College track: A.L. Brown graduate Tavis Bailey rising in rankings

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 10, 2014

KANNAPOLIS — Tavis Bailey figures all that patriotic, do-it-for-the-good-ole-USA stuff won’t really hit him for another week or so.
“When I get that gear in the mail with the USA logo, it’ll be different,” Bailey said with a laugh. “Now that’s when I’ll get excited.”
Bailey recently graduated from Tennessee in the classroom with a degree in communications but still has a year of eligibility remaining with the Vols track and field team — bad news for every collegiate discus thrower in the country. He’ll be part of Team USA when it competes in Canada in the 23 and under championships in August. This will be his first international experience, but it’s unlikely to be the last.
If you’ve never heard of Bailey, he’s comparable in brains, ability and personality to Carson phenom MyQuon Stout, only this is a supersized Stout at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds.
Growing up in Kannapolis, Bailey, needless to say, played football. He led A.L. Brown’s offensive line as a senior and was named to the East-West All-Star Game roster, but his passion started shifting from football to the discus by his junior year of high school.
“I kind of taught myself at first, watched YouTube videos, trained on my own and bought some track shoes,” Bailey said. “I did some things right, but I also picked up some bad habits.”
In the spring of his junior year, he placed second in the discus in the 3A state meet, but as his senior year got under way, it was time for Bailey, an A-plus-plus student to make a college decision.
Division I college football programs, and we’re talking Southern Conference schools here, not Alabama or LSU, told Bailey, who weighed 240 or so at the time that he was too small.
There weren’t any substantial college track offers, mostly because Bailey hadn’t done a lot of shot-putting. If college track coaches were going to invest a little money in a thrower, they wanted a guy who could handle the shot as well as the discus.
One of the football offers Bailey attracted came from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, basically a full ride and only an hour from Kannapolis. Bailey verbally committed to the Bears, and then he put pen to paper that February on National Signing Day. A big reason he picked L-R was the Bears had a track program.
A.L. Brown coach Shon Galloway worked with Bailey on his throws, and in the spring of his senior year, three months after National Signing Day, he produced a breakout track performance in the 3A state championships in Greensboro.
He won the discus — by 20 feet — with a fling of 185 feet, 1 inch, more distance than anyone had ever achieved in North Carolina’s 3A meet. He also placed second in the shot put, with a mark past 52 feet.
That success was the springboard for Bailey to start working with Charlotte area throwing guru Shelton Harrison. Not long after, representing the Salisbury Speedsters Track Club, Bailey took gold in the discus and silver in the shot in the AAU Junior Olympics in Norfolk, Va. That national title put Bailey on a lot of maps.
“That’s when a lot of track coaches started asking where I was going to school,” Bailey said. “But I had to tell them I was committed to football at Lenoir-Rhyne.”
At that point, Bailey had transformed from a football player who was good in track to a track athlete who could also play some football.
He redshirted the 2010-11 school year with Lenoir-Rhyne’s football program. He did the lifting, did the running and did the practicing, but his heart and his head now belonged to throwing heavy objects. He’d made a seamless transition to the heavier implements used in colleges, and by the time spring arrived, Bailey had to admit to himself that football was getting in the way of track, not the other way around.
“I’d be doing heavy squats on Fridays with the football team and that made it hard to do my best in track on Saturdays,” Bailey said. “I realized my desire for football had burned out.”
Competing unattached in March, 2011, in the Raleigh Relays against ACC throwers, Bailey won the discus. That was exhilirating, but Bailey realized he’d reached a crossroads. It was decision time.
He sought Harrison’s advice. Harrison believed Bailey had 200-foot talent in the discus, and Harrison knew the coaches at Tennessee. One of Harrison’s throwers, Butler’s Aslynn Halvorson, had signed with the Vols. After the school year, Bailey moved to Knoxville. He gave up his football scholarship to pursue his dream.
“I went from Lenoir-Rhyne straight to Tennessee, without even coming home,” Bailey said. “It was crazy time.”
It was a whirlwind. Bailey signed up for a pile of hours of summer school at Tennessee. He was competing unattached officially, but that summer he flew to Oregon to compete in the USA Junior Championships.
“All of a sudden, I’m competing with the guys I used to watch on YouTube,” Bailey said. “This was a whole new level.”
He did OK. He placed fifth in that high-powered meet. That was the start.
In the spring of 2012, wearing the orange for the first time, Bailey was second-team All-SEC and made the SEC All-Freshman team.
In 2013, his progression continued. He qualified for the NCAA Championships in the discus and pushed past 60 feet in the shot put for the first time.
The recently concluded 2014 season was his best by far. It started with a bang in March in the Alabama Relays in Tuscaloosa.
“We were just coming off the indoor season (Bailey competes indoors in the shot and weight throw) and I hadn’t practiced discus and really didn’t feel like I was ready for it,” Bailey said.
That was March 23, and that’s the day, ready or not, that he threw the discus more than 200 feet for the first time. Officially, he achieved a mark of 202 feet, 6 inches. He broke the Tennessee school record that had stood 22 years.
“When I topped 60 meters (197 feet) for the first time it probably was an even bigger deal for me because we measure everything in meters,” Bailey said. “But 200 feet (61.72 meters) was big as well.”
In May, in the Tennessee Challenge on his own turf at Tom Black Track and LaPorte Stadium, Bailey smashed his own record, pushing the Tennessee discus standard to 211 feet, 8 inches.
There was more to come.
In mid-June, Bailey returned to Eugene, Ore., where his career with the Vols had begun, to compete in his second NCAA Championships. Bailey threw 205-10 on his second effort and led the competition for a while. Ultimately he placed third.
“I was fourth in the SEC meet but third in the nationals, but that’s how tough the competition is in the SEC,” Bailey said cheerfully. “They didn’t hang a bronze medal around my neck like they do in high school. They just give you a trophy and a certificate.”
It’s pretty cool, though, when the certificate says “All-American.”
Bailey explained that the top two in each event in the nationals would ordinarily represent the U.S. in the upcoming competition in Canada, but one dropped out. Bailey was the first alternate.
Still, to be representing the USA Track internationally is an amazing feat for a 22-year-old who was a struggling redshirt football player less than four years ago.
Bailey reflected on his dizzying ascension in one of his favorite places — the A.L. Brown weight room.
“I’ve been in a lot of weight rooms all over the SEC, but I love this place best of all,” he said. “The weights rattle. You can tell this place has been used. It’s broken in. A lot of men were made in here.”
Bailey’s photo remains on the wall of the weight room, a reminder of his football days when he lifted enough poundage for coach Todd Hagler to earn induction in the Wonders’ “Ultimate Barbarian Club.”
Bailey tries to do everything right. He goes to church, he mentors young throwers in Knoxville and he assures youngsters in Kannapolis anything is possible if they stay in school and follow their dreams.
Asked if his family is proud of him, Bailey offers a good answer.
“My mom has a masters and my parents are big on education,” he said. “They’re glad I’m doing well in track, but they’re more excited about me going back to Tennessee to start on my masters.”
Probably this won’t be the last time you hear about Bailey. A fine cook who prepares healthy meals for himself when he’s in Knoxville, Bailey is currently ranked 35th in the world in the discus and 86th in the shot. That’s with one year of college competition left — and a limitless sky above him.
“I know what I need to do and I’ll put in the reps,” Bailey said. “It’s been a long, long journey to get to where I am now, but I plan to keep going.”