The inspiring story built through five rounds had its closing chapter torn out, with Comenentia rewriting an ending most expected all along.
Or was it actually the end? What if there was another stunning moment left?
McFarland knew Comenentia would not let the title slip away so easily. Associate head coach Steve Lemke reiterated that point all afternoon.
“That’s not far enough,” McFarland told Lemke.
Once teammate Thomas Mardal took his final attempt, coming up well short of Comenentia, McFarland reminded himself of a technical cue and grabbed his weight off the rack.
“I had played the situation over and over in my head the night before,” McFarland said. “Talking about that with Coach Lemke is something that allowed me to, I wouldn’t say brush it off, but to add more adrenaline to the situation.”
A nearby coach leaned toward an athlete turned spectator and asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Think AJ can do it?”
Neither said another word.
At the end of an unremarkable day at Father Lopez Catholic High School eight years ago, track and field head coach Suzanne O’Malley spotted McFarland on his way out of the building and figured he would make a good thrower.
“She didn’t even know his name,” John said. “She just saw how big he was.”
Then a sophomore, McFarland stood 6-foot-3 and played center for the football team. When O’Malley asked him to throw shot put and discus, McFarland didn’t think much of it. He knew some of the football players threw, though, so he signed up. Still focused on lacrosse in the spring, McFarland was far from serious the first year. But he enjoyed it.
He fully committed the following spring, making tremendous improvement and garnering interest from small colleges ahead of his senior season. McFarland, however, had his heart set on Florida.
Two things stood between McFarland and his dream. For one, the Gators had no idea who he was. For another, he researched Florida’s program and realized his personal bests were nowhere near its unofficial walk-on standards.
He called anyway.
Program coordinator Therese LeGrow was on the other end of the phone call. John remembers the exact words his son asked LeGrow to write down.
“Tell Coach Lemke I’ll throw whatever he wants me to throw. I just want to be at Florida,” John said.
About an hour later, Lemke got ahold of McFarland and scheduled a visit. When the McFarlands made it to Gainesville, Lemke grabbed a post-it note from his computer monitor. He pointed to the bottom and told them it was the reason an undiscovered, dime-a-dozen throwing prospect made it this far.
Will throw anything.
“Coach Lemke’s message to AJ was, all these kids contact Florida and tell him they’re going to be the next discus thrower. He decides who throws discus,” John said. “That entire meeting, that entire communication has always stuck with me. It’s a headshaking, rub-your-hand-through-your-hair moment.”
With McFarland’s dream now a reality, Lemke informed him he would throw the weight and hammer, two events not sanctioned by the vast majority of state high school athletic associations, including Florida’s.
YouTube videos were McFarland’s introduction to his new events. In November 2013, no more than three months after learning there was such a thing, McFarland entered a hammer throw competition in Clermont. Most hammer throwers make three (sometimes four) turns before releasing. McFarland took two, caught his brand-new shoe on the edge of the ring, and fell over on his first throw.
“It was a mess my first year,” McFarland said.
After a redshirt season, McFarland’s first collegiate meet came in January 2016. He threw the weight 58 feet, 3.25 inches. By year’s end, he improved to 63 feet, 4.75 inches and finished 14th at SEC Indoors. Things were not much different with the hammer. He opened at 199 feet, finished at 202 feet, 1 inch, and placed 15th at SEC Outdoors.
(For context, the weight is 35 pounds and secured by a harness of sorts, with the handle attached directly to it. The hammer is just 16 pounds and measures nearly four feet, taking into account the thin metal wire connecting the handle and ball. Hence, the significant difference in distance between the two comparable events.)
Year after year, though, McFarland progressed.
The passion with which he trained and competed won his teammates’ admiration. McFarland even became a captain of sorts for the Gators as a redshirt sophomore, breaking down the team huddle after every meet, a duty previously carried out by national champions and future Olympians.
“I might not be the best athlete, but I have a lot of passion,” McFarland said of the role. “I have a lot of passion for the uniform. I take a lot of pride in our logo and what comes with that.”
When the mark popped up on the digital scoreboard, 76 feet, 7.25 inches, it was pandemonium all over again.
McFarland didn’t just respond; he beat Comenentia by more than a foot and a half and surpassed his lifetime best by over two feet. McFarland thrust his fist in the air and shouted so loud practically everyone in the building turned to figure out what happened.
“Watching the emotion is what got me,” head coach Mike Holloway said, recalling his own rush of euphoria following the throw. “I know how badly he wanted that. It was just incredible to watch. You could probably hear (the celebration) outside.”
Several of McFarland’s teammates cheered from the stands, but fellow thrower Connor Bandel ran from behind the cage and met him at the weight rack. They jumped into each other’s arms. Comenentia smiled and extended his hand before sharing a hug with McFarland. Adding a poetic touch, LeGrow was right there to witness it all.
“The way he did it … to do it at the SEC meet, that’s pretty special for anyone, no matter where they started from,” Lemke said.
As McFarland continued to celebrate, he looked back at his father and grandfather, Johnny. They were crying. McFarland could not wait another second to enjoy the moment with his father, so he ran behind the stands, reached through the bars on the top row of the bleachers and hugged him with all his might. McFarland found his mother shortly thereafter; she had his fiancé on the phone.