Running Tigers: Three Football Tigers Excel In Track and Field

  • October 4, 2015

By Rebeccah Barger

Over the last 14 years, Princeton has been one of the most dominant track and field teams in the Ivy League. During that span, the Princeton Tigers have tallied 8 total wins in the Ivy League Heptagonal Track and Field Championships (Heps), 5 in indoor and 3 in outdoor.  Despite the sustained success, Princeton was the underdog going into last year’s Heps. But with running backs Lavondre Nelson and Spencer Long and defensive back John Hill contributing to the points, Princeton won in historic fashion in Cambridge, Mass. last March in their indoor meet.

Princeton totaled 161 points, while Cornell came in at 98. The 63 point gap was the largest margin of victory in the Ivy League to date. Nelson came in fourth and Hill in sixth, less than .05 seconds dividing them from the first place 60 meter champion.

“Heps is a really wild, loud, and intense environment,” Nelson said. “It’s something I would recommend anyone to go watch – the last day of Heps because it’s definitely a very fun and competitive environment to be at. Guys work hard in the off season to put together a team where you can come in together in Heps and dominate. That really taught me track was a team sport.”

To top off their season, the three athletes competed in the Ivy League Heps outdoor meet two months later. Princeton slid into first by 3.5 points to win, completing their Triple Crown, which entails winning the Ivy League Championship in indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country.

In outdoor, Hill placed first in the 100 meter dash and second, along with Nelson, in the 4×100 meter relay.

“Every point matters,” Hill said. “You always want one place higher than you think you can get. Most of the time you know who’s going to win like 10 events before, but it took to that last race, and we won.”

To the three football athletes, the next best thing to experiencing the win of an Ivy Championship is the simple act of competing, which drew them into being two-sport athletes in the first place.

“You get to focus on your one specific craft every day in track and work toward that every day,” Long said. “It’s pretty pure competition. It’s just who can run the fastest.”

Another benefit of running track is the contrast it provides to football. While football requires meetings and film analysis in addition to practices, track allows its athletes to focus solely on physical development. It also provides a more individual element to training than football.

“Track isn’t very taxing mentally. You just run, just move. It’s nothing like football where you have to watch film,” Hill said. “I think it’s mostly, track you can be an individual. You can practice with headphones in and not talk to people all the time, but football you have to be locked in because there’s so much working together on one play.”

Balancing the schedule proves to be the hardest part.

“It’s definitely a time crunch, having to do both track and football, but the football season was good in preparing me for that,” Nelson said. “Football is such a huge commitment in itself during season that once I was in off-season for football and in-season for track, those two sports combined in the spring is still less time than football in-season once you factor in meetings, and practice, and all that. It was still frustrating, because maybe I’d do a lift for football then have to go run for track practice versus other guys on the team would just lift and then go eat. That’s something to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad because I wasn’t doing it alone.”

Despite the time commitment both track and field and football require, the athletes still manage to make the most of their Princeton experience.

Nelson, a Georgia native, will graduate with a degree in sociology this upcoming spring. He is also an active member of Princeton Faith in Action, a Christian fellowship on campus, where he participates in small group meetings and has been both a mentor and mentee in the program.

In addition, Nelson is an active member in both the Black Students Union and BMAG, the Black Men’s Awareness Group. Both allow students to talk about issues on campus and organize social events in light of national problems. Nelson is also a member of Cannon Eating Club.

Nelson has spent his summers working in consumer sales for Johnson and Johnson, at an Atlanta law firm, and at PNC Bank. After graduating and gaining experience in the work force, Nelson plans to earn his law degree.

“Law’s been what I’ve always been interested in. It’s where I can see myself working,” Nelson said.

He found a passion for both sports in middle school, playing running back and full back starting in sixth grade. He began short sprints in track his eighth grade year and he continued with both sports throughout high school, but was only recruited for football at Princeton, where he’s now a starting running back. Nelson walked onto the Tiger track team and competes in the 60 meter indoor (personal record 6.84), 100 meter outdoor (personal record 10.74), and 4×1 relay.

“One of the first Ivy League schools I visited was Princeton. I had to think where I would be happy and what school I liked most, independent of football, and Princeton was a lot better in my opinion. I don’t regret my decision at all,” Nelson said. “I definitely wanted to do track and give it a shot to see how well I could do. In short sprints, traditionally, Princeton has never really scored points at Heps, and [Hill and I] brought that. It was an incentive to keep coming back because without those points, the team may or may not win, so it’s a little pressure, but its reason to keep going because you know there’s some guys counting on you to perform.”

