May 2, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
For both coaches and peers, he's exactly the kind of athlete you want to have on your team: hard working, a good student, and still trying to improve on his success. Kamal Fuller's also the only senior on the University of Alabama men's track and field squad who didn't transfer in from a junior college or, perhaps more importantly, follow suit when nearly everyone else left the program.
"He's a great teammate," sophomore Imani Brown said. "He's a good leader, he being the oldest. He definitely keeps us humble and brings us up when we're feeling down because he has a little more experience. He just kind of keeps us in line on and off the track."
But the long-jumper wasn't always that way, especially when growing up in Jamaica, and even he says, "I know I'm quite a character."
He is, which only adds to his appeal and charm, but it takes a little explaining. Although Fuller started participating in track when he was just 12, it wasn't until he attended Wolmer's Prep School in Kingston that he started to compete at a high level.
"That's a known soccer school back in Jamaica," he said. "I was in summer classes and I was going to start trying out for the soccer team. I looked outside when they were starting practice and there was this big dude my age and I thought, `Oh my gosh, I'm not going out for soccer, I don't want to embarrass myself'. I was a little twig. I was slim."
Ironically, he ended up facing the same guy in the high jump during a school competition and, despite not wearing shoes that day, nearly beat him. So when the track coach subsequently asked him to join the high school team he agreed.
"It was at that phase when I was like, `I need some girls in my life'," Fuller explained. "So my daily routine was come to school, leave, go to the bus stop, holler at the girls."
That lasted about a year as, Fuller admits, he was a "bad athlete" who wasn't dedicated, and would only practice maybe half of the time. It ended when he was walking down the street one day and the school's jumps coach pulled beside him in a car to say his sloughing off was at an end. Fuller never missed practice again. When the next season began he was the first one to show up and, at age 15, really started working out.
Not surprisingly, the improvement was dramatic, but he also learned a valuable lesson during his junior year by trying to show off and compete in too many events. The result was a hamstring pull after not properly warming up.
"I got a big head," Fuller said.
For his final high school year, though, Fuller's coach had the goal of Wolmer's winning its first Inter-Secondary Schools Championships in 50 years, and geared the lineup toward scoring as many points as possible in the meet. Fuller won the hurdles and long jump, and placed eighth in the high jump to help lead the upset, calling it "Cinderella-type." Meanwhile, he competed in the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games, and IAAF World Junior Championships, where he placed 13th in both the 110-meter hurdles and long jump, while drawing the attention of numerous colleges in the United States.
There was some initial hope of attending Texas, and interest from Arkansas, but what turned him on to Alabama was the success of Kirani James, the Grenadian sprinter he knew who won the 400 at the World Championships in 2011 and is the reigning Olympic champion from London in 2012. Fuller also liked the coaching staff, but what really sold him were the Capstone's academics and the supplemental services available at Bryant Hall.
"It's student-athlete," the civil engineer said. "If it was athlete-student I probably would have ended up someplace else."
He could have, anyway, after Dan Waters
was named Alabama's head coach in the summer of 2011, following Fuller's freshman season. However, he had already been through a big life-changing move and wasn't really looking for another one so soon. Waters was convincing while essentially re-recruiting him and then added legendary jumps coach Dick Booth
, who has coached 49 NCAA individual champions and 165 All-America performances, to the staff. Fuller wasn't going anywhere.
"He's important to us," Booth said. "He's the one guy who was here when we got here. The others either quit, left, graduated or whatever. He's kind of that one remnant of the past. We had a great meeting the first chance when I got here, about the difference in expectations and what we're going to do, and he said, `Coach, I need that. I worked a lot harder in high school than I did here'."
With the depleted roster, though, Fuller immediately became the Crimson Tide's veteran jumper, the one the program would build around, despite being just a sophomore.
"It changed a lot for me," Fuller said. "It's not okay for you to be the veteran on the team and be the one who slacks off. It's not okay for you to be the veteran, go to a championship and feel kind (blah), like you're not going to jump. Every time it comes down to the wire, I'll be the guy who does it."
Although Fuller feels like he still has his best jump to go, as 8 meters (26 feet, 3 inches) continues to elude him in competition, he was a first-team All-American during both the 2013 indoor and outdoor seasons. That's despite a variety of injuries that have slowed him, including some back issues, and the long hours his degree requires with graduation coming up in May.
But Fuller figures he'll have plenty of time to sleep later before going pro and hopefully competing for his home country someday. For now, his focus is on this last season, and making sure he qualifies for June's NCAA Outdoor Championships in Oregon.
"I want to go out like my high school career," he said. "Coach Waters is always saying, `Lightning in a bottle, it only takes one'. I have the ability, I have jumped far, but there have been scratches. It only takes one jump and it erases everything else that you've done."