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HBCU stars shine in Rio Olympics

Jeff Henderson of Stillman College takes the gold medal in the long jump

Jeff Henderson fulfilled the ultimate Olympic dream when he won the gold medal in the long jump Aug. 13 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

Yet he did much, much more.

Leaping 8.38 meters (27 feet, 6 inches) on his final jump to snatch gold by one centimeter, Henderson, 27, delivered on his promise to win the top prize for his mother, Debra, who has suffered from Alzheimer’s since Henderson was 17 years old.

Henderson, a native of McAlmont, Arkansas, also brought glory to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) nationwide, and the Southern Intercollegiate Conference.

At Stillman, Henderson won both the 2013 NCAA Division II long jump and 100-meter titles. He also won long jump gold medals at the 2014 U.S. Championships and 2015 Pan American Games.

Henderson, 27, was among nearly two dozen athletes and coaches who represented HBCUs in the 2016 Summer Games.

The success of Henderson also rekindled the Olympic flame for perhaps the most famous family in Olympics history.

Henderson is coached by Al Joyner, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, who was the husband of the late three-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner. Al Joyner is also the brother of three-time Olympic gold medalist and world heptathlon record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

USA's Jeff Henderson bites the gold medal during the podium ceremony for the Men's Long Jump at the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 14, 2016.

USA’s Jeff Henderson bites the gold medal during the podium ceremony for the Men’s Long Jump at the athletics event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 14, 2016.


But mostly, this was about mom.

“The medal is just for her,” Henderson told NBC on national television after win. “She’s the one who raised me when I was young. … Everything I did was for her. It was for God, for her and my family.”

That family includes Henderson’s father, Laverne, who remained back home to tend to his wife.

Henderson later said his “gold medal is like a newborn baby. It’s just lovely.”

“I feel good. I feel great,” he later added. “I feel humble right now. I feel like I’m dreaming right now.”

South Africa’s Luvo Manyonga won the silver in the event, and Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford earned the bronze. Rutherford was the defending champion after taking the long jump gold in his home country’s 2012 Summer Games.

Henderson’s gold medal was among the top prizes captured by an HBCU athlete during the Summer Games.

Hampton University alum Francena McCorory captured a gold medal on Saturday night when the Team USA women won the 4-x-400 relay. McCorory, who did not run Saturday night, earned a medal by running in the semifinals Friday night, where she anchored the four-woman squad. It was the second such gold for McCorory, who also was a member of the gold-medal winning team at the 2012 Summer Games.

Norfolk State alum Chris Brown won one of the dramatic medal chases of Saturday night. Running in the men’s 4-x-400 relay for the Bahamas, Brown made a mad dash to edge a Belgium runner at the tape to earn the bronze medal for his team. Brown can add the bronze to the gold medal he won in the event in the 2012 Summer Games in London.

Also, notable among other HBCU participants in the 2016 games in Rio, Johnson C. Smith standout Kendra Clarke just missed out on a medal Saturday night when Canada finished fourth in the women’s 4-x-400… Coppin State alum Christina Epps finished 15th in the women’s triple jump.

Also, Bethune-Cookman alum Ronnie Ash finished eighth in the 110-meter hurdle final. Ash appeared to be in contention for a medal before hitting the final hurdle and officially received a disqualification.

Jackson State alum Michael Tinsley, one of the favorites, failed to make the finals of the 400-meter hurdles, an event eventually won by Team USA’s Kerron Clement.

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.