Nelson began to make a name for himself in football his freshman year as a Tiger. So far in his career, he has rushed 100 times for 483 yards and caught 19 passes for 107 yards. He helped Princeton break Ivy League records in both scoring offense (43.7) and total offense (511.6) and contributed to an offense record five 50-point games. Last year, Nelson earned second-team All-Ivy League honors as a returner.

Senior running back breaks a tackle against the Lafayette defense.

“There’s definitely a team dynamic to football I appreciate,” Nelson said. “These guys are counting on me, so while I want to score, I can’t take a play off because I’m not getting the ball, I have to go block because that’s what’s best for the team. In track, that’s not something you have to factor in because every race is an individual thing for everyone, but for football not every play is for me, only two people are going to get the ball every play, so everyone else has to have a big goal in mind which is to score a touchdown on a drive.”

Balancing both sports, Nelson has spent a lot of time with fellow teammate and competitor, Hill. The two roomed together their junior year, although Hill has since moved to Cannon after becoming an officer for the eating club.

The Detroit native is a politics major, with a background in finance internships in areas like venture capital and mortgage banking, and he hopes to continue to work in finance on Wall Street after his spring graduation. After a few years of work, he plans to attend business school in the hopes of reaching his ultimate wish of becoming a general manager for an NFL team.

Hill knew Princeton would prepare him to achieve his goals, and it was his top choice from the start. Of the four schools on his list – Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern and University of Michigan – Princeton was the only school recruiting Hill for both track and football.

Hill saw playing time his freshman year, debuting with a field goal return for a touchdown, Princeton’s first since 1988. Since then, he has helped Princeton rank in the national Top 15 in turnover margin (fourth), first down defense (fourth) and third down conversion percentage (13th) and ranked second in the Ivy League in passes defensed (1.2 per game) and fourth in interceptions (three).

Senior defensive back John Hill makes a tackle during the Columbia game.

For track, Hill competes in short sprints: the 60 meter indoor (personal best 6.85) and the 100 meter outdoor (personal best 10.63).

“I’m extremely competitive, to where it’s sometimes bad, but I thinks that helps a lot,” Hill said. “Being a smaller player on the football field, I have to look past that and take my competitiveness up to next level. I think what I like best about track is the fact that you can’t control the other guys. I just have to run my own race. And with football, it’s great to see so many little parts come together for one play. Everyone has to do their job just to do the minimum to get their assignment done.”

But for now, Hill remains focused on his last year, making sure he takes all the steps to be his best and reach his future goals.

“I want the defensive backs to be best in country and win Ivy League,” Hill said. “And I want to win the Ivy League Championship in track again. I’m working to get my time under 10.5 and win my 100 meter dash.”

Long, the youngest of the three as a sophomore, began his Princeton career last year and is currently considering a major in history or politics. The Fort Collins, Co. native entered Princeton as a defensive back, but it competing on JV as a running back.

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Spencer Long, Sophomore RB

During his junior and senior year of high school, Long was being recruited by Princeton for football and track. After sending in his tape and times and coming on an official tour, track officially offered him a spot for admissions.

“Princeton is obviously best school in nation,” Long said. “They have very good track and football programs, and I had the opportunity to do both. It’s hard to pass up that situation. It was an easy decision.”

Previously a sprint relay and 200 meter hurdler, Long was asked to switch to the 400 meter hurdles (personal best 54.45) for the outdoor season when entering Princeton. He competes in the 60 meter hurdles (personal best 8.49) for indoor.

“It’s a great experience. I have a great relationship with hurdles coach, and I like all the track guys. [Doing football and track is] like being a part of two families,” Long said. “I had never run the 400 meter hurdles before, but I ended up being fairly successful at it. There are a lot of different components working together – the time between hurdles, getting your pace right. It’s definitely learning curve. It was cool to see how I could adapt to a new race, and I’ve had a lot of work to do to improve.”

Using his experience of being a two sport athlete from high school, Long has enjoyed continuing it at the college level.

“Track and field have very similar mindsets in that you’re look to compete and be the best. You’re looking to win every day,” Long said. “The sports are very different, too. In football you develop a lot of mental toughness that helps in a race like the 400 hurdles where you have to be able to relax your mind and know how to kick it into gear at the very end when your legs are dead. I like the relationships between two sports.  I can give my all to football and translate everything into hurdles in track.”