Not just any athlete gets his own bus bench.
Then again, not every athlete had Johnny Fuller's year.
The Glenwood junior placed third at last fall's Iowa State Cross Country meet, the school's best ever individual finish. This after breaking the school record for the Rams' own cross country course and snagging his second straight Hawkeye 10 Conference title.
Fuller followed up his fall with a spring to remember on the track. He became the first Glenwood runner and eighth in the last 41 years to win gold in both the 1,600 and 3,200-meters at the Drake Relays. At March’s Iowa State Track meet, Fuller took home three medals and earned Glenwood 14 points all by himself.
This summer at nationals, Fuller, the youngest competitor, placed 11th in the 5,000-meters.
Fuller is The Opinion-Tribune’s 2009-2010 Mills County Male Athlete of the Year.
The funny thing is, Fuller’s only been running competitively less than four years. He turned to cross country for the final two meets of eighth grade after suffering a series of injuries in football. Ram football’s loss is track and cross country’s gain.
“I wasn’t any good at football anyway. It’s not an excuse but I wasn’t very good,” said Fuller.
He ran for just two weeks of the season as an eighth grader. His freshman year on the cross country team was his first real taste of competitive running.
“I broke my arm in seventh grade football and I just ran with cross country until I got the cast off and then in eighth grade I got hurt again the last couple weeks and went out for cross country full time,” he said.
Cross country, he soon discovered offered him the competitive level he was looking for: individual competition in a team sport. That and a few words from middle school and high school cross country coach Todd Peverill proved the difference between Fuller giving up a sport he joined mostly on a lark and really dedicating himself to running.
“It’s a team sport with everybody contributing but it’s an individual sport where I kind of control my own fate a little bit,” said Fuller. “It’s a great sport for kids to have fun. As a freshman I just went out to run because I liked a lot of the guys on the team and I thought it would be fun. I just got caught up in the competing and there was no stopping me.”
Peverill, himself a former state champion 3,200-meter runner at Waterloo East in the 1970s, coaches the Rams cross country team and assists Ram track coach Mark Starner with his long distance runners. He said Fuller is that rare athlete whose drive matches his talent.
“Most elite athletes are competitive in everything they do, whether it be running or mowing the lawn and Johnny is exactly like that. He’s competitive at everything he does,” said Peverill.
Peverill looks at success as being its own motivator. Fuller, he said, used his third-place finish at state cross country to springboard his track successes.
“Each season has a way of
helping the next,” Peverill said. “I think placing third, that helped his confidence and he used that at Drake and at state and at nationals.”
Fuller agrees with his coach.
“I think it got me on the right path. It showed me now that I’ve beaten the kids I should have beaten, I can go ahead and not worry about choking now and that I could do it,” he said.
Fuller is still critical of his sophomore year and his self-described “choke.” After entering the state cross country meet ranked No. 5 a virus kept him out of the medals in the fall. That spring Fuller said his body quit on him the final 200 metering in the 1,600-meters at state track resulting in a painful fall.
“My sophomore year was pretty terrible. In all honesty, it was horrible. I think cross country, it was a little bit of nerves. In track, I was all there mentally but my body shut down,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason and I thinks its panned out for me so far. I think it’s given me a lot of motivation to keep training.”
Of the dozens of races Fuller has competed in he still calls Drake performance his best. It was simply a matter of wanting to run well and going out and doing it, he said.
“Drake was the best individual race I’ve ever run,” said Fuller. “But the whole year, coming along from where I did as a sophomore through cross country and track this season with the team, felt like things falling into place.
“It was my kind of my coming out moment. At cross country I finally go the monkey off my back and got a state medal. After that it was just all training and it all came together at Drake.”
Heading into the state track meet in May a buzz followed Fuller. Could the star junior challenge the state record? Could he repeat his Drake feat and sweep the distance events?
As it turned out Fuller did neither. He was nipped at the finish line and placed second to Boone’s Austin Brogan in a rainy and cold 3,200. Two days later he placed third – again to Brogan who was first and second place Evan Selsor – in the 1,600.
The junior also ran a leg of the Rams’ 4x800-meter relay team that placed seventh to become the first Glenwood track athlete since Matt Jens in 2000 to win three medals at state. Fuller contributed 14 of the Rams’ 22 points at state but yet, Fuller felt after the meet like he let his team down.
“If I try and do something I try and do it all the way. I didn’t dwell on it too long but I figured out I left six or eight points on the track,” said Fuller. “Those points would have moved us ahead of (sixth place) Harlan. It was just really frustrating for me.
“Obviously you can’t run a P.R. (personal record) each time but I didn’t run my best and I let my team down. There was a lot of pressure. We have an outstanding class of runners in 3A.”
Fuller’s often asked what sport he prefers, and he usually answers: both.
“There’s different things about each I like. I like how in cross country everyone is running the same event, you know exactly what you have to go do. In track, you can be moved around to this event if this happens. I like the certainty of cross country. You’re going to run on race and run all out and try and get to the finish line first.
“In track sometimes they’ll say you need to win this one or place ‘X’ in this one and they we need you to run this one at the end. But I do like track because it’s more of a social sports, you get to meet a lot more coaches and athletes, and people care more about it.”
One thing is for sure: people did care about Fuller’s season on the track. He laughs when asked about the congratulatory bus bench that sat in front of Warren’s Jewelers at the corner of Sharp and South Walnut in Glenwood for more than four months. He didn’t even know about the bench until some friends informed via text message.
“It was really cool but at the same time it was like, ‘Oh man.’” he said. “It was interesting but at the same time, a lot of my friends, especially the track guys, would say ‘Hey, why don’t you go sit on your bench some more.’ It was fun. My mom actually made me get out and take picture in front of it once. That was incredibly embarrassing.”
Fuller’s likeness on the bus bench was recently replaced with a congratulatory one for the Glenwood baseball team’s Class 3A state championship. No one, it seems, was more pleased to see the Rams honored with a bus bench than was Fuller.
“I thought it was awesome for a couple of reasons: winning state was great for the team and Glenwood,” he said. “And it meant I was no longer on a bus bench.”