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Cold Caller AJ McFarland's throwing career was born from happenstance. He cold called Florida's offices as an undiscovered recruit. And he's vying for an NCAA title Saturday. This is his astonishing story.

This would finally be it. AJ McFarland would cease being an underdog and become a champion.

Six years after cold calling Florida’s track and field office as an unknown high school senior, McFarland would no longer be the loveable longshot, no longer just a feel-good story defined by his exemplary work ethic, by the numerous times he exceeded expectations, most of which were set based on his career being a product of happenstance.

Entering the sixth and final round of the SEC Indoor Championships weight throw, McFarland’s opening heave of 74 feet, 5 inches – which broke his own school record by four inches – improbably remained atop the leaderboard.

But everyone had one attempt left. And one good toss, no matter when it comes, is all it takes to win.

“Every round was like a year,” McFarland said. “Even though my throw held first place, that didn’t mean much to the other guys. It might as well have just been a line out there for everyone else to throw past.”

Georgia’s Denzel Comenentia, the defending champion and conference’s season leader by three feet, sat in third place. Comenentia would not need to throw anywhere near his personal best of 77 feet, 9.5 inches to pass McFarland either. That fact did not sit well with McFarland’s father, John, watching from the stands with his wife and parents.

“It was agonizing,” John said. “We have tried to do as good of a job as possible to inform ourselves of what the nature of the sport is, what the expectations are, who are the big dogs. It hasn’t been that hard to keep up with how great of a thrower and how great a competitor Denzel Comenentia is.”

Tensions rose as Comenentia entered the ring for the competition’s second-to-last throw. Everyone went silent. Barely a second after the weight left Comenentia’s hands, he leapt and shouted in exhilaration. It would be far enough, and he knew it. Another championship would be his. It measured 74 feet, 10.5 inches, more than five inches farther than the two best throws of McFarland’s career, both of which came earlier in the day.

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.”

Photo via Ormond Beach Observer.

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.

Top left, bottom: McFarland at 2016 SEC Indoors; Top right: McFarland at 2016 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.”

He broke Florida’s five-year-old school record in the weight midway through 2017, his redshirt sophomore season. McFarland eventually topped his own record six times and twice qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships, placing 12th in 2017 and ninth in 2018. A breakout in the hammer came later, but he qualified for last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championships with a season-best mark of 223 feet, 7 inches. Once there, ranked 15th out of 24 qualifiers, McFarland threw 233 feet, 10 inches to finish eighth and earn first-team All-America honors. Had his throw come at one of the other NCAA Outdoor Championships since 2002, it would have placed third or higher 14 of a possible 16 times, including four instances when it would have won the national title.

“It’s really impressive, and more impressive that he’s done it in both events,” Lemke said. “The weight is easier to learn. It’s not as technical. You can muscle that a little bit. There are a lot of people who go to the NCAA meet in the weight that don’t in the hammer. For AJ to get proficient at a real high level in both is what’s impressive.”

“Last year when we were out in Oregon at the NCAA meet,” Lemke continued, “he reminded me the other time he’d been there was as a redshirt his first year in college, at the 2015 USATF Junior Championships, throwing with two turns, just hoping to make the final and not embarrass himself. He knows how far he came in a short time.”

McFarland did indeed make that 2015 USATF Juniors final, placing eighth overall. (Photo: Cheryl Treworgy)

McFarland insists what he’s accomplished, especially against some of the strongest weight and hammer fields in collegiate history, will not hit him until his career comes to a close this summer.

“I knew my work ethic coming in,” McFarland said. “I had no clue what my athletic potential was. Had no idea. I didn’t have much of an expectation of what I could expect out of myself.”

***

At last, the final throw arrived as McFarland entered the ring. Thoughts of his parents, his coaches, his fiancé, and the support he received from all of them throughout this inconceivable journey raced through his mind.

An aura of nervous energy pulsed through the stands.

McFarland swung the weight back and forth twice with his left arm, then took it with both hands and momentarily rested it over his right shoulder. Onlookers began a slow, rhythmic clap as he started his first turn, intensifying as he made a second, then trailing off once he came around on a third, all their attention having shifted to the weight's flight path once McFarland released it with a ferocious yell.

Once it landed, McFarland unleashed another thunderous roar. He turned and pointed to his parents and grandparents, who attend nearly every meet and arrived three hours before the competition to ensure they secured their preferred sight lines. John had both his hands held high, yelling right back at his son.

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.

Fellow throwers Connor Bandel (top) and Thomas Mardal (second row, left) couldn't have been happier for McFarland. Same for Coach Lemke (third row, left) and LeGrow (third row right), as well as women's mutlis athlete Amanda Froeynes (bottom).

“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.

Everyone who supported McFarland along the way was right there to share this with him, in one form or another, exactly as he wanted.

“It’s beyond a proud-parent moment at this point,” John said. “It’s just been shocking because of how AJ got his start. Where he is now is just beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”

McFarland enters this weekend’s NCAA Indoor Championships as the fourth-ranked thrower. The collegiate record holder is in the field, and the other two men ranked ahead of McFarland – Comenentia and Michigan’s Joseph Ellis – have thrown more than half a foot farther than he ever has.

“I know what I want to throw to know I’ll be competitive,” McFarland said. “From there, I can’t control what everybody else does. That’s just the way I’m going to approach it.”

He may not be the favorite, but McFarland shed the underdog story line. Don't count him out before the final throw either, no matter how far out of reach the title may appear to be.

***

Story by Zach Dirlam, Assistant Director of Communications (University Athletic Association).

Check FloridaGators.com this week for more information related to the NCAA Indoor Championships.

Unless denoted otherwise, photos by Tim Casey (UAA Communications).

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