Rantoul's Harper runs in honor of friend

Rantoul's Harper runs in honor of friend

RANTOUL — At the April 24 Danville boys' track and field quadrangular meet, Jerry Harper had his day in the sun.

In a 400-meter dash that, time-wise, essentially came down to the Rantoul junior against Danville senior Quemarii Williams, Harper reached the finish line first with a then-season-best 49.03 seconds, bettering Williams' 49.34.

"The funny thing about it is he used to beat me all the time," Harper said. "I didn't know I was going to go out to and beat him."

Both Harper and Williams have since surpassed that 49.03 mark — Williams with a 48.76 at last week's Big 12 Conference Meet, Harper with a 48.99 at the Collinsville Invitational on May 4.

Unfortunately for onlookers, these competitors' paths must diverge.

Harper is involved with Class 2A postseason action, starting tonight with the Monticello Sectional, while Williams travels to Bloomington for a Class 3A meet.

That's what Harper has been working toward this school year.

"I know that I might have a chance to have a full-ride scholarship to a college," Harper said. "Like sophomore year, I realized I was going to be top gun."

It was as a 10th-grader that Harper began taking important steps to capitalize on his potential. Core workouts paired with cross-country competition molded Harper into a more balanced runner.

"It was very hard to wake up early in the morning (for cross-country practice). And all the miles — I'm not used to running past 800 (meters)," Harper said. "But it was all worth it in the end. ... I had to better myself."

When track season rolled around last year, Harper witnessed his 400 clocking fall dramatically, from the 51s to the 49s.

It culminated with Harper posting a 49.78 at in the 400 at the 2A state finals. He was the youngest of the nine qualifiers, and the only sophomore.

"The state experience, it was very cool," Harper said. "There were a lot of competitive guys that have the same mindset as me, want to finish on top. ... It taught me how to run my race better versus a lot of top talent in the state."

Rantoul accumulated seven points — five from Harper's one-lap sprint — in the 2A team chase.

Harper believes there's potential for more in 2019, with Harper's best 400 result the second-fastest time in 2A and Eagles teammates like Elijah Hall (middle/long distance) and Robert Buford (sprints/long jump) putting up state-quality performances.

"I've known these guys since middle school," Harper said. "We've just been clicking and working hard on the track nonstop."

If success and what that could carry with it isn't motivating enough, Harper has someone else on his mind this season.

Harper was close to Donnell Robertson, a Rantoul student-athlete who died last June at age 17.

"That used to be my brother I never had," Harper said. "We were planning on going to the same college together."

So when Harper waits for the starter's gun to fire before each of his 400s, he's running for two.

"He wanted me to run 48, break the school record and win state," Harper said. "I'm just trying to do what he always wanted me to do."