record. It was that year that he also earned his nickname: Dr. Hops. 


“They just figured I’m not just a regular jumper with hops,” Fondren explained. “They say I’m like, the ‘doctor’ of it.”


The name stuck. Fondren now has it photoshopped onto his Facebook profile picture. “It’s just a cool name that reminds me of my freshman year.” 


This season, after a sophomore slump, Fondren, who stands just 6-feet 1-inch, is the best high jumper in the country.  After losing his claim on that title for a couple of weeks, when Texas junior Alex Austin jumped 7-2, Fondren jumped a personal best and US#1 7-2.25 on April 23.  It is the seventh time this season he's 7-feet this season.


He's not satisfied either.





Fondren lost that ranking a week ago, when Alex Austin, a 6’6” junior from Texas - whose father is Olympian Charles Austin - jumped 7-02 to take over the top of the rankings. But he has every indication of getting back on top.


 “I know that by the end of this year, I’ll jump seven-four,” Fondren said. “It just has to come out of me and I’m just waiting for that perfect day.”


Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, just a few miles from the University of Mississippi, Fondren displayed a superior athletic talent. More than that, his mother says, he had the drive to get better.


“He always had the ability to just move faster than everyone else,” says Gwen Fondren, Justin’s mother. “But he would make sure that he could be the best at whatever he tried to do.”


Fondren’s first love and passion is basketball, and it was on the court that he began showing a unique ability to out-jump everyone. In seventh grade, he was the only kid who could touch the rim. Mike Hardwick, a coach at Oxford Middle School, invited him to give the high jump a try. In his first attempt, Fondren cleared 6’4” comfortably.  His coach, Fondren recalls, said "I think we found our jumper.” 


Basketball is still Fondren’s favorite sport and he is a star in that, thanks again to his remarkable jumping ability. This season, he led the Oxford Chargers in scoring with 19 points per game, most of which is above the rim.


“He’s one of the most incredible dunkers you will ever see, especially considering he’s 6-foot-1,” said Scott Kendricks, his Oxford High School’s track & field coach.


Fondren is a power jumper in the most traditional sense, Kendricks says, generating most of his height not from technique or speed, but from pure lift-off.  At meets, he is usually the shortest jumper in the field.


“It’s never been a secret that the guy is explosive,” Kendricks says. 


His strength isn’t concentrated in the lower body, either. Kendricks said he once saw Fondren throw a football 73 yards.


The jumper and his coach are taking a hands-off approach towards Fondren's development. He only practices jumping a couple times a week and plays basketball the other days. It’s an agreement that both are okay with. 


“Basketball is my workout,” Fondren says. “Dunking is basically jumping a lot, so it’s just working out my legs.”


The downfall to the lack of formal training, of course, is that Fondren has a big learning curve, especially with technique. His sophomore year was marred by inconsistency. Although he cleared seven feet several times, he never matched his freshman year mark. In one attempt, Fondren overstepped his approach and missed the mat entirely.


“It was one of those learning things,” his coach says. “But now he pays really close attention to his feet on his approach.”


Fondren dreams of playing basketball for either Duke or Kentucky, but his athletic potential lies in the high jump. According to MaxPreps, a high school recruiting web site that comprehensively ranks basketball players, Fondren is currently ranked 5990th. Coach Kendricks says he is regularly approached by college coaches who ask if Fondren can get better. His answer? Absolutely.  


“But I’ll leave that to his college coach.” 


Fondren boasts a well-rounded resume for whichever college he applies to. He is musically-talented and knows how to play piano, percussion, and used to sing in his church choir.  A devout Baptist and the son of a preacher, Fondren said that, more than anything, spirituality drives him in everything he does. 


“God is first in my life,” Fondren says. “I wouldn’t be anything without him.”