When Jonathan Jones first started throwing shot put as a junior at Portville High School, he knew nothing of his potential.
Luckily for him, someone who knew the sport far better than he did noticed it and believed in him.
James Garnham, assistant track coach in charge of throwers at the University at Buffalo, went to see Jones throw in a high school meet after he was tipped off by a friend. He immediately became enamored with Jones’ potential.
“I got a call from his coach’s brother,” Garnham said. “He said, ‘You gotta go look at this kid, Coach. He doesn’t throw far, but he’s got all kinds of potential.’ So, I went out to Clarence, looked at him and saw him throw 52 from the stand and 52 across. I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, he’s got it.’ ”
Fast forward four years and Jones is one of the best throwers in the NCAA.
He’s a first-team All-American, the Mid-American Conference and the UB record holder for longest shot put and, with his recent performance at the United States Track and Field Championships, is now ranked second in the nation and 18th in the world in the event.
Jones threw a career, school and MAC best 68 feet, one inch at the late June meet in Sacramento, Calif., placing him fourth despite being in a field of mostly older athletes.
Garnham, who’s coached track and field in some capacity for 46 years, said he knew Jones would be good enough to compete at the Division I level, but there was one problem: academics. Jones didn’t have the grades to get into UB.
“I had poor grades in high school,” Jones said. “I didn’t think I was ever going to take it to the next level. I started so late, so I really didn’t get many looks out of high school.”
Garnham knew Jones was worth waiting for, so he set him up with a former athlete of his – Faith Thompson – who was coaching at Buffalo State at the time. Once grades improved enough, he’d transfer to UB. After one year as a Bengal, he was able to do just that.
Just over four years after making that decision, Jones is one of the best throwers in the NCAA.
He owes his rapid ascension in part to Garnham.
“He’s been telling me since I’ve come in that I have all the potential in the world to be good,” Jones said. “He planted that seed in my head, so I just kept pushing as hard as I could.”
Jones is now “paying it forward” in a way. After receiving so much help from Garnham, he’s working to mold the next generation of local throwers at UB’s annual track and field summer camp. The event ran from Wednesday through today at UB’s North Campus.
While he has plenty of technical knowledge of the sport to share, Jones is sure to remind the kids (mostly middle and high school age), that without good grades, their work in the throwing circle means nothing.
“One thing I really regret is not trying or working to my capabilities in high school,” Jones said. “That’s something I wish I could go back and redo. If you don’t have the grades, you can’t do what you want to do.”
Jones has surprised himself with how quickly he’s been able to become one of the nation’s top collegiate throwers. In four years he went from a high school kid without much direction, to a Division III athlete, to a redshirt (in 2011-2012), to one of the country’s best throwers. And he still has a year of eligibility left.
With his relatively late start in the sport, Jones might have a lot of room for improvement.
“I’ve only been doing this for two years at this type of level, and everyone else that I’ve been doing it against has been doing it since eighth grade,” Jones said. “So, I’ve still got a long way to go until I hit my peak.”
After winning two consecutive MAC championships, improvement would likely mean competing for a national championship next year and then competing beyond college.
After graduation, Jones plans to stick with the man who helped him realize his potential as he’ll become a volunteer assistant track coach and continue to train with Garnham at UB’s facilities.
“I told him, ‘You dance with the girl who brought you,’ ” Garnham said. “You start to get to go all over the place, you’ll get messed up.”
He hopes this will culminate in an Olympic appearance in 2016.
“The 2016 Olympics in (Rio de Janeiro), that’s the ultimate goal,” Jones said. “I’ll probably just stay here with my coach and train after I graduate. Maybe I’ll do some professional meets.”
Regardless of how the next few years turn out for Jones, he’s accomplished plenty in a relatively short time. Not many can pick up a sport late in high school and become an All-American and conference record holder within five years.
Garnham knows just how rare Jones’ accomplishments are.
“He’s done some things in two years that people wish they could in their whole lifetime.”