A chance meeting and a keen observation from a coach turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to both an influential youngster and the coach.
In 2017, it was during the North Bergen Grammar School track and field championships and Tyrece Brown, an eighth grader at the time at Robert Fulton School, was competing in the 100-meter dash.
Elson Smajlaj, the head track and field coach at North Bergen High School, was assisting with the organization of the meet. He happened to notice Brown, a skinny, very short, but speedy runner.
“He was really fast,” Smajlaj recalled. “He had the race won, but he looked back and finished second. The other kid caught up to him. But I remembered him.”
“I was looking side to side,” Brown said. “I just got caught.”
After the race was over, Smajlaj made sure he approached Brown.
“I told him that he didn’t have to worry about the competition,” Smajlaj said. “I told him to just worry about your race.”
“He told me he would see me in high school,” Brown said. “He made me want to run track. He convinced me and motivated me.”
The next time Brown and Smajlaj would connect would sure enough be with the Bruins’ outdoor track team. Brown’s tryout for the team took place inside the Bruins’ weight room. An impromptu jumping area was constructed with a running table and some flat weights from the room.
Smajlaj set up the table and asked the potential high jumpers to see if they could do a standing broad jump onto the table.
Brown handled the first jump with ease. Smajlaj then placed a weight plate on top of the table. Brown jumped onto that weight. Another plate was added and Brown conducted another successful jump. And then another. And another.
“That was my first tryout for the team,” Brown said. “I never really did anything like it before, but Coach knew that I could jump high.”
Thus the birth of a high jumper.
Smajlaj also needed runners to fill out his relay teams and he thought immediately of Brown, who fit in with the better Bruin runners like record-holding county and state sectional champion Giano Roberts, now competing at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“Tyrece got a good experience running with top level runners like Giano,” Smajlaj said.
Of course, Smajlaj made Brown a high jumper, despite standing about 5-foot-3 at the time.
“He had such explosiveness,” Smajlaj said. “I always try to find things that the kids are good at. I could see he had so much potential. With a lot of reps and a lot of practice, I thought he could be pretty good. We had to show him the three-step approach and the five-step approach.”
“I had to learn the right form,” Brown said. “It wasn’t easy.”
That’s because incredibly at that time, North Bergen did not own a legitimate high jump pit to practice upon.
“We used to go to a facility [in Wayne] on Sunday morning,” Brown said. “That was the only time I’d go to practice.”
“He would clear 5-[foot]2, then 5-4, then 5-6,” Smajlaj said. “I said to Tyrece, ‘Now, you’re getting pretty good.’ He stuck with it and kept working hard. He got better and better. We work on a lot of jumping drills.”
Brown is also a diverse athlete, competing in sprints like the 100 and 200-meter dashes, the 110 and 400-meter hurdles, the long jump and triple jump, as well as the high jump. That’s certainly a lot. The NJSIAA only allows athletes to compete in four events. If there wasn’t a four-event regulation, who knows what Brown could do?
“This kid could legitimately do five or six events,” Smajlaj said. “That’s how good he is. It’s up to me to pick his four best events.”
Brown missed out on the outdoor season last year due to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, but he started off his senior season, his swan song, in incredible fashion.
At the St. Dominic Academy Invitational with several powerful top programs in attendance at Lincoln Park in Jersey City last Saturday, Brown won the high jump event with a sensational jump of 6-foot-4. It’s impressive because Brown now stands only 5-foot-7 – and that’s while standing atop those four plates he used to jump.
“I get that a lot,” Brown said. “I’m known as one of the shorter jumpers. It doesn’t much when you’re running, but as a jumper, it doesn’t matter to me. My height doesn’t bother me. I always go up against taller guys. That I’m one of the shorter ones is a kick to me.”
Yes, North Bergen now has a high jump pit that Smajlaj and his team bought after a fundraiser that netted $5,000.
Brown also was second in the 110-meter hurdles at the SDA Invitational, pumping out an impressive 16.13 to get the silver medal there.
For his eye-popping performances, Brown has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week, the first such athlete for the spring sports season.
Of course, as the season moves on, Brown will compete in four events with the goal being the opportunity to go for four at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships later this month.
“He’s come a long way,” Smajlaj said. “I’m very proud of him.”
“Whatever is best for the team, that’s what I’ll do,” Brown said. “This was the first outdoor meet, the season opener, so this was pretty good. I’m hoping that this becomes my best year.”
Brown’s impressive opening opened a lot of eyes, including some college recruiters. Holy Family University outside Philadelphia is an NCAA Division II school that can provide full scholarships.
“I’ve been talking to their coach,” Brown said.
“I want him to go to a school with a strong sprint and jump program.” Smajlaj said. “He’s a very respectful young man. He’s pretty quiet, doesn’t say a lot. He’s not outspoken. He just trains hard.”
And runs fast. And jumps real high. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com