It began with a gunshot. A blank fired from the starter’s pistol triggered the clock and began the 2016 Texas Relays 400-meter hurdle final.
Then 21 steps. Twenty-one steps from the starting blocks to the first of 10, 36-inch-high hurdles. The remaining 350 meters and nine hurdles went by in a similar fashion, with each explosion over a hurdle slowing the runners as their bodies tired.
The clock paused on the screen above the first turn on the track. The winner’s time of 50.91 seconds popped up, a confirmation that some of the NCAA’s best sprinters just performed. For Arkansas Razorback Larry Donald, it was a monumental performance. But it was hardly the biggest challenge of his life.
Sure, those seven competitors were tough to conquer, but that race was nothing for a guy who continually breeds opportunity when challenged by adversity. The son of an Olympic heavyweight boxer, Donald barely made it to college and nearly had to end his collegiate career in the spring of 2015. A lack of talent didn’t create these problems, though – a lack of money did.
In 2012, when Donald entered his senior year at Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, Florida, he lived in a five-bedroom, two-bathroom home with hardwood floors and carpeted bedrooms. For that entire school year, until his final month of high school, Donald lived alone with his younger sister in a house that was foreclosed. Donald’s family was renting the home until the owners stopped paying the mortgage which forced the bank to begin the foreclosure process.
“It was going into foreclosure but the bank didn’t kick us out or anything,” Donald said. “They kept putting notices on the door but the cops told us that they (the bank) can’t kick us out because it’s not our fault. The banks had to work with us.”
The bathrooms were faulty, the air conditioning was broken, and there was no internet access in the home. Donald’s mother had moved to Miami for a better job to make more money for her kids.
“In high school I never really hung out with anybody outside of school,” Donald said. “I didn’t go out because it was just me and my sister. I’d go to school, go to track or football practice, come home and make sure that me and my sister had something to eat, do my homework and then go to bed.”
As a senior in high school Donald became an adult to care for himself and his sister, all while improving his times on the track so that he could run in college.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1995, raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Donald’s life has been marred by poverty and bad fortune. The summer before he went to college Donald had to rearrange his life’s plan in a month.
“When I was graduating from high school I was talking to the Florida coaches and the head coach was in Germany for vacation,” Donald said. “So I was talking to the hurdle coach the whole time and he had seen me run and he liked me. He saw my potential, that I was hard working and that I didn’t give up so he wanted me and offered me around 20-30 percent.”
When the head coach returned from vacation he told Donald via email that the University of Florida would not be extending him a scholarship only a month before classes were set to begin.
“Then my hurdle coach from high school started to contact a whole bunch of college coaches,” Donald said. “The main schools that got back to me from that were Clemson and Arkansas.”
After speaking with coaches from Arkansas and Clemson, Donald decided to come to Arkansas over Clemson even though the Razorbacks only offered Donald a walk-on spot on the team.
“Arkansas told me I could walk-on and if I scored points at SECs or Nationals they’d give me some money,” Donald said.
As a freshman in 2014, Donald scored for the Razorbacks at the SEC Outdoor Championships by finishing sixth place in the 400-meter hurdles. Still, no scholarship came.
This was particularly bad for Donald who, despite money from the FAFSA, was still struggling to find the means to afford his education.
“Freshman year my mom didn’t pay any of it and to keep me in school my dad and uncle paid a total of $3,000,” Donald said.
However, as a failure to pay continued he was unable to enroll for the spring of 2015.
“I tried to pick up loans,” Donald said. “I went to almost every bank around here to try and get a loan but I had nothing to put the loan against so they all said no.”
Donald had to pay off his balance of nearly $15,000 before he would be allowed to enroll and compete for the Razorbacks again. Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam spoke with Donald about the matter and those words still reside with the hurdler.
“He told me that if I can’t pay then I’m going to have to go home,” Donald said. “In my head I was like, ‘I’m not gonna go home.’ I felt like doing that would be me quitting.”
With men’s NCAA Division 1 programs only being allowed 12.6 scholarships to divide among entire teams, it’s common for All-Americans and conference champions to only be given partial scholarships.
“We supported Larry in every way we could and encouraged him to continue to pursue his education,” assistant track coach Doug Case said in an email. “Our number one goal is to win but I feel like our staff is focused on winning on and off the track. We don’t abandon anyone that is willing to help themselves and Larry is definitely a motivated individual.”
Time for Work
Despite Donald’s lack of outside help at the time, he quickly found a full-time job during his semester off from school.
“My first job was Walmart and I worked the 4 p.m. - 1 a.m. shift. That’s the one where they unload the trucks so I’d work in the back.”
Working 40 hours a week earning $7.80 an hour wasn’t going to pay off his debt and his unusual work hours allowed for little social interaction. However, this was when Donald’s best friend, and former roommate, Stephen Payne said he learned the most about Donald’s character.
“One thing about Larry Donald is that he is always sure about everything,” Payne said. “There was never a doubt in his mind that he was going to make that money and get back in school. He always stayed positive.”
Donald’s time at Walmart lasted from late January to early March of 2015 when he then began working as a server at the seafood restaurant Juicy Tails. His time at Juicy Tails during the summer of 2015 is what allowed him to start making payments on his UofA balance and work his way back to competing for the Razorbacks.
Onward and Upward.
After eight months away from school to make money, Larry Donald re-enrolled at the UofA in the fall of 2015.
Since he rejoined the team in a fall semester Donald was able begin working out just before the team began its fall conditioning to prepare for the indoor and outdoor seasons in the spring of 2016.
Today, having just begun his redshirt junior season, Donald is on a partial scholarship from the UA track team and the 21-year-old is ready to become an NCAA champion.
“I want to win (NCAA outdoor nationals),” Donald said. “I mean, everyone wants to win. But in my head I always see 48.5 or 48.3 as my goal time.”