Cal State San Marcos track and field coach Jason Jackson was running late, thanks to the area’s weekend traffic that any local can verify.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did,” said Jackson. “When I got into the stadium, I walked around the corner toward the ring and we made eye contact. He gave me a nod.”
The reassuring bop of Ndoto Strong‘s noggin was all Jackson needed. “I never want to let my coach or my team down,” said Strong, a CSUSM junior.
What came next on Strong’s final throw didn’t surprise Jackson at the recent Aztec Invitational.
“There is never a doubt he is going to do what he needs to do,” Jackson said, “because he puts in the work.”
The 6-foot-5, 284-pound Strong flexed his considerable muscles and heaved the shot put 16.75 meters to set a CSUSM standard. It also gave Strong his third NCAA provisional qualifying mark of the season as he continues to rewrite the Cougars’ record book for throws.
Strong already owns the school’s top discus mark at 47.57 meters. Strong was also named the Cal State San Marcos Student-Athletes of the Month presented by The Quad for March 2018.
“He’s also a beast in the weight room,” Jackson said. “If we kept a record book in there, he would have destroyed it.”
One glance at Strong brings with it two reactions: he’s big enough to block out the sun and built in a manner that causes college football coaches to salivate.
“I played football in high school but I tore up my ACL,” Strong said of a knee ligament.
Instead he turned to track and field after growing up in rural Washington. It was on a farm where his family raised llamas that Strong learned the meaning of hard work and hard knocks. While Strong was a standout in sports, he struggled in the classroom. A learning disorder meant he had to read book passages “three or four times,” he said, before comprehending the subject.
With his academic challenges, classmates often looked at Strong askew. And when they saw his special-needs sister, the blowback couldn’t be ignored. What they didn’t know was a cherished lesson the wise Strong learned early.
“If you have a family member that has a disability, that can actually make you a better person,” Strong said. “It can make you more compassionate toward people. It can make you relate to people and their feelings.”
Strong, who like his sister was adopted, could hear and sense the ridicule behind his back and it never left him. Now he’s involved with San Diego Sibshop, a support group for siblings of those with disabilities.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to and just kept it bottled up,” Strong said. “This group is a great idea to help these kids. I don’t want them to lash out at people and cause more problems for the family. I can be their teacher.”
Strong’s relationship with Jackson has a foundation. After Strong moved to California he enrolled at San Diego Mesa College. Eager to continue in sports, minus football, he went out for track and field where he met Jackson. When Strong heaved the shot put for Jackson, it was clear he had potential. When putting air under a discus, it was clear Strong had no clue. Enter Jackson’s plan for action: Strong competes in both throwing events, although he had thrown a Frisbee disc more than a discus.
“I taught him the discus from scratch, which at the college level is unheard of,” Jackson said. “It took a long time and he was coming off a pretty severe knee injury. But he put in the work and it could end up being the better of his two events. He is really close to a big throw.”
Jackson was certain he had seen the last of Strong after their parting at San Diego Mesa. CSUSM head coach Steve Scott asked Jackson to join the Cougars’ staff and Strong was bound for Western State College in Colorado. Then word came that Strong was shy a class to transfer. In an academic mix-up not of his own doing, Strong’s admission to Western State was rescinded.
Jackson got wind of that and pounced in the name of CSUSM.
“For me, it’s all about the team and doing my job,” Strong said.
In and out of the throwing ring, it’s a job well done.