Jesse Henderson can’t find it.
Scrolling through the weeks, months and memories on his iPhone, the Mississippi State hurdler needs a second to locate the video clip he’s talking about.
Near the end of his search, Henderson jokes to himself.
“Did I ever get hurt?” he says.
If you didn’t know Henderson’s story, it would certainly be hard to tell. The Benton native has broken the MSU records for the 60-meter and 110-meter hurdles in 2021 and this week, he’ll compete in the 2021 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
It’s a turnaround that less than a year ago was practically unfathomable. In the video — taken last June 23 — Henderson works out on his surgically repaired left ankle in a thick sand pit. He jumps up and down, does lunges and runs “suicides,” stressing the joint with every painful motion.
“I can’t do it,” he says. “I want to quit.”
Henderson never gave up. Now he’s on the top of his game — on the country’s biggest stage — in his first outdoor track season.
“There’s people on this level dreaming to go to places like this and compete at such a high level,” Henderson said. “A Mississippi boy like me getting to do it his first time competing outdoor, it’s just surreal. It’s hard to believe.”
Hurdles to hurdling
The school didn’t have enough hurdles.
During his prep days at Yazoo County High School, Henderson soon encountered one barrier to entry: the lack of literal barriers required for his preferred sport. The school had just three or four, far from a full flight of 10 needed to run the 110 meters, and didn’t have a track.
Other things made it hard for Henderson to grow his career. There were no track clubs around Benton, and his mother Mary often found it hard to pay for her youngest child to participate in school meets.
But when Henderson reached his junior year, Mary figured it was time. She signed him up with Peak Performance Track Club, half an hour southeast in Madison, where coach Dennis Groll had more than 100 hurdles at his disposal.
“That was a big asset for him: just the fact that he had equipment to train with,” Groll said.
Groll trained Henderson on his start, attacking the hurdles and pulling his trail leg through more quickly so his lead leg would in turn fly through faster. Henderson worked out twice a week at Peak Performance while running, conditioning and lifting weights the other days.
The summer between his junior and senior years, Henderson competed at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics in Lawrence, Kansas. There, his eyes were opened to the high level of competition — athletes from California, Texas, Florida and Georgia rather than just his home state.
“It’s like, ‘What are you going to do?’” Henderson said. “‘Are you going to keep getting beat, or are you going to go back to the lab and put in work so you won’t get beat again?’”
He chose the latter option, finishing in the top eight in the 110 and earning all-America honors.
But the success didn’t translate into college interest. Henderson reached out to several schools. He only heard back from one.
“Mississippi State was the only people to take a chance on me, so I’m very thankful for that,” Henderson said.
‘The best athlete on our campus’
Henderson isn’t just a hurdler.
He also competed in the long jump and high jump in Lawrence and is a strong pole vaulter. Assistant track and field coach Steve Thomas said in an email Henderson boasts a 24-foot long jump, a 6-foot-5-inch high jump and a 15-foot pole vault. The junior shares traits with Olympians Thomas once coached.
“He is the best athlete on our campus,” Thomas said.
To Thomas, that doesn’t factor in major sports like baseball, basketball or football, which he considers games rather than sports. Still, Henderson’s skill in a variety of events only adds to his talent.
But when the freshman got on the runway for the pole vault in March 2019, disaster struck. When he leapt into the air, he lost his grip on the pole and came straight down. His ankle bent below him.
By the time Henderson forced his left shoe off, the joint had swelled up massively. A scan revealed he’d torn every ligament in the ankle, and Henderson wasn’t surprised: when he moved it with his hand, he could tell it was out of the socket.
Still, Henderson kept competing. With rehab exercises and an ankle brace, he made it all the way through his sophomore indoor season, recording a new personal best in the heptathlon at Southeastern Conference championships.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the outdoor season two weeks before it started, it was almost perfect timing. Mary implored her son to take the summer off, heal and get back to full strength.
“If you really want to be good at this sport and really want to get back to this, you need to have the surgery,” she told him.
Hesitant at first, Henderson ultimately agreed. In March 2020, Dr. Chad Altmyer in Columbus performed a surgery called a Broström procedure to repair the loose ligaments in Henderson’s ankle. Not allowed into the clinic because of concerns about the virus, Mary sat in her car outside, waiting for hours.
“I was so worried and so concerned because of the COVID and what kind of effects it would have,” she said. “It was so scary.”
But more than a year later, Henderson knows his mom was right: Having the surgery was the correct choice.
“It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
‘Just go for it’
Fighting the pain in the pit dubbed “Big Sandy,” Henderson hardly thought he was in luck when his rehab began in June. He credited Mississippi State athletic trainer Chelsea Head for serving as his de facto coach during a process that was often grueling.
“It was very painful — not only physically painful,” Henderson said. “It was just mentally draining, the process of coming back.”
In July, his ankle growing stronger each day, Henderson was given the green light to increase his workload. He eventually began working through the summer packet his coaches gave him, “killing” the workouts to the point where Head told him to skip three or four weeks because the progress had already been made.
“OK, you’re going to be a beast this year,” Henderson told himself. “You’re coming back. You don’t have anything to lose; you just have something to prove, so just go for it.”
That came with a few changes as Henderson prepared for the 2021 indoor season, which began in January. Thomas said he worked with the hurdler on his sprinting mechanics, getting Henderson’s feet under his hip to apply force to the ground. The two worked together in the weight room, too, as Thomas strove to increase Henderson’s rate of force development — simply, how fast an athlete can develop force.
The changes paid off quickly as Henderson set a school record by running the 60-meter hurdles in 7.74 seconds at the USC Indoor Open on Feb. 13. On March 12 at NCAA indoor championships, he broke his own record with a 7.66.
Outdoor presented a new challenge. Henderson transitioned to seven steps to the first hurdle from a previous eight, which wasn’t an easy change. In his first outdoor race, he ran a 13.75 in the 110, not his best mark but just a tenth of the second off the Mississippi State record.
Henderson broke the freshman record and the school record together with a 13.64 on May 1, then re-broke both twice at NCAA prelims. There, he finished second at 13.39, qualifying for outdoor nationals.
But even though he’s grateful to hold the mark, he’s hardly satisfied.
“It’s a great thing that I’m breaking the school record, but there’s more that I want besides the school record,” he said.
And whether or not he’s able to achieve it this week in Eugene, he’ll have the chance, and that’s what matters.
“The road to recovery was hard, but his determination and his will were so strong to get back out there and do what he loves doing,” Mary said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.